Make no mistake – Labor and the Coalition have starkly different climate policies | Thom Woodroofe
Shortly before the 1996 election, Paul Keating warned the country that “when the government changes, the country changes”. With both major parties entering this year with a commitment to reaching net zero emissions by 2050, none of us should be fooled that this means there is barely a crack of daylight between them when it comes to tackling the climate crisis.
That is because the climate policies of each of the two parties put us on track for a vastly different country as soon as the end of this decade. And while there is a tendency to only focus on international targets and timelines when it comes to the fight against climate change, the reality is that these fundamentally affect what kind of economy, society, and environment we want to live in.
There are five clear areas where the divergence between the two major parties is most stark and will shape what life in Australia will look like by 2030.
First, when it comes to the cost of electricity that will power our households and businesses.
Australia might lead the world when it comes to individual rooftop solar power systems, but we lag behind when it comes to the penetration of renewables into our electricity grid. Only a quarter or so of our grid is currently fuelled by renewables, with close to two-thirds of our electricity still coming from coal.
Tipping this balance isn’t just a quixotic ideal, it’s essential if we want lower electricity prices and enhanced productivity. It affects everyday life. If we get the balance right, the average electricity bill could be more than 25 % cheaper by the end of this decade. For most Australians, the choice should therefore be seen less as about renewables versus coal, and more about the cost of electricity.
But tipping the balance also takes time. In the last 15 years, renewables have increased around 20 % — largely as a result of a mandatory renewable energy target. Thankfully, both sides of politics now believe we can increase the share of renewables by almost a further 50 % by the end of this decade if we start now.
The difference is the government would do so by relying on the policies of the states and territories to get there, whereas Labor would seek to go further through rewiring the electricity grid, and installing community batteries plus local solar banks.
Even more stark is the question of what kind of cars we will be driving by 2030.
Electric vehicles currently account for just 2% of new car sales in Australia. By 2030, Labor wants this to be close to 90%. That would take Australia from effectively last place on the podium of comparable nations to somewhere near the top. By contrast, the government hopes electric vehicles will account for just under a third of new car sales by the end of this decade despite the fact some European countries have already reached more than double that.
The difference is between becoming the developed world’s dumping ground of immovable combustible engine vehicles, or benefiting from what will by then likely be the cheaper electric alternatives.
This brings us to the third point of divergence between the two parties. The path we choose at home will also play a part in determining how we are seen on the international stage.
Whatever your view of the Cop26 outcome last November, one thing is clear: Australia emerged as a diminished global power that seemed hell bent on continuing to bury its head in the sand when it comes to climate change. We showed up with simply a pamphlet as opposed to policies. We allowed our national pavilion to be sponsored by the oil and gas industry. We blocked critical parts of the negotiating text. And then we trashed the outcome before the ink was even dry by flat out refusing to take another look at our lacklustre 2030 emissions reduction target over the next year. This did real damage to brand Australia.
Reclaiming the mantle of international climate credibility requires us to not just show up, but to sign up to the climate fight. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to how the international community engages with this issue. And with climate change becoming a critical foreign policy and national security priority for governments, it also means we face the real risk of the imposition of carbon tariffs by the end of this decade if we do not.
That would only mean a higher cost of living for most Australians.
But by far the biggest and most important difference between the two parties’ climate policies goes to what kind of economy we want at the end of this decade. And what kind of jobs that follow – especially in our regions.
The government’s insistence over the summer that somehow Cop26 did not ring the death knell for coal has been like watching the Black Knight in Monty Python insist he just has a flesh wound.
To be clear: for the first time, almost the entire world was prepared to sign up to a commitment to phase out coal, including Australia’s own negotiating team. China and India may have only been willing to go so far as committing to a phase down, but both countries’ net zero plans will require them to wean themselves off coal in the next two decades. That includes Australian coal.
The hard truth is that coal may be Australia’s second largest export but it clearly won’t last forever. The government’s own “modelling” admits coal will at least halve in price by the middle of the century. So we either begin the hard work to find a replacement for our trade balance sheet or we do not. That’s not about killing an industry overnight, it’s about not cutting off our nose to spite our face.
If the government was serious about climate action and serious about protecting our coal workers, the regions and our national economy, they’d have a plan to begin to transition this workforce rather than continuing to provide its workers false hope.
Thankfully, we are blessed with a perfect storm when it comes to the alternative: the best climate for renewable technologies to thrive, a thirsty Asian market for green energy exports such as hydrogen, and a workforce that will need a just transition away from coal precisely where many of these massive renewable energy powerhouse projects would need to be constructed.
As the Business Council of Australia and the ACTU have said, up to 395,000 new clean energy export jobs could be created in the coming decades if we choose wisely.
Instead, the government is clearly banking in the short term on the fact that for many Australians seeing a future without coal is hard. And it’s true: fossil fuels still have a deep place in the Australian economic psyche long after the mining boom. As the Climate of the Nation report demonstrates, most Australians think the coal industry accounts for close to 10% of the workforce when in fact it only makes up 0.4% with fewer than 10,000 workers nationwide. More Australians work at McDonald’s.
While it is true that Australia’s contribution to global emissions cuts will not in and of itself bend the curve of individual climate impacts, if every country did what Australia was doing, the Great Barrier Reef would disappear. Either way, by 2030 these climate impacts will become more frequent and intense as a result of our collective inaction, and even worse if we squander the rest of this decade. While this is the hardest to measure, it is yet another cautionary tale for the path we choose to follow.
With both sides of politics now committed to net zero emissions, voters will hopefully reward those that can actually spell out how we can get there and how we can transition our workers and our economy in the process and deliver a lower cost of living. Not those that want to have their cake and eat it too. And this might mean that if anyone is now wedged politically on climate, it is the government.
Voters should choose carefully. What kind of Australia we want to live in, and what kind of Australia we want our children and grandchildren to inherit is firmly on the ballot.
- Thom Woodroofe worked as a diplomatic adviser in the Paris agreement negotiations. He is chief of staff to the president and CEO of the Asia Society, Kevin Rudd. Twitter @thomwoodroofe
Read More: Make no mistake – Labor and the Coalition have starkly different climate policies | Thom Woodroofe