Labor’s climate policy: a decent menu, but missing the main course

Bill Shorten and his colleagues are offering a broad suite of policies, but little explicit mention of cutting out fossil fuels. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Labor’s climate policy: a decent menu, but missing the main course

The federal Labor Party this week released the details of its keenly awaited climate policy package.

With a commitment to cutting climate pollution by 45% on 2005 levels by 2030, compared with the Coalition’s 26-28% target, there was never a doubt that Labor’s policy agenda was going to be more ambitious than the government’s.


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But what exactly does it include, how does it stack up against the scientific imperatives, and what’s missing?

By offering a broad platform, Labor has moved away from a single economy-wide policy solution to climate change, such as a carbon price or emissions trading scheme. Instead, it has opted for a sector-by-sector approach.

This is smart politics and policy. By developing a climate plan for each major sector – industry, electricity, transport, and agriculture and land – it is possible to modernise each sector in a bespoke way, thus driving more innovation and job creation while also cutting carbon pollution.

Emily Nunell/Michael Hopkin/The Conversation

Industry

Labor has taken the politically safe option of expanding the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” to lower industrial greenhouse emissions. Under this scheme, big emitters are required to keep their emissions below a prescribed “baseline” level, or to buy offsets if they exceed it.

Labor has lowered the threshold for the scheme, meaning it will now cover all businesses that emit more than 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (the cutoff is currently 100,000 tonnes). From there, all of these companies will have to lower their emissions by 45% by 2030 on 2005 levels.

Some details are still to be determined, including the precise trajectories of emissions reductions, the use of offsets (which while welcomed by industry, is considered by many people to be highly problematic), and the treatment of emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industries such as aluminium and cement. As with all complex policies, the devil will be in the detail.

Labor’s policy also includes a “Strategic Industries Reserve Fund”, which would support non-commercial technical innovations to help energy-intensive industries reduce their pollution. The world has already seen significant technical advances, from electrification of gas furnaces, to new cement blends.

But few have been developed, trialled or adopted by Australian industry, and they are not yet as cheap as deploying renewables or energy-efficiency solutions in the electricity sector. The new fund would therefore potentially help drive down emissions in the longer term by opening up access to technologies that are not yet cost-competitive.

Electricity

Labor announced its electricity policy in November 2018, and nothing has changed since. It primarily includes a commitment to adopting the Coalition’s now-abandoned National Energy Guarantee and providing an extra A$10 billion to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Other commitments include plans for energy efficiency, hydrogen power, support for community energy, and establishment of a Just Transition Authority. These are worthwhile next steps, but much more needs to be done to replace Australia’s ageing coal-fired power stations with clean, renewable energy.


Read more: Labor's policy can smooth the energy transition, but much more will be needed to tackle emissions


Transport

Labor’s transport plans offer a clear chance to deliver economic benefits alongside emissions reductions. It has pledged to introduce vehicle emissions standards equivalent to those in the United States (which are not as strict as those in the European Union).

Australia is the only OECD country that does not have vehicle emissions standards, leaving manufacturers free to dump old, gas-guzzling models on the Australian market. Labor calculates that this costs Australian households an extra A$500 per year in fuel costs, compared with other countries.

Alongside this is also a 50% target for electric vehicles (EVs), requirements for new EV charging infrastructure, and tax breaks for businesses that buy EVs. These are sensible first steps towards driving down transport emissions, which are rising rapidly. Indeed, they are the very least a government should be doing, which makes the fact that after six years in government the Coalition won’t have a plan for electric vehicles until mid-2020 very concerning.


Read more: Labor's plan for transport emissions is long on ambition but short on details


Agriculture and land

Agriculture is the most difficult of all sectors in which to reduce emissions; it is therefore unsurprising that the lightest-touch policy approach is in this sector. Federal Labor will want to take advantage of all the departmental support it can to properly tackle this tough nut.

What it has done is commit to two main policies: strengthening the Carbon Farming Initiative, and ensuring that Queensland’s land clearing laws are applied across the country. The land clearing laws particularly will help reverse the current widespread land clearing occurring in New South Wales, in response to the state government weakening these laws. And comes in stark contrast to the federal government’s proposal to pay farmers not to chop down trees.

Carbon accounting

The final prong in Labor’s climate strategy is to rule out any creative accounting tricks. The Coalition government is proposing to use carryover Kyoto credits that are a result of the Howard government negotiating a “good deal” for Australia in 1997. Labor has ruled out using these loopholes as part of meeting Australia’s international commitments and has also promised to do more to help our Pacific neighbours. This support may be little help, however, if Labor doesn’t strengthen its support for holding global warming to 1.5℃.

What’s left out?

This package is a solid, technocratic basis for tackling Australia’s rising greenhouse emissions. Unfortunately, there remain some glaring omissions.

The biggest omission is the lack of a plan to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Fossil fuels, particularly the mining and export of coal are Australia’s biggest contribution to climate change. Yet the ALP’s policy contains only two mentions of coal, nothing on coal exports, and no mention of gas. Labor is evidently still sitting on the fence on the future of the controversial Adani coalmine, and on the question of fossil fuel subsidies more generally.

While it might be politically convenient to let the Coalition tear itself apart over coal, the scientific reality is that to have a hope of limiting warming to 1.5℃, Australia needs to rapidly move away from coal both domestically and for exports. This is not something Labor will be able to ignore for long.

There was also no mention of the need to adapt to existing climate change. Given the recent tribulations of Townsville, the Murray-Darling Basin, and drought-stricken farmers, this should surely be a crucial point of emphasis.


Read more: Townsville floods show cities that don't adapt to risks face disaster


The policy is also missing the human face of climate change. Labor is choosing to frame climate as an economic and environmental issue. It is both of those things, but it is also a social justice issue. Indeed, those most affected by climate change are some of Australia’s (and the world’s) most disadvantaged people. For instance, the Aboriginal community of Borroloola in the Northern Territory, who are currently fighting fracking on their land, were recently evacuated due to Cyclone Trevor.

Yesterday’s policy announcement was a missed opportunity to put Australians’ health and well-being at the centre of the climate crisis and redress historical injustices by actively supporting Aboriginal and other vulnerable communities like Borroloola to benefit from climate action.

The lack of focus on health is doubly puzzling, given that Labor already announced a Climate and Health Strategy in late 2017, and could easily have drawn attention to it here.

While there is no doubt that Labor is far ahead of the Coalition on climate change, this package is far from what the science (and schoolchildren!) are telling us is needed.

As bushfires, floods, droughts and protests are all set to continue, don’t expect this issue to go away after the federal election.