Federal Labor this week commemorated a dubious anniversary – a decade of climate policy failure. And it pointed the finger of blame squarely at the Greens.
Labor claimed that had the Greens not voted against its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) in 2009, Australia’s carbon emissions would be more than 200 million tonnes lower and electricity would be more affordable.
Labor MP Pat Conroy said the Coalition and the Greens “bear a heavy responsibility for the fact that, a decade later, Australia still does not have an effective policy to tackle climate change by reducing emissions”.
But one moment in 2009 is not the root cause of ongoing parliamentary disagreement over climate action. And the Greens cannot be blamed for what came afterwards.
The main lesson from that time is that cynical parliamentary strategies and weak reforms from the major parties are at the heart of climate policy failure.
A brief recap
To understand what played out in Parliament in 2009, it is useful to briefly refresh our memories on the couple of years that led up to it.
Labor’s proposed CPRS followed then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s famous call to act on the “great moral challenge” of climate change. The policy was a “cap and trade” emissions trading scheme (ETS) which in theory would have limited greenhouse gas pollution from industry.
Public concern about climate change at the time had peaked and Labor won the 2007 election partly on the strength of its climate policies.
The CPRS legislation followed the Garnaut Climate Change Review. Ross Garnaut, a prominent economist, proposed emissions targets that environmentalists considered inadequate. Meanwhile industry, which would have incurred costs under the scheme, was unhappy with the limited compensation proposed.
During the Rudd Government’s first two years, Garnaut’s vision was severely weakened – not least due to proposed industry exemptions and compensation, and unlimited industry access to carbon offsetting.
It seemed likely the scheme would have created corporate windfalls at considerable public expense, without achieving much emissions reduction. It was opposed by the Greens, led by Bob Brown, along with many economists and most environmental groups.
The CPRS bill was twice rejected in the Senate, partly because the Greens voted against it both times.
Rather than call a double-dissolution election, Rudd announced in April 2010 the proposal would be shelved.
The political failure of the CPRS reflects the deeper malaise in parliamentary responses to the climate crisis. In 2009, federal politicians were as they are now – extremely unwilling to develop reforms commensurate with the severity of the climate crisis.
As 2009 wore on, fissures opened in the Coalition over the CPRS as then Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull clashed with Tony Abbott and the Nationals over the policy.
Labor sought to leverage the CPRS for short-term political gain. It strung out the parliamentary dispute and frequently reminded the Coalition of its internal tensions, rather than genuinely try to broker agreement for emissions reduction.
Labor was also said to be unwilling to cooperate with the Greens by engaging with their proposed amendments.
But does Labor have a point?
Labor’s view that we would be better off now if the CPRS had been instituted in 2009 seems reasonable on the surface.
It’s possible that an Abbott campaign to repeal the CPRS may not have taken off as it did later against the Gillard government’s carbon price. However it’s too much of a leap to assume better-timed legislation for one weak policy alone could have built consensus for real emissions reduction.
Had the CPRS been voted in, the Coalition would still have railed against it, likely preventing the future reform needed to achieve meaningful emissions reduction. The European Union experience shows that cap-and-trade schemes, once implemented, don’t neatly resolve the competing political demands of the fossil fuel industry and public concern about climate change.
By design, the CPRS had negligible impact on fossil fuel extraction, partly due to overly generous compensation arrangements for miners. So the CPRS would not have prevented the damaging internal debate in Labor over support for new coal and gas mines, which has curbed the ambition of its emissions reduction policies.
A new decade of ambition
Australia’s major parties have never proposed a climate and energy reform package that transforms how we work, live and relate to non-human nature.
Internationally, there is growing appetite for such policies. In the US for example, momentum is growing for a Green New Deal focused on industry policy and social reforms such as job guarantees and basic incomes.
Both Labor and the Greens are moving in this direction. Labor leader Anthony Albanese has emphasised opportunities to rebuild manufacturing through a green industrial revolution. The Greens are calling for the same kind of plan. They want a 2030 cut-off point for thermal coal exports and coal-fired power too.
Now, more than ever, we need bold, effective and fair climate policy that people can get behind. The Coalition continues with the opposite.
Labor and Greens have a responsibility shelve the CPRS blame game, and work together on something better.
Update: the author’s disclosure statement has been updated to include details of her previous role with Friends of the Earth.