Climate change campaigners must learn some lessons, says Guy Pearse

The carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS) is in cryogenic freeze where it belongs. We now see how wafer-thin is Kevin Rudd’s commitment to the ”great moral challenge of our time”. But will climate campaigners learn the lessons? In hindsight, their main demands wouldn’t have cut Australia’s contribution to climate change. The core asks were: ratify Kyoto; a 20per cent renewable electricity target; a national emissions reduction target of at least 25 per cent by 2020; and price carbon via emissions trading.

Kyoto ratification cost Rudd nothing and had no impact on our emissions trajectory; his 20 per cent renewables target shaves projected 2020 emissions from 124.8 per cent to 121 per cent of 1990 levels; and he ticked the 25 per cent emissions target box by placing conditions on it that probably died at Copenhagen.

Having ticked these boxes, Rudd proposed an ETS that guaranteed more harm than good. It promised to cap greenhouse pollution and transform Australia into a low carbon economy. Yet, by allowing unlimited access to cheap international carbon credits, it failed to cap domestic emissions and avoided economic transformation. It promised to make polluters pay, but asked the worst polluters to pay for less than one in every five tonnes of CO2 they emit. It also paved the way for farmers to sell cheap soil carbon credits into a market flooded with international credits. All in all, a recipe to retard the viability of renewables and avoid emissions cuts at smokestacks and tailpipes for another decade. Yet Rudd had the backing of some environmental groups, who unwittingly aided and abetted the adoption of policy that ignored coal exports and would have increased greenhouse pollution in Australia.

A national emissions reduction target of 25 per cent by 2020 may be consistent with effective global action, but it doesn’t necessarily cut greenhouse pollution here, or require a carbon price, or drive large-scale renewable energy projects. Both major parties know they can avoid domestic emissions cuts and a shift away from fossil fuels so long as they have unlimited access to cheap carbon credits. So, there’s no point in pushing emissions targets, or alternative carbon pricing schemes, without tight limits on carbon credits. That must be front and centre for the climate movement, not an afterthought.

The movement shouldn’t view carbon tax as a panacea. It doesn’t necessarily stop governments using international credits to meet emissions targets at home. Nor will it necessarily make the worst polluters pay. Politicians can offset the impact of any carbon tax on petrol and diesel, and use carbon tax rebates to shield polluters just as free permits shielded them from emissions trading. Polluters will oppose a carbon tax as vehemently. So, tight limits on transitional support for big polluters are crucial in any CPRS alternative.

Finally, climate campaigners must turn their attention to Australia’s biggest contribution to climate change: our spiralling coal exports. The movement must go beyond ”no new coal-fired power” and start talking ”coal phase-down”. With carbon capture and storage incapable of cleaning up coal use in time, no credible path to reducing Australia’s contribution to climate change in the next few decades can exclude coal phase-down. It would reduce domestic emissions more than any agreement we might ratify, or any conceivable emissions or renewables targets. It would produce a large-scale fossil-to-renewable energy switch, drive economic transformation, and over a decade it’s a transition that the economy can manage. Campaigners must make the case that coal phase-down and economic prosperity are consistent. It may mean using federal funds raised by a carbon price to pay generators to switch to renewables. And it definitely means forcing a rethink about the current ”coal rush” by reaching out to its many victims in regional Australia and alerting the nation to their plight.

In the wake of the CPRS, the task for the climate movement is two-fold - plug the loopholes that let politicians avoid cutting greenhouse pollution last time round; and build a new consensus around a much stronger agenda. The alternative is making the same mistakes.

Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.

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