Celebrate a carbon tax, then take three steps to a zero carbon Australia

Passing the carbon price through the Senate is a victory, but there is plenty yet to be done. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

At long last, the Gillard Government’s carbon price is law. On July 1 next year, approximately 500 of our biggest companies will start paying the government $23 for every tonne of greenhouse gas they emit. In this way, Australia has taken a small, but decisive, step towards a zero carbon economy.

Those that have fought long and hard for a carbon price will be pausing to celebrate. Celebrations are hard to come by in the climate debate. We have endured four years of often vitriolic debate since Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in his first act as Prime Minister.

The messy politics of climate change has tested the resolve of climate activists and opened up ideological divides. So it is appropriate to celebrate this victory; because it is a victory.

At the same time, I am conscious of how far we still have to go to avoid dangerous climate change. With Tony Abbott’s Opposition pledging to repeal the carbon price legislation, the victory remains fragile and needs to be defended.

Yet the carbon price is only the first step in the necessary and urgent transition to a zero carbon economy. So let’s look at three next steps for climate action in Australia.

1. Aim higher for 2020

Passing the “carbon tax” is only a small part of the solution. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Australia is committed to a 5% reduction in emissions between 2000 and 2020. On current projections, emissions will increase by 24% between 2000 and 2020.

We are heading in the wrong direction and the job of the carbon price and other measures is to turn things around.

While that might seem challenging enough, a 5% reduction by 2020 falls well short of what climate science demands. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us developed countries need to reduce emissions by 25-40% by 2020 to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

Few realise that Australia has already pledged to increase its 2020 target to 15% or 25% if certain conditions are met.

These pledges are part of the agreements that emerged from the United Nations Climate Change Conference at Cancun in 2010.

Australia has offered to move to a 15% target if there is a global agreement where other developed countries take on similar targets and countries such as China, India and Brazil agree to substantially restrain their emissions.

Arguably, these conditions have already been met through existing international pledges. Current pledges cover more than 80% of global emissions and, if met, would limit temperature rise to 4 degrees or less.

Climate Action Tracker compares international pledges and rates Australia’s current 5% target as inadequate. It sees even a 25% target as insufficient.

Australia must move quickly to increase its 2020 target as part of a fair contribution to global climate action. The next United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban in a few weeks time would be a perfect occasion to announce a higher target.

The Labor Party has cause to be excited (and relieved) that carbon price legislation is now law. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

2. Build a renewable energy revolution

Treasury modelling indicates renewable energy will supply about 20% of Australia’s electricity in 2020. Currently it supplies about 10%.

This growth is driven by Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, not by the carbon price.

Australia can be a world leader in renewable energy. We have abundant solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and wave energy resources. These resources are sufficient to meet all of Australia’s energy needs.

By developing these resources, we can become a renewable energy superpower. We have the potential to develop new industries, supplying clean energy technology and resources to the world.

Capturing these opportunities requires more than just a carbon price. It requires a vision and strategic support. Recognising this, the Gillard government is putting in place several important support measures for renewable energy.

A new Clean Energy Finance Corporation will have $10 billion to invest in commercialising clean energy. An independent Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) will allocate funding to renewable energy projects. The Australian Energy Market Operator will start modelling the implications of moving to 100% renewable energy.

These measures will help but much more can be done. Doubling the Renewable Energy Target would be an excellent start. The 100% Renewable Energy Campaign lists other policy actions that could be taken.

Community support for a clean energy has been limited, and needs to increase. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

3. Build a community consensus

Prior to the 2010 election, Julia Gillard spoke of the need to build a deep and lasting community consensus for climate action. Instead, we have a community divided over this issue and suffering from “climate fatigue”.

Surveys indicate belief in human-caused climate change and concern about climate change have both fallen in recent years.

At the same time, community opinion has split along political lines. Coalition voters are much more likely to believe that climate change is not caused by humans.

Without a community consensus that climate change is real, caused by humans and requiring urgent action, progress will remain fragile. Climate action requires a transformation to a zero carbon economy.

This kind of long-term structural reform can only succeed with bipartisan support. Bipartisan support is only likely if politicians across the spectrum of beliefs feel pressure from their constituency to take strong action.

The power of bipartisan support for climate action is evident in the United Kingdom. There, a coalition of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats recently legislated for a 50% reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2025. This unprecedented target emerged from a conservative political party.

Clearly, conservative politicians in the United Kingdom recognise there are huge economic opportunities in leading the world on climate action.

Real change needs to come from the people, not from politicians. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Given the fractured and fractious state of climate debate in Australia, how can we build a deep and lasting community consensus for climate action? I think there are two ingredients.

First, we need a forum where citizens with diverse beliefs and values can deliberate on climate change in a supportive environment.

Deliberative democracy is a new type of democracy that puts citizens at the centre of decision-making. All around the world, experiments with new democratic processes are giving ordinary citizens a stronger voice in policy decisions.

For example, in Belgium this week, 1,000 randomly selected Belgian citizens will come together for the G1000 citizens' summit to discuss the future of Belgium. Processes such as this can build consensus. They help citizens to become informed about an issue and to better understand alternative views.

Ironically, Julia Gillard’s proposal for a Citizens' Assembly on climate change could have been such a forum. Sadly, the idea was scorned by the media and commentators, and quickly dropped. It should be dusted off and rehabilitated.

Second, we badly need some vision. Politicians across the political spectrum have failed to paint a compelling picture of an alternative future. Climate activists have not done much better.

The Gillard Government’s focus on a “clean energy future” is a good start. It draws attention to the clean energy technologies that can deliver a more prosperous and environmentally secure future for Australia. But it says little about our place in the world and what life will be like for Australians.

Now that we have a carbon price, a bold next step would be to invite Australians from all walks of life to create a shared long-term vision for a sustainable Australia. Ultimately, it is the people that will need to lead climate action, not politicians.