Originally published in Guardian Australia on January 11, 2023

The Chubb review talks optimistically about ‘carbon credits’, but we wouldn’t need so many if we weren’t building so many new sources of pollution.

If a climate policy does nothing to stop new gas and coalmines getting built then it’s not a climate policy, it’s a cover story.

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, if the world is to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change the world won’t need any new gas or coal projects. But here in Australia not only are there 114 new fossil fuel projects on the drawing board, the Albanese government’s so-called “safeguard mechanism” reforms won’t even stop enormous new sources of pollution from being built while it is trying to get existing polluters to cut their emissions.

The simple truth is that Australia is still failing to transition away from fossil fuels.

While Scott Morrison’s “gas-led recovery” was appalling policy, at least he was transparent about his priorities. In Labor’s first budget they allocated $1.5bn for a new industrial hub in Darwin harbour that includes gas export infrastructureand have repeatedly refused to introduce any form of moratorium or ban on building the new gas and coalmines that a decarbonising world clearly doesn’t need.

The release this week of Ian Chubb’s review into Australia’s carbon credits highlights perfectly the absurdity of Australia’s climate policy – his review of carbon credits does not make a single mention of the words “coal”, “methane gas”, or even “fossil fuels”. While the report talks optimistically about the potential for “carbon credits” to offset the enormous emissions from Australia’s gas and coal production, he, like so many before him, declined to make the obvious point that Australia wouldn’t need so many “offsets” if we weren’t committed to rapidly expanding new sources of pollution.

The idea that Australia’s role in helping the world tackle climate change is to export more coal and gas is as ridiculous as it is widely held. Chubb isn’t the first prominent Australian to shy away from a fight with our fossil fuel industry, and he won’t be the last. But the longer such a fight is avoided, the more harm we will do to our climate and our economy.

It’s not complicated. We need to do more of the good things and less of the bad things. The main role of carbon credits is not to reduce global temperatures, but to reduce the political heat about climate change policies. It’s tough for politicians when the science and the voters demand big cuts in fossil fuel use, but the fossil fuel industry wants to keep on growing. It’s hard for politicians to “strike a balance” between those who want fewer gas and coalmines and those who want more. But where there is a will, there’s a way. And that’s where carbon credits come in.

Carbon credits allow the Albanese government to simultaneously tell inner-city voters that they are committed to ambitious climate action and the international fossil fuel industry that Australia remains an attractive place to invest.

The argument from the Albanese government and the fossil fuel industry is that if someone plants enough trees to soak up the emissions from a new coalmine or gas well, and if the coal or gas company is willing to pay for the trees to be planted, then what’s the problem?

The short answer: science and economics. Climate science says we need to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Not slow their rate of increase, but rapidly reduce them. We need to stop building new fossil fuel projects and plant as many trees as possible. It’s not complicated. We need to do more of the good things and less of the bad things.

Then there’s the economics. If we want to use carbon credits to “offset” pollution, then the higher the price the more fossil fuels they would discourage. But according to the Chubb review, we should be careful to stop the price of carbon credits from rising too high in case they discourage too much pollution.

While the flaws and limitations of the Chubb review have already been well described, it has caused a major problem for the Albanese government. It hopes to legislate its major climate policy, the so-called safeguard mechanism, in the coming months and that relies heavily on carbon credits rather than actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

In order for the safeguard mechanism to be reformed, it will need support from the Greens and some of the Senate crossbenchers. It would make policy and political sense for those senators to simply rule out the use of the dodgy carbon credits that continue to circulate in the Australian market, especially because the safeguard mechanism won’t, as it is currently proposed, safeguard us from new gas and coalmines.

The Chubb review might have ignored the issue of fossil fuel expansion, but the scientists, public, and the key votes in the Senate are unlikely to be so wilfully blind.

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