Liberals come into the ETS tent: Macfarlane gets green light to talk with Penny Wong

Federal Opposition climate change negotiator Ian Macfarlane appeared on Sky News’ Sunday agenda with his sleeved rolled up to tell Australia about Liberal climate change policy: they would bargain with the government on an ETS but Australian jobs were non-negotiable. You might think (as Crikey did week with their “oh shit moments” on climate change) jobs will be the least of our problems by the time we are finished cooking the planet. But it is a political given that employment is a basic human right (and the unemployed are not going to vote for you). Labor hails their GFC stimulus strategy precisely because it saved jobs. (photo by takver)

The problem is the jobs both parties want to save from the ETS are the one keeping the polluting industries running. It is a difficult problem for a resource-rich country attempting to avoid economic hari-kari while acting in the best interests of the planet. It is a question former Prime Minister John Howard pretended did not exist for most of his 12-year reign but one Liberal Party current leader Malcolm Turnbull says would have been addressed had they won in 2007.

That seems an optimistic assessment if the recent party-room battles are anything to go and as the Nationals still suggest. Those battles were resolved today after a four-and-a-half hour debate. Nearly every MP had an opinion on Climate Change and the ETS. In the end Coalition MPs backed amendments to negotiate with the Government. The choice of Macfarlane as the negotiator (after the more moderate Andrew Robb declared himself hors de combat) was surprising given his Resource Ministry background and his sceptic sympathies. But he is a tough negotiator and a realist. He admitted to Sky News tonight he was surprised how many people in the party wanted to do something about it. He said he had a “mandate” to negotiate with Climate Change Minister Penny Wong on the matter. Talks begin tomorrow.

Senator Wong indicated she would give Macfarlane more time which suggests that the parties might do a deal that allows both sides to spin the outcome as a victory. Neither will do anything to address the fundamental problem about why Australia has the world’s highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions from energy use. Labor could claim it was the party that got an ETS on the books and the Coalition could claim that their interventions were necessary to prevent the double dissolution that would have got a more Labor-Green version of the ETS through.

The problem will be the initial ETS will be so watered-down, it will be a soggy unenforceable mess. The Coalition amendments would provide tariff protection to Australian industries that would otherwise suffer competition from other countries where the cap-and-trade mechanism is not yet in place. They also want to compensate power generators, subsidise power bills, exclude “coal mine fugitive emissions”, and pretend agriculture is not a problem.

Such amendments may save thousands of Australian jobs. But it makes the bill toothless. Neither businesses nor citizens will be encouraged to make the changes in behaviour necessary to adjust to a post-carbon economy. This is not just the Liberals fault. Labor’s plan is not much better (and will only worsen with whatever suggestions Wong takes from Macfarlane). They, like the Liberals are addicted to our coal industry and are picking dodgy R&D winners in the fields of clean coal and carbon capture to keep the mines going.

But if the world is serious about avoiding a climate tipping point, Australia will have to shut down the mines. Emissions released here are a global problem and carbon dioxide remains in the air for over a thousand years. Releasing all the CO2 from all the oil, gas and coal would cause catastrophic species loss and the eventual inundation of the world’s coastal areas. Emission tradings cap and trade schemes are unlikely to solve this problem. Thomas Crocker, the inventor of cap and trade for pollution , says it won’t work for global climate change. “It is not clear to me how you would enforce a permit system internationally,” he says. “There are no institutions right now that have that power.”

Crocker prefers a carbon tax as does NASA scientist James Hansen. But as Hansen warned Obama after his election win, politicians cannot rely on political systems to bring solutions – “political systems provide too many opportunities for special interests”. Special interests will ensure new coal plants will continue jeopardising any hope that CO2 could come back below 350ppm. To solve this, says Hansen, there needs to be a carbon tax with a “100 per cent dividend”, paid direct to citizens. The tax rate will increase over time and the public will take steps to reduce their own emissions because they will be reminded by a regular carbon tax dividend and the high cost of fossil fuels.

Hansen suggests the carbon tax will feed in five ways of reducing carbon emissions: energy efficiencies, improvement in renewable technologies, improvements in the grid, nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration. Hansen says the first three deserve the most attention but acknowledges there may still be a base-load gap. Given humans are showing little inclination to cut down on consumption (and getting no incentive to do so), Hansen is probably right.

He says the option of secure, low-waste fourth generation nuclear power could be available “within about a decade”. Australia has no appetite for an intelligent discussion about nuclear power – proving the lie jobs are the biggest priority. The Rudd Government is keener to talk about the fifth of Hansen’s proposals (carbon capture and sequestration). The outcomes are so far away, the current politicians will all be safely retired or dead by project judgment day. Let’s just hope it is not Armageddon.


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