The Politics    Monday, July 18, 2022

The climate floors

By Rachel Withers

Image of Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen at the Sydney Energy Forum, July 12, 2022. Image © James Gourley / AAP Images / Pool

Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen at the Sydney Energy Forum, July 12, 2022. Image © James Gourley / AAP Images / Pool

The future of the government’s emissions-reduction bill appears to come down to semantics around ceilings and floors

Labor, the Greens and the independents have each begun putting their positions on the table, in what is shaping up to be a big week in climate policy. After sharing a draft of the government’s emissions-reduction bill with the crossbench last week, Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen confirmed on RN Breakfast this morning that he had invited MPs and senators to suggest amendments ahead of next week’s parliamentary sitting. “We would not entertain amendments which undermine our mandate … or breach our election promise,” he told host Patricia Karvelas. “But if there are sensible suggestions, we will consider it in good faith.” (Bowen repeated the words “sensible” and “good faith” upwards of 10 times in the interview.) It’s good to see he is willing to negotiate, albeit in a very limited way, with Labor making clear it will not budge on the contentious 43 per cent target. Will the Greens be able to offer suggestions that are considered “sensible” enough for the government to adopt, while still sticking to their principles on coal, gas and the future of the planet?

Greens leader Adam Bandt seems to want to pass this bill, aware that his party will be crucified – rightly or wrongly – should it oppose it. Speaking on Insiders yesterday, Bandt indicated that the Greens were “up for shifting” on supporting the government’s target, so long as the legislation guaranteed that the target was a “floor”, not a “ceiling”, in what have become key terms in this debate. But therein lies the problem (or one of them, at least). The Greens are concerned that Labor’s bill “would create a ceiling” on emissions reduction, arguing that a future government would not be able to automatically lift the target without returning to parliament, and so they are calling instead for a ratchet mechanism. Labor figures immediately took to Twitter to declare that the 43 per cent target was “a floor not a ceiling”, as they have been saying for weeks now, suggesting that the government may not be open to even this relatively minor tweak.

Karvelas put these concerns to Bowen this morning. “Are you prepared to introduce a sort of ‘ratchet mechanism’ so the government of the day could lift the target if it wanted?” she asked. “The prime minister and I have both said, repeatedly, that we see 43 per cent as the floor we want to see the country achieve,” Bowen insisted, avoiding the question. (When asked again, Bowen said that, “with all due respect”, he wasn’t going to conduct negotiations via RN Breakfast.) But if Labor isn’t willing to negotiate on even this minor tweak from the Greens, who now seem resigned to accepting the 43 per cent target, what kind of “sensible, good faith” amendments will it listen to? Surely not the minor party’s demands for a moratorium on new coal and gas projects, an essential part of the Greens platform that doesn’t particularly gel with Labor’s position.

At the end of the day, it appears that this debate is going to come down to semantics over ceilings and floors – terms that have more than a whiff of the Coalition’s boasts that it would “meet and beat” its own pathetic 2030 target. Labor’s non-stop use of the term “floor” indicates that it knows damn well its target is not ambitious enough, but is simply unwilling to budge on the figure it took to the election. What’s more, as climate analyst Ketan Joshi wrote in a compelling piece for Renew Economy over the weekend, the “floor” target is basically pointless. “If a target is almost certainly going to be exceeded, it’s not performing the function of a target,” he writes. “It should be set at a point reasonably above what’s already due to happen, to encourage an improvement from the current status quo.”

Nevertheless, it seems the climate wars may be about to go on a brief hiatus, so long as the government can find a way to prove to the Greens that its 43 per cent target really is a minimum commitment. That, surely, would constitute a “sensible, good faith” suggestion, if Labor really is willing to play ball. It is, after all, the least it can do.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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