Tony Abbott battles the future by axing carbon tax

Australia is in a climate coma. The bitter five-year political tussle over carbon pricing has left us numb and weary of the debate.

The repeal of the carbon price in the Senate on Thursday had been coming for many months - many years really. It was probably a fait accompli the moment bipartisanship was abandoned late in 2009 when Tony Abbott became federal Liberal Party leader.

But we should not underestimate the moment’s significance.

A major reform, established in law and largely working, has been rescinded. This is not unheard of in Australian political history. But it is rare.

So with repeal, what has been lost?

Australia no longer has a hard cap on the amount of planet-warming gases that can be released by Australia’s largest companies.

The requirement for industry to take account of the broader social cost of their emissions is gone.

There is no longer an efficient mechanism to meet our domestic emissions reduction goals. Nor one that can also be easily scaled up to meet deeper cuts, the kind science demands to limit global warming to relatively safe levels.

There is no longer an architecture that can endure for decades to tackle a problem that requires a solution to be achieved over that time frame.

And Australia no longer has a long-term emissions reduction target enshrined in law – it was an 80 per cent cut by 2050 until today.

Peel back the edges and the Abbott government’s agenda on climate change is bigger than just ‘‘axing the tax’’, and more destructive.

It attacks clean energy. A self-described climate sceptic has been appointed to review the renewable energy target, with the suspicion it will be watered down. The profit-making Clean Energy Finance Corporation is up for abolition. As is the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

A program forcing big energy users to become more efficient with their power use was closed. International aid commitments to help the poorest countries with climate change are sneered at. Independent agencies advising on climate matters have been shut or are in the gun.

And the pretence that we may still seek to achieve anything more than a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 on 2000 levels (Australia has long had on the table an option to move to an up to 15 or 25 per cent cut) is largely gone. A government review of targets, both short and longer term, is due next year, but nobody is holding their breath.

To replace all this we are given direct action - a still not fully–formed incentives scheme with limited scope. It is not even second-best to carbon pricing. Hard regulation to cut emissions from transport, power plants and industry would be more effective.

The Coalition’s approach to climate change is political management. It seeks to avoid embarrassment on the domestic and world stage by doing the bare minimum and fiddling at the margins.

But what is the long-term plan? Even if direct action can get us to the 2020 goal (and many believe that it can’t) what comes next?

The science demands that emissions cuts do not stop in six years. To make the deeper cuts required we will need wholesale reform to the way our energy is produced. How we move ourselves around. How we make things.

Nothing in the Coalition’s canon prepares us for this. The fact that some of its excesses have had to be corrected in part by Clive Palmer – a grandiose populist of William Randolph Hearst proportions – is an indictment.

Carbon pricing could endure. Alone it was not a panacea, but it was an effective central pillar to a long-term emissions reduction strategy. This is the view of the OECD, World Bank, the United Nations and many institutions like them.

On carbon pricing, Australia had got itself ahead of the curve, as it has so often on major economic reform. Doing that has always been to our advantage. We restructured ahead of others, lessened the associated pain and got on with embracing modernity.

In the two years since Australia’s carbon price came into effect, seven pilot schemes have been launched in China and perhaps the best scheme in the world started in California. Next year South Korea – our fourth largest-trading partner – begins its own national trading scheme.

Instead we have become the first country to roll back a carbon price.

This repeal is fighting against the future. That is a battle that is rarely won.

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The story Tony Abbott battles the future by axing carbon tax first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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