Thursday, February 08, 2007

Emissions Trading: take it seriously

Climate change is a serious issue. Doing something about it in a way that least damages the Australian economy should be among the highest priorities of the Australian government.

That’s why the political responses to yesterday’s tightly-worded, cogently-argued and bold issues paper from a taskforce that has probably exceeded its terms of reference were so disappointing.

Labor’s Environment spokesman Peter Garrett debate on what he said was a matter of public importance saying: “Today the government released an emissions trading scheme discussion paper of some nine pages.” His colleagues chimed in: “Nine!” “Wow!” and “I could have written that overnight”...

The Leader of the Australian Democrats Senator Lyn Allison declared the paper “a joke”. The Greens Senator Christine Milne declared it a “kindergarten response”.

In question time the Opposition asked repeatedly whether the government had changed its position rather than dealing with the issues actually raised in the issues paper.

Nine pages or not, the document represents the biggest step yet towards actually implementing an emissions trading scheme that would allow Australia to take action on climate change that is technology-neutral and damages our economy the least.

To the date the Australian government has had a command and control approach to fighting global warming – mandatory renewable energy targets (which are a form of carbon tax) and grants to pick winners in emerging technologies such as solar power and geosequestration.

What it hasn’t done is to use the very powerful economic tools now available to allow industry to use “the open market to discover the lowest-cost ways of reducing emissions” as the taskforce puts it.

Going beyond its brief the taskforce has proposed an emissions trading scheme as a domestic solution to domestic problems. The problem is that Australia is committed to reaching challenging carbon emissions targets. At the moment it is attempting to meet those targets using expensive and possibly misguided measures. And the range of Commonwealth and state measures is becoming difficult to keep track of.

The taskforce proposes a national emissions trading scheme as a way of “rationalising” some of those measures. The existing patchwork of measures hurts business and costs taxpayers money. A carbon price may cost less.

The taskforce says carbon trading should be considered even if it costs more.

Whereas the Prime Minister asked it ensure in its recommendations that Australia’s major competitive advantages were preserved, the taskforce has interpreted that to mean only that its recommendations should not do “disproportionate or unfair” damage to the Australian economy. Indeed, it says beyond a few simple measures, “whatever is done will “inevitably impose costs on industry and the community”.

The issues paper is intended as a guide to the way in which the taskforce will go about its considerations rather than a final report. But it is a very clear guide. Unless very cogent arguments are mounted against a domestic emissions trading scheme it is likely to recommend one.

It has given anyone who wishes to mount those arguments four weeks in which to make them. It isn’t joking and its nine pages are just the tip of the iceburg.