Monday, November 30, 2009

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

With the world still not quite ready yet 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 to do something Rudd is quite good at: apologising.

The CPRS is a statement of intent for an emissions trading scheme. For twenty years or more the world’s nations have known climate change is a serious issue. For the last ten the world has been on an irreversible path towards an ETS as a solution. The Kyoto Protocol was the first imperfect draft. Like any multi-lateral compromise it was a botched beast 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. It wasn’t until 2007 and defeat staring him in the face that John Howard bowed 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 matter is that Australia will eventually have an ETS of sorts. It will pay dearly for the unnecessary years of delay and for this will have no one to blame but itself. But others too may want to apportion blame at the price of Australia’s prevarication. The country is the most serious 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 relied on the US to get away with its unilateralism. But as a country reliant on what it digs out of the country to survive, this is dangerous behaviour. Many nations and would-be trading partners have not forgotten Australia’s selfishness over Kyoto.Therefore 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.

For sure, 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 various carrots will probably add to emissions in the short term. But it is the only proposal on the table at the moment that is 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.

It is not like we don't know the consequences. There have been 13 enquiries on Climate change since the last election all of them pointing towards an emissions trading regime. By signing a CPRS into law prior to Copenhagen, Australia is telling the world we are 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 else in the parliament but she must surely know there are no other realistic proposals on the table. 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 that 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 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 it means 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.


Unknown said...

The problem is that, by supporting this bill, the Greens would help immediately unleash investment in coal, and lock in weak targets that would undermine chances of agreement at Copenhagen.


Derek Barry said...

Tim, yes I agree there are many negative consequences from implementing the bill as it stands. Senator Milne's list of complaints are valid and Labor won't listen to her until it is forced to do so after the next election.

For now the CPRS is at best a placebo solution.

But despite sharing Milne's frustrations about the quality of the bill, I disagree with her conclusion that it locks in failure.

The wrong treatment metaphor is alluring but facile - the only thing that truly locks in failure is inaction.