Politics of Failure: climate wars rehash glosses over Australia’s epic failure on energy

by | May 22, 2020 | Energy & Environment

Australia’s utter failure on carbon emissions was glossed over, and corporate machinations were ignored, in this week’s Four Corners climate wars program on ABC. Instead, it was a rehash which dwelt on the Canberra Bubble perspective, giving politicians from both sides of the aisle a platform to make excuses. Adam Lucas reports.

Those Australians who doubted the reality of human-induced climate change prior to the recent bushfires in December and January were forced to confront the fact that the severity and intensity of those fires were unprecedented. The bushfire crisis made it abundantly clear that dangerous climate change is a real and present threat, and Australia is on the frontline.

Although the bushfires didn’t silence the contrarians and confusionists, with the usual suspects ramping up their familiar “3D” strategy of dissemble, distract and deny, they did highlight the failure of Australia’s major political parties to introduce and successfully implement meaningful policies to reduce Australia’s soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

Last Monday night, ABCTV’s flagship investigative journalism programme, Four Corners broadcast its latest intervention in the so-called “climate wars”, leading the story with images from the recent bushfires. But unlike most of Four Corners’ previous forays into climate and energy politics, its latest contribution to the climate debate simply rehashes what most of us already know.

Based on interviews with former senior politicians and bureaucrats, “Climate Wars” provides no new insights into what could have or should have been done in this train wreck of a policy space over the last three decades. Fronted by the ABC’s Chief Political Correspondent, Michael Brissenden, we are told nothing about the current state of play with regard to Australia’s emissions, or where they are located, or whether any of the policies other than Labor’s price on carbon had any significant impact on those emissions.

Instead, we are presented with a litany of self-serving and self-regarding narratives by Australia’s current and former political and bureaucratic elites, all of whom clearly reveal their inability to abandon their failed policy approaches and provide some way out of the current impasse.

Had the ABC’s Chief Political Correspondent educated himself sufficiently about the relevant policy issues, he may have considered the following facts of the matter.

The largest source of Australia’s emissions continues to be its heavy dependence on fossil fuels for its primary energy needs. But contrary to what most Australians may believe, the country has actually gone backwards in reducing its overall dependence on fossil fuels since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol in December 2007.

According to the Australian Government’s own figures, all forms of energy use contributed 72% of the country’s emissions in 2008. Now that figure is almost 82%. More than 96% of its transport fuels and 78% of its total electricity demand is currently generated from fossil fuels. Furthermore, between 1990 and 2019, it increased its emissions from transport by 64%, electricity generation by 52%, and industrial processes by 34%. Over the same period, the country’s population increased by 48%.

Australia also dominates the global export market for coal and gas and is thus responsible for one of the most carbon-intensive export sectors on earth. Over the last thirty years, Australia’s black coal production increased three-fold and its natural gas production five-fold.

Between the early 1980s and the early 2010s, it was the world’s largest coal exporter. It has not only recently regained that mantle, but overtaken Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. Australia also continues to be one of the most polluting nations per capita, and has one of the lowest overall proportions of renewable electricity generation in the OECD. Although Australian politicians often claim that the country’s abundance of fossil fuels provides its citizens with “cheap” energy, Australia has some of the highest electricity and gas prices for non-industrial consumers in the world.

Coalition struggles to push coal and gas into Clean Energy Finance Corp

These facts and figures provide valuable insights into the extent to which Australia’s political, bureaucratic, business and industrial elites have not only failed to deliver any meaningful climate and energy policy over the last three decades but have actually made the problem worse. While ideology is frequently blamed as the motivating factor behind the ‘climate wars’, make no mistake: it isn’t just the conservative political parties who have overseen and supported the policies that brought us here.

The same elites that publicly parade their ‘ideological commitments’ with respect to climate change and energy policy have demonstrated their preparedness to abandon ideology when it suits them to embrace neo-Keynesian economic stimulus measures to ensure that our societies don’t completely collapse while the majority of economic activity is put on hold.

But if any of us had any illusions that the bushfire crisis or even COVID-19 might instigate a sea change in attitudes by Australia’s major political parties with respect to action on climate change, this week’s Four Corners will almost certainly shatter those illusions and put any such hopes firmly to rest.

Rather than exploring the possibility that other policy approaches might have been a more fruitful and productive path to take over the last decade or so, Brissenden gives his interview subjects free rein to repeat the tired mantra that an emissions trading scheme (ETS) is the “least harmful”, economy-wide policy change that can deliver emission reductions at the lowest cost. Former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry opines that “everyone will tell you this”.

Never mind that there’s no empirical evidence to support Henry’s assertion, or the magical claims of other ETS boosters, despite well over ten years of various ETSs operating at various regional levels in many countries. “Don’t you worry about that!” as one of Australia’s greatest political obfuscators used to regularly remind us. That’s the received political wisdom, and anyone who dares to question the “magic bullet” thinking of neoliberal economists and their flunkies in parliament and the bureaucracy is clearly ignorant and deluded. Presumably, because he is of a similar persuasion to his interview subjects, Brissenden cannot bring himself to mention that the second version of Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme granted the big polluters more than $16 billion in free permits, or that it allowed 100% overseas carbon offsets for those same entities.

Boomers vs Millennials: failure to act on climate is costing Australians their future

Rather than admitting that their policy was a dud, the ALP and most of the senior bureaucrats who are interviewed on the program continue to blame the Australian Greens for refusing to pass an ETS.  For example, we are told by former ALP Climate Change Minister Greg Combet that “nothing was ever good enough” for the Greens: “you had to stop coal-fired electricity tomorrow. 100% renewables today”. Having been personally involved in preparing briefs on these issues for Combet, Ferguson, Wong and others in the ALP at the time, I can confidently state that this is a dishonest misrepresentation of the positions then taken by the Greens and environmental NGOs.

Michael Brissenden. ABC

Brissenden claims that “environmental groups” supported an ETS, although he doesn’t tell us which ones, or that the movement was, and still is, deeply divided on the issue. Nor is he willing to discuss the amendments to the CPRS policy proposed by the Greens.

What Brissenden does clearly demonstrate is that Kevin Rudd, Greg Combet, Penny Wong and former Treasury Secretaries Ken Henry and Martin Parkinson continue to hitch their carts to the ETS horse. Parkinson accuses the Greens of being purists and naïve for refusing to pass Rudd’s CPRS v2.0, but his own fixation upon the supposed merits of emissions trading can just as easily be so accused.

Although emissions trading may be the most technocratic and reductionist approach to climate change policy that’s humanly conceivable, you won’t hear that from any mainstream politician or political commentator in Australia. Focused as it is on molecular risk assessment, all ETSs are complicated and opaque. With literally millions of point sources of GHG pollution that must be continually monitored, they enable abuses at multiple levels. Just take a look at the European ETS, with its massive over-allocation of carbon permits, continual gaming of the system by large players, failure to rein in those abuses in a manner commensurate with their seriousness, and the overall poor performance of the scheme with respect to actual reductions in Europe’s emissions.

A UBS Investment Research report from 2012 argued that the EU ETS cost $287 billion between 2005 and 2011, and had “almost zero impact” on the volume of overall emissions in the EU. The report argued that the same funds could have been used to achieve a greater than 40% reduction in emissions if used in a targeted way.

The real history

In light of the various shortcomings with the Four Corners’ narrative, let me proffer an alternative explanation of how climate change policy has unfolded over the last ten years.

As Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong was saddled with a dog of a policy but was nevertheless focused on passing an ETS to the almost complete neglect of any other policy levers. No wedges approach. No building blocks approach. No focus on low-carbon R&D or government procurement and energy use as drivers for an energy transition. No discussion of ecological tax reform, abolishing federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, or just transitions for coal, gas and oil workers.

No focus on radically improving the energy efficiency of business and industry, one of the lowest cost and easiest means of reducing GHG emissions. No willingness to even entertain the possibility of introducing a commercial feed-in tariff for large-scale renewable energy generation. Granted, some policy measures around some of these issues were discussed and even introduced by Labor, but they utterly failed to follow through or deliver on most of these commitments. Martin Ferguson’s alleged sabotage of the Solar Flagships Program while Minister for Resources and Energy provides a perfect example of how spoilers and moles within the ALP served the interests of the fossil fuel industry, rather than the Australian people.

It would appear that Brissenden and the ALP need to be reminded that it was the Greens and independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott who dragged the Labor Government back to the negotiating table after Rudd wimped out on his promise to deliver a sensible policy approach to addressing the “great moral challenge of our generation”. Despite Labor’s efforts to rewrite history and take all the credit for what was undoubtedly a good policy, it was the Greens, Windsor and Oakeshott who helped design, negotiate and deliver the Clean Energy Futures Package under the dogged leadership of Julia Gillard.

Presumably, because they saw the policy as tainted by the input of the Greens and independents, Labor cabinet ministers and backbenchers never firmly got behind their own policy. Embarrassingly, most ALP parliamentarians couldn’t even articulate why or how the party should implement climate change policy. Because Labor politicians failed to educate themselves about the relevant issues and get on the front foot, they let Tony Abbott fill the void by branding the price on carbon a ‘carbon tax’. But a carbon price is not a carbon tax, and nor is it an ETS. Nevertheless, Labor politicians repeatedly allowed Abbott’s ‘brutal retail politics’ to hog centre stage and failed to defend their leader against his unwarranted charges. Meanwhile, the Murdoch Press relentlessly attacked Julia Gillard and tarnished the ALP with the charge that it was beholden to ‘green radicals’.

Ken Henry accurately notes self-interest and personal political ambition as being primary drivers of the inaccurately named ‘Climate Wars’. But neither Henry nor Brissenden acknowledge or note the deep web of personal and professional connections between the fossil fuel and mining industries and senior politicians in the ALP, LNP, Liberals and Nationals. There is no mention in the programme of the revolving door between key industry players and senior advisory positions in government.

Revolving Doors: Australia’s fossil fuel networks

There is no discussion of the golden escalator that rewards compliant senior political operatives for their service to these industries while in public office, or the cushy post-political jobs granted their faithful servants in the very same sectors over which those individuals previously presided. Likewise, Brissenden fails to mention the $3.7 million in traceable donations from the fossil fuel industry to the major political parties between 2013 and 2016, or the additional $1.9 million of traceable donations by the same industry to the same parties in 2018/19, or the more than $1 billion in untraceable donations to the same parties over the last twenty years.

God forbid that we should hear anything about the $90 billion which the major political parties have failed to deliver in resources taxes up to 2018, or the many billions of dollars in income tax revenue which the major political parties continue to negotiate away to Big Coal, Big Oil and Big Gas. Or that there should be any talk of Australians’ rights to be fairly compensated for the fossil resources extracted from our land.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of our political leaders or senior bureaucrats are willing to acknowledge these elephants in the room. They simply cannot admit that climate and energy policy in Australia has been completely captured by the fossil fuel industry and that they are no longer in control. If you want to know why we are in such a sorry state, you just have to take a quick look at some of the state and federal politicians who have had their snouts in the trough of fossil fuel industry largesse over the last decade or so. It is indeed a sorry story: Greg Combet, Gary Grey, Craig Emerson and Martin Ferguson from the ALP; Ian Macfarlane, Alexander Downer, Angus Taylor, Melissa Price, Matt Canavan and Adam Giles from the Liberal Party; John Anderson, Larry Anthony, Mark Vaile and Barnaby Joyce from the Nationals.

This is literally the tip of an iceberg upon which we will all be ruined unless we are collectively willing to acknowledge that Australian governance faces deep systemic problems that require wide-ranging democratic reform. Harping on about why past governments failed to pass an ETS just doesn’t cut it.


Revealed: the revolving doors between public servants and fossil fuel lobbyists

Dr Adam Lucas is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Adam’s contemporary research focuses on energy policy responses to anthropogenic climate change and obstacles to a sustainable energy transition. He is particularly interested in processes of innovation and the democratization of technological decision-making. Prior to taking up his current position at UoW, he worked for a number of years as a researcher and policy analyst for the New South Wales Government in The Cabinet Office, State and Regional Development, Aboriginal Affairs and Housing.

Readers interested in his academic publications can find them here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Adam_Lucas

and here: https://uow.academia.edu/AdamLucas

You can follow Adam on Twitter @dradamlucas.

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