My government set the Paris 2030 emissions reduction target on the basis that this was more or less what could be achieved without new government programs and without new costs on the economy. There was no advice then to the effect that it would take a clean energy target or a national energy guarantee to get there.
Our intention then was to monitor developments; and, in the meantime, to rely on market forces to make energy use efficient, and on the emissions reduction fund to keep overall emissions heading down at the lowest possible cost. My government never put emissions reduction ahead of the wellbeing of families and the prosperity of industries. As I’ve said all along, you don’t improve the environment by damaging the economy.
I have never thought that reducing emissions should be a fundamental goal of policy, just something that’s worth doing if the cost is modest. I have never thought that climate change was, to quote Kevin Rudd, the “great moral challenge of our generation”. It was an issue, that’s all, and — at least on the actual changes we’ve so far seen — not a very significant one compared with man’s inhumanity to man; maintaining and improving living standards; and even with many other environmental issues such as degraded bush and waterways, particulate pollution, water quality in the Third World, deforestation and urban overcrowding.
After all, the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from roughly 300 to 400 parts per million during the past century has not had dramatic consequences.
Storms are not more severe, droughts are not more prolonged, floods are not greater, and fires are not more intense than a century ago, despite hyperventilating reportage and over-the-top claims from Greens politicians.
Sea levels have hardly risen and temperatures are still below those of the medieval warm period. Across time, temperature change seems to correlate rather more with sun spot activity than with carbon dioxide levels. And even if carbon dioxide, a naturally occurring trace gas that’s necessary for life, really is the main climate change villain, Australia’s contribution to mankind’s emissions is scarcely more than 1 per cent. Of course, we should treat the planet with respect. But it would be the height of folly to suppress living standards, shrink industries and drive jobs offshore for a moral gesture.
Much has changed since I was prime minister. Post the carbon tax repeal, power prices have quickly resumed their inexorable rise, doubling in a decade. Selective blackouts have become relatively common: most of South Australia went dark for 24 hours because the wind blew too hard and the interconnector went down. And, the big one, the US has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. When the world’s leading country withdraws, it can hardly be business as usual.
Our 2015 target, after all, was set on the basis that the agreement would be “applicable to all … parties”. Absent the US, my government would not have signed up to the Paris treaty, certainly not with the present target.
Yet as long as we remain in the Paris Agreement — which is about reducing emissions, not building prosperity — all policy touching on emissions will be about their reduction, not our wellbeing. It’s the emissions obsession that’s at the heart of our power crisis and it’s this that has to end.
When they visited Parliament House the other day, business leaders described Labor’s 45 per cent emissions reduction target as “economy-wrecking”. Even meeting the government’s 26 per cent target, they said, would be “challenging”. They supported the NEG, but what they expect of it is 24/7 availability of dispatchable baseload power and internationally competitive prices, while still trying to achieve the Paris targets. Their concern was the economic dislocation already being caused by our climate policy and, to the extent that they supported the new one, it was as the least bad way to deliver even more emissions reduction while minimising the impact on jobs and growth.
Yet nothing that Australia does to reduce emissions will make the slightest difference to climate, as the Chief Scientist said last year. Of global emissions, China is responsible for 28 per cent, the US 15 per cent, Europe 11 per cent, India 7 per cent and Australia 1.3 per cent. A 26 per cent cut to 1.3 per cent is a statistical blip, so why not scale back our cut to 20 per cent, or to 15 per cent, or to zero; or to whatever would actually be achieved in 2030 through normal business cost-cutting and efficiencies plus whatever is delivered through the emissions reduction fund?
Of the four biggest emitters, China and India have made no Paris commitment to reduce their total emissions and the US has now pulled out.
So when three of the four biggest emitters have no Paris target at all, why should we, especially now that we can start to count the cost — in more expensive cars and in culled herds as well as through more expensive and less reliable power? Knowing what we know now, we would not have made the Paris Agreement. Now that we do know, we should get out of it.
Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement that is driving the NEG would be the best way to keep prices down and employment up; and to save our party from a political legacy that could haunt us for the next decade at least.
Far from “wrecking the government”, MPs worried about energy policy are trying to save it, with a policy that would be different from Labor’s and would give voters the affordable and reliable power they want.