Fight for climate peace starts now

by Ebony Bennett

AS PEOPLE gathered for the electric vehicle summit in Canberra yesterday, the hope in the air was palpable. But despite the Albanese government’s rhetoric, the so-called climate wars are far from over. In reality, the fight for meaningful climate peace is only just beginning.

The policy struggle now is not between Labor and the Coalition, or within factions the Coalition itself-that was closer to a hostage situation, where casualties included several prime ministers and most of the Liberal Party’s moderate MPs and blue-ribbon inner-city seats.

The real fight is between the fossil fuel industry and the planet, along with every- one who wants to avoid more frequent and intense bushfires and heatwaves, species extinction and other extreme weather events and climate impacts.

There is no doubt that enshrining an emissions reduction target in legislation is a crucial first step: providing certainty, transparency and an element of urgency to task ahead of us. Labor is to be congratulated for making this an immediate priority and for accepting sensible amendments from the Greens and crossbench that will ensure 43 per cent is set as a floor, not a ceiling on ambition, along with improvements to the transparency and accountability of the legislation. But ultimately, reducing Australia’s emissions by 43 per cent in the next eight years won’t be achieved merely by setting a target – even one by legislation – but by the market rules, regulation and policies governing Australia’s highest-emitting sectors.

There are four key barriers to Australia achieving 43 per cent, let alone exceeding it: fossil fuel expansion, false solutions in the form of dodgy carbon credits, Australia’s failed safeguards mechanism, and making up for the lost decade of action thanks to the previous government.

Unconstrained fossil fuel expansion is incompatible with a net zero emissions strategy. Limiting the mining and burning fossil fuels is the fundamental problem Australia is trying to solve. Labor is yet to come to terms with this. However, the fact that the expansion of Australia’s coal, gas and oil industries is the biggest threat to Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target means Labor will have to, and fast.

The fossil fuel industry is one of the most politically powerful industries in Australia. How else can one explain how our governments have allowed the gas industry to screw Australian households and business on gas prices, by exporting the bulk of a resource we have in abundance? Or why is there no windfall profits tax on gas companies raking in profits generated almost entirely by Russia’s war on Ukraine. It is raw political power in action.

Australia’s gas price crisis is actually the successful outcome of the gas industry’s strategy to increase its profits. For the
gas industry, this is no crisis at all, it’s the system working as planned. Many experts, including the Australia Institute, warned
that allowing the gas industry to become a massive exporter of gas would expose Australia to the volatile world gas price and Australian households and business are paying the price.

Let’s be clear, Australia has no gas supply crisis. We have tripled gas production in recent years. What Australia has is a gas export crisis. The reality is the Labor government faces an uphill climb to meet its 43 per cent target. Australia’s emissions in most sectors of the economy (with the exception of agriculture, waste and land use) have increased by a combined 35 per cent since 1990. There are other threats to the 43 per cent target that the government needs to resolve.

Australia’s system of carbon credits is currently under review because whistle- blowers and experts have warned that much of our carbon credits amount to little more than hot air. Relying on dodgy carbon credits may be good marketing, but does nothing for emissions reductions. Australia has a so-called safeguards mechanism which, as implemented has no actual safeguards. It’s a cap-and-trade scheme without a cap, which makes it about as effective as putting a flyscreen door on a submarine. It is unclear how the government intends to improve it.

In the electricity market, the former Coalition government repeatedly intervened to prolong the life of Australia’s ageing and polluting coal-fired power stations, hampering regulatory changes and market rule changes designed to level the playing field and allow renewables and storage to compete with incumbents. On this front at least, Chris Bowen has acted decisively to end the government’s determination to avoid decarbonising the electricity market. State and federal energy ministers recently agreed to put reducing emissions into the objectives of the National Electricity Market, the lack of such an objective had hampered regulatory decisions and clean investment. Mr Bowen announced the release a discussion paper on fuel emissions standards. He made clear while standards should be designed specifically for Australia, they must also aim for “as close to best practice” as possible, lest Australia be left at the back of pack again.

There is still a lot of inertia built into the political system, but the federal election dramatically shifted the momentum towards climate action. Between Labor, the Greens and the teal independents, the Australian people have elected a climate super-ma- jority to the Parliament with a mandate for climate ambition and rapid change to make up for the last decade of delay and inaction.

The culture war on climate may be over, but the battle for a safe climate has only just begun.

■ Ebony Bennett is the deputy director of
independent think tank, the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett

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