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States of decay: complementing the federal carbon policy

The writing may be on the wall for Labor’s carbon policy, but that doesn’t mean the states should give up. Flickr/bk2204

States of decay: complementing the federal carbon policy

In a survey last year of 22,812 people across 22 countries (including Australia), the polling organisation GlobeScan found that environmental concerns had fallen worldwide since 2009, and fewer than one in two people (49%) now viewed climate change as a “very serious” problem. GlobeScan’s chairman, Doug Miller, commented: “Scientists report that evidence of environmental damage is stronger than ever – but our data shows that economic crisis and a lack of political leadership mean that the public are starting to tune out.”

Miller’s comments could have been tailor-made for Australia. The famous “hockey stick graph” of rising temperatures has been confirmed, and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations spiked dangerously upward in 2012. The Australian Climate Change Commission found that climate change is already adversely affecting Australians with record-breaking heat, severe bushfires, extreme rainfall, and damaging floods – byproducts of the “Angry Summer”.

Yet with the centrepiece of Australia’s climate policy not even a year old, most Australians are sick of it, or sick of hearing about it – fewer than 13% trust what politicians say about major public issues like climate change. And in the shadow of the Clean Energy Future package (CEF), state and federal governments are quietly letting other climate policies slip.

This “abdication of climate policy”, as Tristan Edis calls it, wouldn’t be so bad if Australia’s climate policy were perfect. But it isn’t; no policy is. The carbon price, while worth having, is a broad, blunt tool that covers two-thirds of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. The rest of the CEF fills in some gaps, but there is ample room for further complementary climate policy at a state and federal level.

I wrote last year on this topic, giving reasons why state (or other federal) climate policies could still be worthwhile under the CEF. This would mean innovative approaches such as:

  • addressing areas that don’t respond well or rapidly to price changes
  • shifting habits, socially-shaped preferences, or intrinsic motivation
  • investing in worthwhile programs the private sector is unlikely to fund
  • addressing goals other than least-cost abatement, such as improving energy efficiency in disadvantaged households
  • making Australia’s climate policy robust; that is, giving it the ability to maintain a minimum level of performance under a range of possible future conditions.

My colleague, Paul Twomey, wrote in a similar vein the year before.

Academics aren’t alone in regarding (some) additional policies positively. Five years ago the federal government received a strategic review of its climate change programs, assessing them for efficiency, effectiveness, appropriateness, and complementarity with the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS, the forerunner to the current Clean Energy Future package).

Named after its author, the 249-page Wilkins Review formalised criteria that governments could use to assess which climate policies complement a federal carbon price. Reasons for needing complementary policies included market failure, inefficiency, covering sectors that emissions trading can’t, helping people make informed decisions to change their behaviour, social equity, or where the underlying problems of climate change differ across regions. Some of those may sound familiar.

And it’s not as though states have never complemented federal policy, in climate or in other areas. One of the great benefits of federalism is that states can compete with each other to provide better policies, the best of which then (ideally) percolate to the national level. NSW had an emissions trading scheme in 2003, one of the first in the world. Queensland started transitioning to a lower-carbon economy in 2005 with its 13% Gas Scheme. Victoria’s Industry Greenhouse Program to regulate industrial emissions and energy efficiency was another world-leading climate policy.

Indeed, under the constitution, states – and councils – have a duty to act in many areas. They hold powers the federal government doesn’t – education, the environment, or town planning. These are clearly areas where state and local governments should be complementing federal climate policy, as they have not only the power but the best knowledge of the field. They are, quite literally, at the coal-face and on the front line of disaster management.

The need for climate action remains. The scope for complementary policy remains. The duty of governments to act remains. But in many areas, they are going backward. Energy efficiency activities are being scaled back. Construction of renewable energy plants is being cruelled. And electricity price freezes or subsidies are on the cards – as far from a complementary measure to a carbon price as is possible. How you can you make a polluting product more expensive if it’s subject to a price freeze?

These actions make Australia dangerously vulnerable to the fate of its carbon pricing scheme, and there’s no certainty it will last the next term of government. If the CEF is scrapped, or fails, what do we have to replace it? The Coalition’s Direct Action package has a far narrower scope than the current carbon price, and relies on soil carbon measures unproven at the suggested scale and cost. State governments aren’t competing to beat each other or the federal government on climate policy, as they once did.

As the risks of a dangerous climate increase, Australian governments are risking measures needed to ward it off and respond adequately. If GlobeScan polled me, I’d say that’s a very serious problem.