Originally published in The Guardian on February 8, 2023

The enormous PEP-11 gas project off Sydney’s northern beaches is back in the headlines and the timing couldn’t be worse for a federal Labor government trying to rush a new climate policy through the parliament; a policy that does nothing to stop new gas and coalmines being built and doesn’t even stop major polluters increasing their emissions. Labor’s Madeline King must now remake the decision made by our undercover resources minister, Scott Morrison.

The gas project is so unpopular that, with an upcoming New South Wales election, even the Liberal premier, Dominic Perrottet, is campaigning against it. And federally, Labor is in a mad, but unnecessary, rush to get its new climate policy through the parliament. Unfortunately for the climate minister, Chris Bowen, the loudest supporters for his so-called safeguard mechanism are the fossil fuel industry. Just last week, Beach Energy, which is preparing to expand the Waitsia gas project in WA by 250 terajoules a day (that’s a lot), spoke up in its defence. There are 113 other gas and coal projects seeking approval in Australia, and by design, the safeguard mechanism will do nothing to stop any of them going ahead.

Not only doesn’t the Safeguard Mechanism stop new gas or coalmines being built, it doesn’t even require our existing major polluters to reduce their actual emissions. If passed, the new laws would allow polluters to actually increase their pollution as long as they buy some carbon offsets. Even if all the credits were of high integrity, which is a big if, the safeguard mechanism does not require a single company to actually begin to decarbonise.

While the safeguard mechanism’s reliance on unlimited offsetting is its biggest selling point for the fossil fuel industry, it is also the government’s weakest selling point when it comes to persuading the public and parliament that its laws must be passed in a hurry. The public don’t want PEP-11 or enormous new coalmines to go ahead, with or without offsets, they want real investment in the renewables, energy efficiency and the electrification of transport that will decarbonise our economy. The big swings to the Greens and teals at the last election were driven by a public hunger for more climate action, not more accounting tricks.

As the debate about the flaws of the safeguard mechanism heats up, some will inevitable argue that we risk “perfect being the enemy of the good” or even that we are on the brink of “another CPRS moment”. But there are enormous differences between the safeguard mechanism and Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme. For starters, we are now only 27 years from our 2050 net zero target and we are still considering approving gas and coal projects that will operate until at least 2070.

But the biggest difference between the CPRS debate and the current scheme is the consequences of voting it down. The CPRS was a flawed but ambitious attempt to introduce an economy-wide carbon price. The safeguard mechanism, originally designed by the Abbott government, only applies to 215 big polluters and literally allows all of them to increase their emissions as much as they want as long as they buy some offsets. It does nothing to drive investment in renewables, nothing to boost electric vehicles or energy efficiency and, of course, nothing to stop new gas and coal projects from opening.

While Labor may have succeeded in wooing the fossil fuel industry with its climate policy, it certainly isn’t inspiring voters. By adopting a climate policy that lets polluters rely entirely on offsets, the government has lost the ability to build genuine public pressure on the Senate to pass its ineffective scheme. By Labor’s own logic, it wouldn’t matter if the safeguard mechanism didn’t pass in a hurry, as we could always just buy some more offsets next year.

The reality is the safeguard mechanism does more to safeguard the fossil fuel industry than it does to safeguard the climate. It hides its support for fossil fuel expansion behind a fig leaf of dodgy carbon credits and offsets.

The last election was all about climate and integrity. And while Scott Morrison and his secret ministries might be gone, if his pro-pollution policies are protected in broad daylight, we will not only see more gas and coal projects and a runaway climate crisis, but we’ll likely see more teals, greens and independents elected to the crossbench at the next election.

The looming Senate battle will no doubt spark superficial claims of a return to the so-called climate wars. But the substantive policy question is whether the new parliament is serious about the climate integrity mandate people voted for. As the UN secretary general has urged “2023 is a year of reckoning. It must be a year of gamechanging climate action. We need disruption to end the destruction. No more baby steps. No more excuses.” And the science is clear: we are running out of time.

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