Election 2013 climate change policies: @GrattonWilson reports


Solheim Glacier, Iceland (Top) April 2006; (Bottom) February 2009. James Balog, Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) – Click to enlarge


By Gratton Wilson


I started to write this note a few days ago but like most people interested in removing greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere I was thrown into confusion on learning that the Government had changed its policy of putting a price on carbon by means of a fixed price.

The change is to an Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) with a floating price on carbon commencing at around $6 tonne. This was formally announced by the Prime Minister on 16 July to become operational in July 2014. The move to an ETS will cost the Budget $3.8 Billion which will be found by making savings in the Budget. While some of these savings will slow down part of the Government’s climate change program the overall integrity will be maintained. No doubt there will be much debate about aspects of this change of policy as the months go by. It will require careful analysis by the various sections of the community with particular interests. It should be noted that 34 countries have an ETS and others are about to come on line in a number of cities and provinces in China.

This important change comes at a time when there is growing world wide awareness that urgent action must be taken on climate change. This has been emphasised by the knowledge that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached 400 ppm.  This concern about this figure is that failure to hold or reduce that concentration will lead to temperature rise in the 21st century beyond the 2º C which has been considered the desired limit.

The International Energy Agency has seen the need to focus on energy sources other than the fossil fuel on which we currently depend. Wind energy and solar cells are seen as paramount. There are many other processes in development – tidal, wave generation and geothermal. In the USA President Obama has announced that Administrative action will be taken through the Department of Environment to claw back the country’s current pollution and develop alternate energy resources. The USA already has considerable wind energy resources in operation with others coming on line almost daily. Similar developments are occurring in other countries in Europe, Asia and South America.

In Australia the Climate Commission has recently issued a report. To quote from the report:

The Critical Decade 2013: A summary of climate change science, risks and responses

The overall message of the report is clear.

One quarter of the way through the Critical Decade, many consequences of climate change are already evident, and the risks of further climate change are better understood. To meet the widely accepted policy goal of limiting climate change to a temperature rise of no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, global society must virtually de-carbonise in the next 30-35 years. This means that most of the fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

The report has not been welcomed by the coal industry, and comes at the same time as the industry is ceasing its work on sequestration of pollution from coal fired power stations. The funds are being used for promotion of the use of coal in Australia and overseas. The Government-funded sequestration program will continue but at rate that better fits the scientific and engineering progress. The Government still sees a future for Australia’s coal industry. World wide there seems to be a lessening of confidence in the industry as the decline in coal fired powered stations gathers momentum.

The Coalition’s Direct Action policy
The Coalition’s Direct Action policy is three paragraphs in the policy pamphlet Real Solutions. It is brief and lacking in detail. In effect it is about paying polluters a lot of taxpayer’s money to reduce emissions, planting a lot of trees, and experimenting with farmers putting carbon in soil. It is proposed $3.3 billion to be used for the first of these policies. The second is to be carried out by a”green army” presumably paid for by tax payers (with perhaps some volunteers). Tony Abbot has said that the Green Army will not be public servants. No written details appear to be available but from comments made by Mr Abbott and Mr Rudd its seems the green soldiers will be doing projects similar to those performed by some Landcare groups and other community organisations. If indeed they are to be used for planting the large plantings that would be needed to have any impact on our level of pollution the organising and payment of 15000 people including professional support staff would be significant. There are scientific reports which argue that this type of tree planting will not be a significant contributor to green house gas reduction.

Professor Brendan Mackay of Griffith University is also doing work on this subject and has recently commented:

 “……no amount of reafforestation or growing of new trees will ultimately off-set continuing CO2 emissions due to environmental constraints on plant growth and the large amounts of remaining fossil fuel reserves.”

Planting trees in suitable areas does have many benefits and is already the activity of many organisations.

The principle of paying people or organisations to stop polluting is like the council paying litterbugs to stop littering. It is clearly wrong-headed. Those who cause the pollution should bear the cost. It is understood that applications would be invited from organisations and individuals for projects designed to cut pollution. Projects that are selected will be financed by Government. Its called pollution reduction by incentive. Information of how and by whom it would be managed has not been made public. It is known that details will not be released unless the Opposition becomes the Government. Its believed that part of the policy is to penalise polluters if their pollution exceeds their normal pollution level. How these ideas would work is not known. Given the history of LNP in awarding community grants this requires clarification.

Sequestration of carbon using soil is problematic. There is no doubt incorporation of carbon into an agricultural system can have benefits to some soils. How enduring the incorporation is is a moot question as are the conditions under which it might be beneficial. There is a similar program in Labor’s Policy, but it is not pivotal to the program. The Coalition has allowed a figure of $23 per tonne to be paid to farmers. A recent paper by A/Prof. Kragt of Western Australian suggests that $80 is more realistic [ Science Network WA]. The Professor has written other papers on soil sequestration. There are a number of projects throughout Australia, many funded by the Commonwealth, others by the States. There is considerable work being done overseas. These activities will throw more light on the subject but none of the reports I have seen would reinforce the NLP view that this technique can be part of a replacement to putting a price on carbon. The purported proposal to have one million houses fitted with solar cells during the life of a Coalition government is not included in Direct Action plan. The Liberal party Direct Action policy can be found on their website.

The Greens Policy
The Greens Policy is a document of three pages. It consists of fifteen single line points of Principle and seventeen lines of Actions. This document has now been melded into the Greens recently released overall policy statement, Climate change actions have sensibly woven into environment and social statements. In the main the Principles and Actions are desirable but many are socially and practically difficult to achieve. In the main to carry them out would necessitate adoption of the Greens taxation policies. An unlikely event.

Point 7 calls for no new coal fired power stations nor expansion of existing ones.

I draw attention to Point 9 which raises the question of climate refugees and the issues to which they give rise. This is an area which is not in the Australian consciousness. There are already climate refugees in America and the African continent. Soon climate change refugees will increase our own problems. This issue is not addressed in other policies.

Point 8 calls for an equitable transition to a net zero carbon economy through a range of market- based and regulatory mechanisms. This in effect is in line with what the Government is doing.

The policy could be seen as supportive of the Labor approach but it is not in sympathy with that of the NLP. It is science based with a social conscience. The two policy documents can be found at here.

The Labor Party Policy
The Labor Party Policy titled “A clean energy future” is at Chapter 4 of the National Platform and it is twelve pages long. It is the only document so far released by a political party, relating to the coming election, which I would call a full detailed policy on this subject. The only areas related to climate change not embraced in this document are foreign affairs linked issues and health related issues. They may be covered elsewhere in the larger National Platform but should also be referred to in this section. After an Introduction and a paragraph on Labor values there is a short list of achievements then Labor’s priorities. The material covered is so comprehensive that all that can be done is give the headings:-

Labor priorities
The transition to a clean energy future
Emission Trading Scheme
(A carbon price)
Environment and heritage
Energy capacity
Supporting industry and jobs
Household assistance
Clean energy Energy efficiency
Carbon farming
Indigenous economic development
International action on climate change.
Direct investment in clean energy jobs
Building energy capacity
Adapting to the climate change we cannot avoid
Preparing primary industries for climate change and future droughts
Strengthening the role of farmers in the delivery of environmental services
Managing our water assets

Having spent some time reading and writing about these policies it is not difficult to want to give some advice to those responsible:

To the L-NP, I say go and do your homework. Discard the “Big New Tax” mantra, disregard vested interests and adopt the policies of the major world players. Your three present proposals taken together would be a waste of taxpayers’ money as they will become bureaucratic and not give the result needed. They have been voted down by members of you own party, scientists and economists the world over and by those in our community who want to see atmospheric pollution stopped.

I give you D minus

The Greeens
To the Greens I say rewrite your document with flesh on the bones. Assuming things can be done is not good enough you need argument as to why and how.

I give you C plus

Labor Party
To Labor you need to make sure your recent policy announcement is covered by existing documentation. A series of short pamphlets directed at specific interest groups and a shorter overall document for general distribution incorporating new policy

I say a good policy and award an A

On a final note. Over the last week or so there have been many articles and comments made throughout the world that make it very clear that to solve the problem we must stop putting green house gases into the atmosphere and the only way to do that is for there to be price on carbon and to stop using fossil fuels. All the other ideas may or may not help in varying degrees but they cannot and will not fix it.

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  1. The other day I heard a US expert pour cold water on carbon sequestration as a worthwhile policy. He did so without knowing that this was a fundamental part of coalition policy to tackle climate change. A major reason is that farmers are already implementing strategies in such things as tillage practices so there is little additional gain to be made in this area. Secondly the beneficial effects of carbon sequestration begins to fade after 10 years

  2. Hi, thanks for this useful overview of the parties’ climate policies. I have a quibble. Of the ALP’s policy you say “The only areas related to climate change not embraced in this document are foreign affairs linked issues and health related issues” — What about the greenhouse contribution of Australia’s coal export industry, the rapidly changing energy markets of Asia, and the need for coal-dependent communities to have structural adjustment.

  3. Gratton Wilson says

    Thanks George. You are quite right. This is a problem for both Labor and the LNP but not the Greens. From what I have read renewables and gas are having an impact on coal market in USA. Climate Commission recommended phasing out the industry but I think this was rejected by the Government. Too many still see the $ as more important than the planet!

  4. Dear Gratton Wilson
    As one activist elder to another I would like to say that your piece is a load of old cobblers. What assessment criteria were used to score the policies? More importantly how did you decide which policies were to be assessed? You give the ALP an ‘A’ for their effort. As this is a comment in response to a particularly troubling article not an article in its own right I’ll restrict my critique to your assessment of the ALP (although if anyone wants it I can just as easily discuss the other two.

    You seem to believe that the Party’s Climate Change policies are contained in Chapter 4 of the Platform beguilingly headed ‘A Clean Energy Future’. A read of this reveals the following:

    Three pages of boasting under the headings ‘Labor Values’ and ‘Labor Achievements’. Most of the latter exist only because three cross benchers in the just completed Parliament DEMANDED them as a condition for their support of the Gillard minority government.

    Nine pages of ‘Labor Priorities’ under the headings given in your article.

    Central to my critique of your article is Labor’s commitment in Section Four of the Platform to ‘drastically cut pollution by at least five percent compared with 2000 levels by 2020.’ What is not stated in the Platform or in your article (although I thought it was widely known and understood) is that this rate of reduction falls far, far short of what the best science says is necessary to stabilize the global temperature increase at or around the 2ºC mark which the vast majority of climate scientists say gives us a reasonable chance of avoiding runaway climate change. To give some idea of what level of reduction the science actually demands we might look to the example of the EU which has made a unilateral commitment to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions from its 28 Member States by 20% compared to 1990 levels. It has offered to increase this reduction to 30% if other major economies agree to undertake their fair share of a global emissions reduction effort.

    What is not stated in the Platform or in your article is that two thirds of the trumpeted ‘drastic reduction’ in pollution is intended to be purchased in the form of off-shore carbon credits by polluters to off-set their on-shore (domestic) pollution.

    What is not stated in the Platform or in your article is that the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has predicted that under current Labor policy domestic greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to rise to thirteen percent ABOVE 2000 levels by 2020.

    All these facts have been widely reported and discussed in the main-stream media over the last couple of years. Apparently you have either missed them or don’t find them relevant to your assessment of Labor Policy settings.

    But wait Gratton-Wilson there is more (much more). You are aware of the Critical Decade report and have reproduced its key message in your article.
    “To meet the widely accepted policy goal of limiting climate change to a temperature rise of no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, global society must virtually de-carbonise in the next 30-35 years. This means that most of the fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.”

    I would expect that this might have prompted you to look elsewhere in the Labor Platform for policies that might impact on this. In Section Two of the Platform under the heading Mineral resources and Energy we find for example that Labor commits to:
    ‘…intensified national minerals, oil and gas exploration.’ (more coal seam gas anyone)
    and promoting ‘…the sound development of Australia’s coal, oil and gas resources, with particular regard to domestic requirements, THE DEVELOPMENT OF AUSTRALIA’ COAL, OIL AND GAS EXPORTS, and the NEED for a stable and profitable coal and oil and gas industry

    Under Labor’s policies promoting the development of Australia’s coal, oil and gas exports end-use emissions from Australia coal and gas exports will dwarf domestic emissions by a factor of three- or four-to-one. Researcher Guy Pearse, perhaps the nation’s most authoritative voice on this topic, says that the expansion of Australian coal exports with the bipartisan blessing of Labor and the LNP will mean that by ‘2020 or soon thereafter, Australia is exporting nearly twice as much CO2 as is Saudi Arabia today.’

    Pearse estimates that ‘… Australian coal exports will generate around 75Gt (billion tonnes) CO2 between now and 2050 – perhaps another 5Gt will come from domestic coal use, and 8-10 Gt from LNG if the expansion of coal seam gas proceeds.
    This totals around 90 billion tonnes of CO2, compared to current total domestic emissions of 0.55 billion tonnes a year, or just over 20 billion tonnes in total to 2050 if current emissions were held constant.’

    As David Spratt recently wrote for the Giles Parkinson’s clean energy and climate change newsletter ‘Renew Economy’:
    ‘From this perspective, neither Labor nor the LNP by their behaviour indicate any significant understanding of the policy consequences of the carbon budget approach which the government’s own Climate Commission advocates, nor any grasp of what needs to be done in this “critical decade”. The brutal truth is that if Labor should remain in power and stick to an emissions reduction target of just 5% by 2020 (achieved by importing carbon credits) and actual emissions not peaking till 2025, this would still be largely a lost decade. With Team Abbott, (of course) the outcome is worse.’

    Currently we are 22% of the way through the budgetary timeline set out in the Critical decade report, but we have emitted 328 Gt of fossil fuel CO₂, burning through nearly 33% of the budget. We need to change our path soon from one of rising to decreasing annual emissions. You may have noticed the “ski slopes” graphic (Figure 1) in the Critical Decade report which depicts three possible scenarios to achieve the necessary emissions cuts. Labor’s policies have committed Australia either to failing to meet the globally necessary targets to achieve stable greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 or to a very difficult adjustment to two decades in which emissions reduction must be 9% per annum. Still think the carbon market will save our skins? Labor’s ETS is ‘the most cost effective path’ to runaway climate change sometime before the end of the century.

    The chance to avoid climate catastrophe is almost certainly gone as Clive Hamilton has explained in chilling fashion in his book ‘Requiem for a Species’. This will have profound negative social, cultural and economic implications for all of us. Australia is already feeling the impacts of global warming. We are already experiencing rapidly escalating extreme weather events as a direct result of global warming and Australians are already dying from the effects of this rapid climatic shift. This is not fanciful scaremongering. It is fact.

    And it will get worse, much worse. Writing for ‘The Conversation’ climate science communicators John Cook and Dana Nuccitelli point out that the International Energy Agency has warned that the world is on track for a catastrophic four degrees of warming by century’s end.

    Sorry Gratton Wilson your opinions are ill informed, illogical and positively damaging. If you don’t know what you are talking about it is often best to remain silent.

  5. Thank you for your ‘constructive comments’. It is regrettable that you begrudge me the right to express my opinion as you have done. I compared the three political policies on the available written material. There are other views. One of two of those policies is going to be Australia’s policy whatever you I or any one else thinks or believes. My own view is in the final paragraph of the article but of the policies available at present I and many others prefer that of Labor. If the LNP ever publishes the details of its policy we may pleasantly surprised.