Right climate for action

Fiona Armstrong considers whether the fresh approach to governance and accountability will lead to a new kind of consensus politics – and what this changed environment means for action on the climate.

The failure of the Rudd government to cooperate with the Greens in the last parliament, with Rudd refusing to meet even once with the leader Bob Brown for the last year, was churlish and undemocratic. It is unfortunate that it has taken a hung parliament to elicit this kind of preparedness, but it must be hoped, as Rob Oakeshott so fervently does, that the 43rd Parliament will deliver a new, different, and less antagonistic approach to governing the nation. Suddenly, a shift towards the consensus politics advocated by Mr Oakeshott, and derided by commentators as naive in recent weeks, is looking more like a reality.

The changes to parliamentary processes in the Greens deal echoed the plans outlined by the independents. The time allocated to private members’ bills will bring a wider range of issues up for debate, the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office should assist their development into policy proposals, and the reform of question time will encourage greater accountability. So what could this mean for climate policy?

One of the most significant outcomes so far is the agreement on the need for a carbon price, given the overwhelming recognition that a carbon price is central to effective emissions reductions. This has been the case since Nicholas Stern’s landmark report in 2006, which identified a carbon price as a key element to cutting emissions. Nothing has changed since his report, in terms of the need for a carbon price; only the urgency of its application has increased.

Achieving this in Australia, however, has been difficult to date – the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was a miserable attempt at pricing carbon, and its flawed approach, (rejected quite rightly by the Greens and others), with inadequate targets, excessive use of offsetting and unnecessary compensation to polluters, has contributed to the discrediting of emissions trading as the preferred option for pricing carbon internationally.

While Tony Abbott remains vehement in his opposition to new taxes, he doesn’t (yet) appear to understand that his policy of direct investment is just another way of putting a price on carbon. By factoring in the cost to the budget, the Coalition has essentially put a price on carbon. And while Abbott may be opposed to the idea of a specific carbon tax, the Coalition’s allocation of funds to reduce carbon emissions is using revenue collected through taxation.

Once this is understood, it is to be hoped that the discussion on the rather nebulous concept of a carbon price will soon turn to actual mechanisms – and for that, the most appropriate tool is a carbon tax.

Supported by most environmental economists internationally as the preferred method of pricing carbon, a carbon tax is already in place in many European jurisdictions where it has reduced emissions while maintaining, even improving in some instances, economic productivity.

However, while important, a carbon tax is only one tool in the suite of policy options that are needed to bring down emissions, help make clean renewable energy cheaper, and discourage polluters from dumping their waste in our global commons – the atmosphere.

We need to move quickly to a suite of policy mechanisms that not only makes clean renewable energy competitive with fossil fuels but will also reduce emissions from transport and building stock and agriculture.

To achieve these goals it is vital that we legislate a carbon price and move on from the argument about a carbon tax versus emissions trading. We must also seek the establishment of a national plan to guide Australia’s transition to a zero carbon economy. Other more responsible countries are investing in whole-of-society transition plans in recognition that the transition is inevitable, understanding that, carefully managed, it will bring far more positive outcomes than ad hoc adaptation and emergency responses.

With these agreements in place and the forthcoming hold on the balance of power by the Greens in the Senate, this next parliament looks like the best chance yet to develop some meaningful and effective climate policies that sees Australia assume its fair share of the global task of cutting emissions.

Let us hope we can now move on from ad hoc and intermittent commitments to a few individual policies – and that the next term of parliament will see the articulation of a considered framework that will guide our country’s transition to a zero emissions society that promotes and protects economic, environmental and social wellbeing.