Published at Crikey’s environment blog, Rooted.

It’s time for the government and climate change advocates to stop obsessing over carbon pricing and get behind an investment-centred climate policy.

Polling released last week, as PM Gillard announced the members of her government’s Carbon Pricing Climate Change Committee, showed that just 37% of Australians think it is very important to implement an ETS (or other carbon-pricing measures) to address climate change. When we consider the prominence of emissions trading in contemporary climate change policy debates in Australia, it is fair to say the measure is still struggling to win strong public support.

In dominant discourses, the phenomenon of climate change is constructed primarily as a pollution problem. The logical aim of domestic climate policy within this framing is to limit the amount of carbon ‘pollution’ Australia emits. Carbon pricing is presented as the key policy initiative to achieve this end. This framework constructs the role of government as limited: it is responsible for setting carbon emissions targets and implementing carbon trading (or taxes) to create price signals to drive the transition to cleaner energy sources. Regardless of the ability of markets alone to achieve the decarbonisation needed to avoid dangerous climate changes, this is the prevailing wisdom.

The focus on climate change as a pollution problem obscures an alternative policy approach with greater potential to win public support than carbon pricing. In contrast to the pollution frame:

…the nation-building model provides Australians with a way of understanding the technological challenge at the heart of climate change. It also draws attention to the scale of engineering and can-do spirit required to transform the nation from a fossil-fueled economy to a renewable one. This approach will demonstrate the benefits of ‘green’ jobs, making the concept a reality for thousands of Australians.

As I have argued previously:

We need a nation-building project on the scale of the Snowy Mountains Scheme to invest in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure. This is the fresh approach needed to drive Australia’s transition towards a clean economy and protect the nation from dangerous climate change.

Unlike the pollution/carbon pricing frame that leaves decarbonisation to the invisible hand of the market, the nation-building approach emphasises the role of government in providing energy infrastructure. In the context of climate change, our government has the capacity—and responsibility—to use the common wealth of Australians to drive our transition to a renewable energy economy. In practice, our government would invest strategically in the research, development, demonstration, and deployment of clean technologies, with the objective of making them cheaper than fossil fuels.

The construction of new renewable energy grid infrastructure is one example of an investment-centred measure. Expanded electricity grid infrastructure would open up renewable resources for sustainable development and help overcome a non-market barrier to clean energy deployment. This type of enabling infrastructure would not benefit from emissions trading because it does not directly reduce carbon or generate offsets. Building transmission lines to remote parts of Australia rich with renewable resources is cost prohibitive for the private sector alone. This area is ripe for government leadership.

The strong level of support for the Labor government’s current nation-building initiative, the $48 billion National Broadband Network, demonstrates that the public is capable of supporting investment-centred policy. The Essential Research poll (noted earlier) that identifies relatively mild enthusiasm for emissions trading, shows that 56% of Australians support the NBN.

Results of post-election survey conducted by the progressive group GetUp! illustrates that investment-centred policy is a popular idea in the context of climate change. According to GetUp!, 83 per cent of over 33,000 members who participated strongly support investing in renewable energy. Renewable energy investment was the top ranked issue out of ten. The least supported measure was a price on carbon. Though the findings reflect the preferences of politically progressive Australians, 33,000 is a very large sample and the results can’t simply be ignored.

If the Labor party is thinking straight they will seize the opportunity to rally the progressive base around renewable energy investment and shore up electoral support. This is a sensible move given the close election result and the possibility that the government might not complete a full three-year term.

While the new Carbon Pricing Climate Change Committee ensures that carbon pricing is on the agenda, there is room for Labor to move. The Gillard government and those in the parliament who support effective action on climate change can use carbon-pricing legislation to secure funding for an ambitious nation-building climate policy agenda.