The Politics    Monday, February 27, 2023

The emperor’s new carbon credits

By Rachel Withers

Chris Bowen stands at the despatch box in the House of Representatives, raising both hands in a questioning gesture.

Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen speaks during Question Time, February 8, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

A parliamentary inquiry into the safeguard mechanism reveals how ludicrous the policy is

By now it’s beyond clear that Labor’s safeguard mechanism reforms are an absolute joke. This was apparent before a two-day parliamentary inquiry into the proposed changes kicked off, thanks to the work of The Australia Institute, Climate Analytics, Renew Economy and Nick Feik, who has written on the subject in The Monthly’s March issue. But it became even more stark when listening to the experts in today’s hearing, as they answered senators’ questions about their submissions to the inquiry. The mechanism is one giant greenwash, with unlimited offsets available to emitters despite the many doubts surrounding the integrity of carbon credits. Put simply, the mechanism allows emissions to increase, and it does nothing to stop new coal and gas projects even as it asks existing polluters to maybe reduce theirs. Why are we still pretending this is a good bill? And why is Labor still demanding to know why the Greens are letting “perfect” stand in the way of it?

Liberal senator Hollie Hughes added some unintentional comedy to today’s hearings as she tried to pull off silly gotchas about “hypocrisy”, revealing that she didn’t know the difference between fossil fuels and critical minerals. The rest of the inquiry, however, was very serious, with questions about the integrity of offsets, as well as the integrity of the government’s own emissions estimates. (New analysis from Climate Analytics shows future emissions from new and existing coal and gas projects are likely to dwarf official government estimates.) The fact that the government is pushing ahead with a plan that allows unlimited offsets has been a huge issue for independent senator David Pocock, who notes that the only other country that allows this is Kazakhstan. “It’s a cap-and-trade scheme with no cap,” Australia Institute executive director Richard Denniss told the inquiry, adding that “you’d be laughed out of first-year economics” for suggesting it. What’s worse, it appears that Australian taxpayers may even end up helping pay for some of those offsets, with the government ready to step in if they go above a capped price.

Relying entirely on offsets to reach our targets while allowing greenhouse gas emissions to increase would be one thing. But the fact that offsets that are so very dubious makes this plan utterly ludicrous. As Feik writes, “carbon abatement” has become a multi-trillion dollar industry, infiltrated by big names in fossil fuels. And there are issues with almost every method of offsetting, with experts raising concerns about the “human-induced regeneration” method, the “landfill gas” method and the “avoided deforestation” method. “There should be a full independent scientific audit of every credit method,” said Australia Institute climate and energy director Polly Hemming today, noting how “incredibly easy to game” some of them are. It was bizarre, said Denniss, that we were considering growing our emissions at the same time the rest of the world was cutting theirs. “Here we are a minute to midnight with a magic accounting solution,” he asked. “How come we didn’t discover it earlier?”

Then, of course, there’s the fact that the mechanism still allows for new coal and gas projects – an issue that has become a sticking point (although not an “ultimatum”) for the Greens. “I genuinely don’t know why we’re asking existing polluters to reduce emissions by 5 per cent per year while allowing a new polluter to set up right next door,” said Denniss. Hemming labelled the mechanism “performative”, and wondered what the point of it was when new projects would be allowed to blow the emissions budget. Speaking to Nine on the weekend, Greens leader Adam Bandt repeated his warnings on coal and gas, adding that the party would be targeting Labor in three progressive seats. “Labor have to explain to people in Macnamara, Richmond and Sydney why they want to open new coal and gas mines,” said Bandt. On the contrary, said Climate Minister Chris Bowen on Insiders: “The Greens need to decide, are they a party of protest or a party of progress?”

The government seems convinced that it can run this as a replay of the 2009 Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme debate, warning the Greens that they will cop the blame if this bill doesn’t pass. But people are increasingly seeing through the safeguard mechanism, a confusing but weak policy that relies on very questionable science for what is a very existential problem. Anyone watching today’s inquiry, or reading the experts on this, could see that this plan doesn’t do what’s needed, and that allowing new fossil-fuel projects is not – as Feik puts it – “consistent with our safety on Earth”. It remains to be seen whether Labor can see that too, and whether it has the courage to acknowledge the emptiness of carbon credits.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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