Climate Institute tells Labor: don’t retreat from emissions trading policy

Climate Institute CEO John Connor says it is vital Labor sticks to cap-and-trade as part of its climate change policy. AAP/Alan Porritt

The chief of the Climate Institute, John Connor, has warned Labor against backtracking on its commitment to a cap-and-trade scheme to curtail carbon emissions.

Connor said he was surprised the opposition climate change spokesman Mark Butler had “unzipped” the party’s policy so much when today he left open whether the ALP will recommit at the 2016 election to introducing emissions trading.

Pressed on Labor’s future policy, Butler said: “I am not going to indicate one way or the other what we are going to do because we will do that in a deliberative way.”

He said all Labor’s policies would be reviewed in the lead-up to the election and also to next year’s ALP national conference.

People could be assured Labor was committed to taking strong and sensible action on climate change. “But we want to look at a range of different options. We are very interested in what other countries are doing to deal with this. Now an emissions trading scheme is a very popular approach by other countries, including countries in our region, but it is not the only one. So we want to have a broad-ranging discussion and not lock ourselves into what might have been policies in the past for the future,” Butler told Sky.

His comments come as the new Senate is expected to pass the repeal of the carbon tax as early as next month. They may indicate a recognition that proposing to bring back a carbon price once it has been abolished could be a electoral handicap for Labor. On the other hand, there will be strong pressure within the party for it to retain its commitment to emissions trading.

A Lowy poll released recently showed climate change is again starting to reassert itself in the public mind as an important issue after several years of decline – 45% now see global warming as a “serious and pressing problem”, up five points since 2013 and nine points since 2012.

Connor told The Conversation: “It’s vital Labor sticks to cap-and-trade as a core part of its climate change policy. The last thing Labor should be doing is going back to the 20th-century debate we had under [then leader] Kim Beazley about climate policy.”

But Connor also warned that if the carbon tax was repealed and there were some years without a price on carbon, a future Labor government would have to have “a much stronger regulatory regime backing up emissions trading”.

This was a warning for business as well, Connor said. “Australian companies successfully lobbied for excessive compensation off the back of claims that international action was lacking. With emissions trading and carbon pricing a reality from California to China and soon from South Korea to South Africa, these arguments are no longer remotely tenable. Plummeting costs for clean energy alternatives also mean business may never again claim the compensation they did under Rudd and Gillard.”

Butler said Labor would talk to the community, stakeholders, business, environmental organisations and the renewable energy sector in formulating its policy.

He indicated the situation overseas would be an important consideration in the run-up to next year’s climate change conference in Paris, which is aimed at achieving an international agreement. He thought there would be positive developments but “one way or the other … the international background to this policy area will be very different in 2016 to the position we faced in the last parliament”.

Parliament resumes tomorrow for the final two weeks of sitting before the Senate changes on July 1, after which Clive Palmer’s party will have a key balance-of-power role on issues where Labor and the Greens oppose the government.

As they prepare to lose their pivotal position in the upper house, Greens leader Christine Milne said she would move in the Senate this week to bring on the bill to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation bill for a vote. The bill has already been defeated once.

“That will set up a double-dissolution trigger and make it very clear to Australia the Greens are going to stand firm for a clean energy, renewable energy future as opposed to the Prime Minister’s last-century coal, global warming, destroying future,” she told the ABC.

There is no prospect of the government going to a double dissolution in the foreseeable future.

The Greens will be under some pressure this fortnight over the budget legislation for the reintroduction of the indexation on petrol excise. The legislation will be brought in this week. The measure is Greens policy but they object to it being linked to a big road-building program. During his US trip, Tony Abbott said that the measure was “at least at one level part of the price of carbon”.

In Houston, Abbott – who arrives back in Australia tomorrow – was asked about Palmer’s condition that the carbon tax repeal legislation must ensure that savings were passed on to consumers.

Abbott said one element of the carbon tax package was beefing up the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to make sure the price reductions were passed on.

“We can guarantee that appropriate cost reductions will be passed on because that’s the job of the ACCC. It’s to police this kind of behaviour. It policed this kind of thing when the GST was introduced.”