10 July 2011

Carbon price a historic step forward, but political compromise triumphs over scientific necessity

Check out: Carbon tax at a glance on Crikey

It is a historic step forward for Australia to be finally taking action to price carbon. The time for talking is over as the damaging impacts of global warming become ever more apparent. By acting to reduce emissions, the politics of delay and denial will become a historic relic.

The very existence of the legislation is due to the constant pressure and untiring work of thousands of individuals and groups in the climate movement across Australia. These people have kept the issue of climate change -- the greatest threat yet to our species -- alive in the face of powerful vested interests who deny both the science of climate change and the case for action. This is a very significant victory for Australian civil society.

However the long delay in acting makes our challenge today bigger and more urgent than ever. The aspirations of the carbon pricing scheme are low in comparison with what the science community tells us we need to do to avoid great damage to Australia's economy, our environment, and the way we live.

This legislation is a significant step forward by putting in place carbon measuring and accounting procedures across the economy. And it places new responsibilities on all those concerned about the human-induced climate disruption to ensure that the price of carbon steadily and rapidly rises so as to encourage renewable energy industries and to discourage an expansion of gas-fired power. This increasingly seems to be impossible under an ETS framework, if the European experience is any guide. A fixed and rising carbon price is the best policy.

The proposal is a compromise between players with different, and often opposing interests, and is far from being as ambitious and science-driven as the community climate action movement understands is necessary. We are concerned that too much compensation to big polluters can lock in aspects of the brown economy.

Statements from the prime minister that Australia's coal industry will continue to expand are frightening and suggest that some in the Labor government have chosen not to understand the depth and urgency of the climate change challenge. Real action on climate means winding down coal exports, and ensuring that no new coal mines are opened.

A large gap remains between political will and the scientific realities, and the scheme's targets must be lifted over time, together with an industry plan for skills, jobs and investment to build the clean, renewable energy economy. The national carbon reduction targets must rise rapidly, so as to respond appropriately and urgently to what the climate science is telling us.

Transparent governance, especially for the independent Climate Change Authority recommending future targets and carbon budgets, allows policy to be recalibrated to the science over time. An independent commission to regularly review the science, Australia's role and international developments in order to make yearly recommendations to government, provides an ongoing process of public, community engagement in climate policy.

The new independent statutory body, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), creating whole-of-government management of $3.2 billion of renewable energy funding at arm’s length from government, is a big step forward. It represents one of several instances where the role of the independents and the Greens in negotiations has improved the outcome. Its long-term worth can be guaranteed by locking in and expanding recurrent annual funding for at least the next decade, to provide certainty for the industry regardless of the complexion of government in Canberra.

We strongly support action to start closing Australia' dirtiest coal-fired power stations, but the intention must be matched by a plan to start now, not defer and delay. This must be reinforced by a ban on the construction of any new coal generators. A transition from coal to gas electricity generation is not a path to the zero-emissions economy which we need. The level of greenhouse gases and future warming is now greater than at any time since modern humans walked this planet, so thinking we can continue greenhouse gas emissions for many decades to come is a fatal mistake.

- David Spratt and John Rice