Published by ABC’s The Drum.
The ascension of Julia Gillard provides an opportunity for Labor to reorient its climate change policy agenda.
Contrary to what its proponents have argued for years, emissions trading has not been as politically feasible as initially thought. Labor’s inability to pass a market-based mechanism in its first term not only brings into question the political palatability of neoliberal-inspired policy, but also draws attention to the need for alternative approaches.
With the national climate change debate focused solely on capping and trading carbon, policymakers have forgotten that there are many paths to reduce Australia’s emissions and transition to a clean energy economy.
The launch of Beyond Zero Emissions‘ Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy report is an attempt to push back against narrow-minded policymaking. It details a path for Australia to meet 100 per cent of its energy needs with renewable energy by the end of the decade. Making the plan a reality will require a radical shift in climate policy.
Pricing emissions through establishing a carbon market is a component of reducing our nation’s contribution to climate change, but it’s no ‘silver bullet’. In addition to its failure to attract the political support required to pass the Senate, the CPRS overlooks the critically important imperative of climate policy: the need to make renewable energy economical and accessible.
New electricity grids to remote places rich with renewable resources do not directly reduce carbon, and therefore don’t receive investment through domestic carbon ‘offset’ mechanisms. Add to this the high capital costs and lack of short-term profitability of building this type of infrastructure and we can see that such projects are beyond the capacity of the private sector alone.
So how should policymakers respond to the limitations of emissions trading policy? What steps can our government take to level the playing field for renewable energy to transform our energy system?
Fortunately, Labor has the opportunity to change tact. It can fill the climate policy vacuum of its own making with an effective agenda to deal with the aforementioned shortcomings of carbon trading. Starting now, the Gillard government can implement a progressive climate change agenda based on the successful nation-building efforts of Australia’s past. The agenda would be similar in scale and ambition to the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme, but adapted to meet the needs of the 21st Century.
Public investment in the construction of new grid infrastructure and strategic renewable energy projects would form the backbone of a new Snowy-type scheme. The objective of which would connect Australia’s population centres with our abundant renewable energy resources. Australia’s sun-soaked deserts and windy southern coast are untapped and cannot be easily accessed by new energy entrepreneurs. It is needless to say that the present situation benefits fossil fuel sources that participate in electricity markets using existing – government built – grid infrastructure.
What are the benefits of a nation-building approach to climate change policy?
The benefits of a new grid and large-scale renewable energy projects are manifold. The scheme will create jobs and open up new regions to sustainable development. It will attract private investment for new energy production and provide invaluable support for Australia’s nascent renewable-energy industry. The scheme will empower the nation, protect it from climatic changes, and build the foundation for a clean energy economy.
This policy approach has significant advantages for Labor. It will allow the government to tap into Australia’s nation-building mythology and harness a narrative capable of winning wide public support. It enables the ALP to build on their nation-building credentials by pointing to the Snowy Scheme spearheaded by former Labor PM Ben Chifley. Most importantly, it allows the government to implement immediate programs to increase the rate of renewable energy deployed nationally and put us on the path to reducing emissions.
Predictably, the Opposition will reject government spending. However last year’s economic stimulus has shown that public investment measures to address issues of national significance can be politically popular, even if they require deficit spending. Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s attacks on the stimulus are directed at the poor outcomes of government programs, not at government investment itself. The Coalition has been unable to mount successful attacks on Labor’s sizable investment in the National Broadband Network.
The focus on renewable energy can diminish political opposition from hostile forces within the Senate and keep the fossil fuel lobby out of the game. Any policy that punishes polluters — like carbon pricing does — rather than building the new energy economy will attract the opposition of the powerful fossil-fuel interests, who will exploit fears that carbon pricing will destroy our national wealth. After all, the lobby has a history of weakening climate policies through backroom deals with government and leading efforts to discredit them in the public discourse.
A nation-building approach helps diminish this unnecessary resistance. The Opposition and fossil fuel interests will have a tougher time arguing against nation building. The fossil fuel messaging machine will be hamstrung: If they attempt to argue against renewable energy they will be positioned as opposing job creation and public investment in critically important infrastructure. Their most salient rhetorical weapon will be useless in this debate.
On the flip side, these initiatives will help build a new constituency that benefits from sustainable development, and sufficiently change the political landscape to favour strong climate and energy policies. Imagine the emergence of a clean energy lobby capable of countering entrenched fossil fuel interests on the national stage. This, coupled with Australians at work in industries that benefit from decarbonisation will enable the government to implement a strong price signal in the future. This is why a nation building agenda should be pursued before carbon-pricing measures are implemented.
The new Gillard government has a choice. It can continue to pursue the carbon pricing centred climate policies which were unable to pass the Senate, or it can embrace a nation-building approach to addressing national climate change. The former path will lead to yet more delay and further damage the government’s standing in the eyes of the public. The latter will provide Labor with the opportunity to reinvent itself, filling the climate-policy vacuum with a politically advantageous and intelligent policy.
Time will tell which path the new Prime Minister takes.