An Australian apology: Why the Greens should vote for the CPRS

With the world still not ready for climate peace, there is only one reason to sign the Federal Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme into law before Copenhagen. That reason is not about the “good faith” of an expedient political bargain that will be just as valid in February. Nor is not about being good for the environment because that is unproven. It is certainly not about the soul of the Liberal Party (though the extraordinary public immolation of Malcolm Turnbull is quickly burning all its bridges). Nor for that matter is a CPRS about making Kevin Rudd look good on the world stage – he doesn’t need any more help with that. No, the only thing a Senate agreement this week will be good for is for something Rudd is good at: apologising.

The CPRS is a statement of intent for an emissions trading scheme. For two decades the world has known climate change is a serious problem. For the last 10 years the world has been on an irreversible path towards an ETS solution. The Kyoto Protocol was the first imperfect draft. Like any multi-lateral compromise it was botched to begin with. It was fatally undermined by the lack of inclusion of the BRIC countries and then destroyed when the Bush 43 administration reneged on the US’s promise to take part.

Of the developed nations, only Australia also opted out. Australia knew the climate science but as a country highly addicted to carbon was reluctant to accept the long-term diagnosis. It decided the survival of Australia’s carbon industries was too important to risk to a global treaty and opted out. Not until 2007 and defeat staring him in the face did John Howard bow to the inevitable and made an ETS government policy. As Alan Koehler noted today, it is mostly his scheme that is before parliament.

But whether it is Howard’s or Rudd’s or Turnbull’s is immaterial. What matters is that Australia will eventually have an ETS of sorts. It will pay dearly for the unnecessary years of delay and will have no one to blame but itself. But others may want to apportion blame to Australia’s prevarication. The country is the biggest per capita carbon emitter in the world and has thumbed its nose at collective action for 12 years. Why should Bangladesh or Malaysia rein in its emissions when rich Australia won’t?

Australia hid behind the US to get away with its unilateralism. But as a country reliant on what it digs out of the ground, this is dangerous behaviour. Many nations and would-be trading partners have not forgotten Australia’s selfishness over Kyoto. It is important Australia goes to Copenhagen with an attitude more in keeping with its supposed reputation for mateship. An ETS signed in law would be a good apology for inaction in the past.

Yes, Labor’s CPRS is seriously flawed. The plan is a dog’s breakfast that will initially reward the polluters and pass the problem on to other nations to solve. The bill’s carrots will probably add to emissions in the short term. But it is the only proposal on the table likely to pass parliament. And passing it would make it a defining statement about Australia’s sense of responsibility as a good citizen to the rest of the world.

There have been 13 inquiries on climate change since the last election all pointing towards an emissions trading regime. By signing a CPRS into law prior to Copenhagen, Australia is telling the world it is serious about addressing climate change. The Greens should support this position. There is nothing in the legislation that cannot be fixed when the Greens get the balance of power.

Greens Senator Christine Milne probably knows more about climate change than anyone in the parliament but she must know there are no other realistic proposals. She also knows Australia’s responsibility to the wider world as part of the developed nations that actually use all the energy. On Thursday she told parliament one of the frustrations in the negotiations leading up to Copenhagen is getting the West to agree on an ETS financial mechanism that favours developing countries.

Milne’s frustration is understandable. This is undoubtedly a problem and one that Australia can play a much bigger part in resolving. But developing nations won’t hear the Senator’s pious wishes. If they think of the Australian Greens at all it will be that they voted against the CPRS. The party is playing Greener than Thou politics but they end up taking sides with the denialists. They may want a perfect ETS but that is not on the table. What is on offer is an apology. They should vote for that.

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