The Politics    Friday, August 5, 2022

Caseload energy

By Paddy Manning

Image of Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Sydney, August 5, 2022. Image © James Gourley / AAP Images

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Sydney, August 5, 2022. Image © James Gourley / AAP Images

The passage of Labor’s climate change bill shows that the 47th parliament can work constructively to achieve legislative outcomes

“Australia’s back!” Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen told 7.30 host Sarah Ferguson triumphantly last night, declaring an end to a miserable lost decade of climate denial, division and dysfunction under the Abbott–Turnbull–Morrison governments. It came after the passage of the Albanese government’s climate change bill yesterday – locking in at least 43 per cent emissions-reductions by 2030 and net zero by 2050 – with the crucial support of the Greens and independents. Bowen was brimming with optimism in the 7.30 interview, rattling off a to-do list of items to turn Australia into a renewable-energy powerhouse, and he followed it up this morning with a Sydney press conference to kick off public consultation on six new offshore wind regions, beginning with Bass Strait off Gippsland. In the United States, meanwhile, climate action is also back from the brink of defeat as holdout Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema today fell into line by promising to support a whittled-down version of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. The act, after a last-ditch deal announced last week between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, marks the first time the US Senate has passed a major climate bill and will mandate the largest package to fight the climate crisis ever passed by Congress. Perhaps at last it is plausible to take a glass-half-full approach to climate and energy policy, if not to declare the climate wars over.

Even if the Albanese government had done absolutely nothing about climate change, Australia’s emissions would likely have fallen by more than 30 per cent by the end of the decade, and it would have marked enormous progress from where we were before the federal election on May 21. The Morrison government was a handbrake to the ambitious emissions reduction sought by state and territory governments (and some in industry and the union movement), and it did everything in its power to frustrate the transition away from fossil fuels. Bowen plans to do a lot more than nothing, as he listed last night. That includes reforming the existing safeguard mechanism to put the top 250 emitters on a path to net zero, rewiring the nation to build transmission lines to renewable energy zones, and implementing an electric car strategy as well as a solar banks policy for people who can’t afford solar panels. Bowen wants to “send the message to renewable energy investors around the world that we are open for business as a renewable energy powerhouse”, as he told Ferguson. 

It’s a start, and a promising one after just two sitting weeks in the new parliament. Under pressure from the Greens to introduce a “climate trigger” to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, so that the warming impact of new projects is considered prior to approval (Ferguson described this as a “no brainer”), Bowen spoke cautiously about Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s implementation of the recommendations of the Samuel review of the legislation, and certainly did not rule it out. 

Most importantly, the passage of this week’s climate change bill shows that the 47th parliament can work constructively to achieve legislative outcomes – almost a surprise in itself after a decade of toxic cultural warring. That includes the welcome prospect of Labor and the Greens working together to tackle the climate crisis, even if there will be give and take on both sides and there is no love lost between them. Liberals deputy leader Sussan Ley told Sky News today she was “interested to hear the energy minister say we could have spoken to the Liberals, but we spoke to the Greens instead”. That is exactly the opposite of the approach the Rudd government took in 2009, by negotiating its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme exclusively with the Liberals, sidelining the Greens, and then turning around and demanding they pass the browned-down version presented to them after the leadership switch to Tony Abbott, almost as a fait accompli. A dumb strategy, which failed, until the minority Gillard government established the multi-party climate change committee after the 2010 election and passed the world-leading Clean Energy Future package. 

It was the Abbott government that ushered in Australia’s lost decade on climate change from 2013, by making Australia the first country in the world to abolish a carbon price. Perhaps the Young Liberals, who have blamed the Coalition’s May defeat on “genuine inaction” on climate change and an attack on the net-zero target, may be realising there is no future in climate denial, even if the Liberal leader Peter Dutton and his parliamentary party haven’t yet. 

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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