Australia has been in the climate wars since late 2009 when Tony Abbott rolled Malcolm Turnbull and made the pursuit of no climate policy a hallmark of Australian conservative politics. It has been an all-out battle at many points, simmering conflict at others. Investor confidence has been one of the casualties.
Now it appears that the Labor party is offering a truce. The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, offered the PM to “agree on an energy investment framework that will deliver the modernisation of our energy system”. Labor wants a “flexible and enduring” policy model that can adapt to different emissions targets and says it is agnostic about which policy instrument would deliver this.
The focus on investment in clean energy is absolutely right. Australia’s energy and industrial system is crying out for modernisation. The zero emissions options are right there, and they are affordable. In fact, renewable energy is becoming cheap enough for the tantalising prospect of exporting zero-emissions fuels and metals.
The government’s discussion paper towards its Technology Roadmap acknowledges much of this. But will government actually support the large-scale deployment of clean technologies? Will it pump much more money into its clean energy agencies ARENA and CEFC, and properly fund the universities for research? Crucially, will it set proper incentives and regulations for industry to invest?
The Coalition government seems a long way from putting any policy in place to actually accelerate clean investment, and thereby push out coal plants and other fossil-fuel-using equipment. Its new mantra is “technology not taxes”, and plans announced so far are only to drip-feed some subsidies to industry.
The zero-carbon transition means investment of hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, and for this to happen we need a clear and lasting direction in national policy.
For Labor to get the Coalition to lift its offerings, the offer for a truce would need to come from a position of strength. A majority of the population wants action on climate change, but only just over half say they think Australia is not doing enough. The bushfires put the spotlight on climate change, but the big issue now is of course Covid and its aftermath. Australian voters are easily scared of the presumed costs of acting on climate change at the best of times. The recession will make it a lot harder to win any argument on environmental policy.
And yet climate change remains the true national challenge. Not just in terms of dealing with the increasingly dire impacts, but also for creating an economy that is competitive in a world that will shift to a lower carbon model. Australia’s long-term economic prosperity will not lie in coal and gas. It could in part lie in renewable power, zero-emissions fuels and metals, and clean and green agriculture.
Albanese called for “respect for science”. That respect is what made the successful Covid response possible, and it would be the perfect foundation for bipartisanship on climate change.
In a political system like Australia’s, basic agreement between the two major parties is needed to make lasting progress on the big issues. The opening of the economy in the 1980s is one example, immigration another.
Countries that have made big progress on climate policy typically have that broad political consensus. In the UK and Germany, it is accepted across the political mainstream that the goal is net zero emissions, and that governments should and will push in that direction. The contest is about how quickly to go not in which direction, the “how” not the “what”.
Bipartisanship like that is what Australia needs on climate policy. The economic stakes and industry interests are huge and so there cannot be lasting progress when climate change is fodder for party politics. If we had agreement on cornerstones of goals and policy, federal governments could finally help position our economy for the technologies and export industries of the future. It would lessen the risk that we will get stuck at an economic dead end. And it would allow us to play a constructive role in global efforts on climate change.
A gloomier interpretation is that Labor simply wants to shut down the issue and fight the next election on the question of the economy and the social fallout from Covid alone. It would fit in with the global shift towards isolationism and economic nationalism. There are those in the Labor party who see support from blue collar constituents shrinking away and who see better electoral prospects singing the praises of fossil fuels. If the truce offered is their doing then it is really a surrender.
A bipartisanship of inaction on climate would be a nightmare for the prosperity of the country, and for our contribution to solving the climate crisis.
Taken at face value though, Albanese’s intervention throws a positive challenge to the government. Here’s hoping.
Frank Jotzo is a professor at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy. He runs the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy