Anthony Albanese’s “Jobs and the Future of Work” speech delivered on Tuesday was, in some ways, a beacon in a dark landscape short on policy ambition. It illuminates the right issues. Technological change and artificial intelligence. The potential for smart manufacturing and domestic economic development. New directions for Australia’s resource sector. A clean energy economy. But the torch shines unevenly.
As an agenda-setting speech coming early in the new electoral cycle, it is weak on ideas, facts and proposals. It spins on about technology and innovation, a hollow chant reminiscent of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s mantra “jobs and growth, jobs and growth”. Maybe Labor is keeping its powder dry. Or it has been scarred and silenced by its election loss, blamed by some on a big target, policy-heavy campaign.
The “vision statement” nevertheless opens impressively by looking at clean energy technology and the Australian possibilities for a new manufacturing boom in a decarbonising world. About the Morrison government, Albanese says its policy settings barely acknowledge climate change, yet “in the century before us, the nations that will transform into manufacturing powerhouses are those that can harness the cheapest renewable energy resources”.
Albanese pumps up the potential for Australia’s cheap wind, wave and solar power to grow domestic manufacturing jobs and energy-intensive industries. He sings about clean energy jobs based around mineral resources such as lithium.
And as another round of state and federal parliamentary inquiries probe the feasibility of nuclear power in Australia, Albanese slams the door on this tired debate, declaring: “we don’t need nuclear power when every day we can harness the power (of the sun)”.
But for all its talk of the need to “innovate, adapt and adjust”, the speech is blind to the harder questions of decarbonisation. On this issue, Albanese tried to walk both sides of the highway by wandering down the middle.
Australia is a major domestic producer of greenhouse gas emissions, making it about the world’s 14th biggest emitter. In recent years our domestic emissions have risen, largely thanks to fugitive emissions released as we extract increasing volumes of coal and natural gas for export.
Australia is among the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters. These exported fossil fuels are responsible for an estimated 3.6% of the global emissions total. If we add these emissions – for which we are morally responsible and from which we benefit financially – to our domestic pollutant load, this places Australia among the planet’s worst emitters.
While bickering about domestic emissions targets, neither Labor nor the Coalition have tackled Australia’s parallel carbon economy - our growing exported contribution to global warming. It’s a big, dirty, lucrative, open secret. It involves jobs in marginal seats. It can determine the fate of governments.
And so Albanese’s vision statement, while extolling the virtues of a hydrogen export sector, also pumps up our fossil fuel trade. He nods at jobs from liquified natural gas exports from northern Australia, and at how traditional industries might benefit from a low-carbon future, such as by providing metallurgical coal to produce wind turbines. (Metallurgical coal is used in steel production. But environmental advocates argue Australia’s continued expansion of these exports is preventing the global uptake of cleaner steel-making alternatives).
One wonders who his intended audience is. Labor fools no-one by supporting both a clean energy revolution and a business-as-usual future for fossil fuels. It’s akin to the party’s evasive and self-harming position on Adani, which left workers in regional Queensland feeling patronised, dispensable, anxious, hostile and disaffected — and the growing majority of Australians who are deeply concerned about climate change, furious.
Those who have been following the climate issue closely – resource sector workers, unionists, parents, children and activists alike – know what is required now are tough but fair policies, and a strong commitment to future jobs that are not dependent on the whims of export markets in a decarbonising world, or on policy shocks at home when weak emissions targets suddenly have to be toughened dramatically.
To achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement — to hold global average warming to well below 2℃ and as close as possible to 1.5℃ — requires “negative emissions” - removing existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. To propose a low-carbon future with continued fossil fuel exports is fakery in the extreme.
Many researchers and others, here and overseas, are working with regional communities on ways to generate investment and enduring jobs, enabling a rapid transition from economic dependence on coal and gas. It is slow and sometimes hard work. In this vision statement, Labor fails to recognise the need for a concerted, innovative national program along these lines. It is here that fresh policy is needed, and trust and consensus must be built, carefully, over the coming years.
Clarification: this article has been amended to clarify the author’s view that Australia is morally, if not legally, responsible for emissions created by its fossil fuel exports.
Update: following publication, Labor’s shadow minister for climate change, Pat Conroy contacted The Conversation with the following statement:
The moral and legal responsibility for carbon emissions lies with the nation that burns the coal, not the nation that digs it up.
This principle was enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris climate treaty and previous international agreements for reducing global emissions.
Holding Australia responsible for burning Australian coal overseas is equivalent to holding Japan responsible for pollution emitted by Japanese cars in Australia.
Activists who want to hold Australia responsible for emissions from coal burned overseas are arguing for the destruction of global climate conventions established 27 years ago, and the only practical approach to addressing climate change as a global challenge.
Under the approach argued in the article, responsibility for transport emissions in Australia would shift to Japan, Germany and Thailand, because the cars are made there, and to Singapore which exports the fuel.
Not only is this completely impractical and unimplementable globally – it gives the Morrison Government leave to do even less. It distracts from the main game – meeting our legal obligations and transitioning Australia to a clean economy – and it says Labor is no different from the Liberals.
In campaigning on coal exports, activists are acting as if we have already secured strong emissions reduction mechanisms in Australia, and making it harder to do the real work to build community support needed to achieve real action.
Update: Peter Christoff contacted The Conversation with the following response to Pat Conroy’s comments:
Problems of legal, moral, political and economic responsibility haunt Australia, as the world’s biggest coal and gas exporter. The UNFCCC does not, as Pat Conroy suggests, preclude states from restricting fossil fuel exports and contains plenty to suggest that legally they must.
Its preamble says states have a responsibility to “ensure activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction”.
Article 2 outlines the goal and prime responsibility of states to prevent dangerous human-driven climate change, which the Paris Agreement further defines as holding global warming to far below 2℃, and as close as possible to 1.5℃. Fostering an accelerating global dependence on fossil fuels will see these temperature limits breached.
Article 3(1), specifically on principles, says states “should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. Here, Australia’s “differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” arise from its rich endowment in substances that now cause planetary harm, and the wealth it has derived from them.
Article 3(3) also calls on states to “take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent and minimise the causes of climate change”. (These principles are not negated by Article 3(5), which speaks of the need to avoid arbitrary or unjustifiable restrictions in trade.)
In this sense, it is arguable Australia is in breach of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The moral responsibility of states and governments benefiting economically from exporting a recognised harmful substance is also clear.
Consider some analogies. Would it be appropriate to export asbestos, knowing the deadly harm it causes? Australian fossil fuels are flooding the market, lowering their price and disadvantaging renewables in poorly regulated developing countries.
Last, there is the issue of political responsibility. When trade in fossil fuels collapses some ten, 15 or 20 years from now, what will Labor or the Coalition say to stranded workers in the coal and gas export sector? Bad luck? Or will they force taxpayers to bail out these communities, once the companies and their shareholders have fled with their profits?