As the Coalition and Labor inch closer on emissions, are Australia’s climate wars ending? | Energy

If a week is a long time in politics, three years is a geological age. Long-held assumptions can change dramatically in that time. Just ask the Business Council of Australia.

In 2018, before the last federal election, the lobby group representing 100 of the country’s biggest businesses described a Labor pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 as “economy wrecking”. The Coalition’s more modest and less scientifically based goal of a 26-28% cut was deemed “appropriate and achievable”. (To its credit, the business council has chosen not to delete its incriminating tweet.)

Three years of worsening science news and a once-in-a-century pandemic later, the BCA has turned on its heel. It believes Labor’s new, fractionally reduced 2030 target – a 43% cut compared with 2005 levels – and the policies that support it are a “sensible and workable plan”. Remarkably, given its history of opposing a national carbon price, it has called on both major parties to do more.

The BCA is not the only establishment heavyweight to have embraced greater ambition and offered support for Anthony Albanese and his climate change shadow minister, Chris Bowen, since the ALP emissions policy was released earlier this month.

The Australian Industry Group – the country’s largest employer group – said Labor’s target could be delivered with “sensible policy reforms, greater collaboration and a close focus on industry competitiveness”. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it offered “a pathway to achieve the economic and technological transition towards a more sustainable future”. And the Australian Automobile Association said it was a “win for consumers”.

This response is not a complete surprise. Most major corporates are persuaded the world will inevitably move on climate and that it is in their interests to do the same – or at least be seen to. But the support from business for Labor’s more ambitious stance reflects a sea change in the battle-weary world of Australian climate politics.

Some observers have wondered if this is how the “climate wars” end, having helped bring down multiple political leaders on both sides and held back policy for more than a decade. Political disagreements and attacks will continue, but will the potency of a dishonest campaign over emissions policy have diminished by the time next year’s election rolls around?

‘There’s no going back’

Analysts mostly say: let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But they also say people should not underestimate what it means that the Coalition has promised the country will reach net zero emissions by 2050. Scott Morrison’s net zero plan, released shortly before the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, includes no new policies, largely relies on unproven technology and does not actually get the country to net zero, but the long-delayed decision to set the target means for the first time Australia’s major political parties agree on the destination. It narrows the scope for political attack.

“I think the war is over in the sense the fundamental differences about doing anything about climate change is over,” says Tony Wood, the energy program director with the Grattan Institute.

“There is a rump of people on both sides who don’t want there to be bipartisan support for climate change and who see benefit in differentiation, but I think the question is whether we’re now entering a stage of cold wars and skirmishes.”

Frank Jotzo, professor of climate change economics at the Australian National University Crawford School of Public Policy, says the centre of debate has shifted and bipartisan support for a net zero target opened “many, many opportunities and really changes the tone of the debate”.

“There’s no going back on that,” he says. “Now that a conservative government that had a ‘no-action’ point of view supports a net zero target, there’s really no room for saying we shouldn’t be doing anything.

“If you went just by what business says and what civil society says, then you would say there’s really nothing that could hold back a shift to effective and sensible climate policy in Australia. Large parts of the spectrum now agree on the fundamentals – they want ambitious targets and meaningful policies of some kind.”

Of course, things are not that simple.

“This agreement doesn’t necessarily translate into how elections are campaigned,” Jotzo says. “The preconditions for an end to the climate wars are there, but I think it’s too early to call.”

Unanswered questions about the 2022 campaign include whether News Corp newspapers, which have run misleading campaigns against the cost of climate policies and attacked the scientific consensus, have moved on since launching a “mission zero” series on climate before the Glasgow summit or will return to their old ways.

Scott Morrison during an aerial tour of the Snowy Hydro site near Tantangara Dam, NSW on 3 December.
Scott Morrison during an aerial tour of the Snowy Hydro site near Tantangara Dam, NSW on 3 December. Photograph: Alex Ellinghausen/AAP

To date, the response has been more muted than some in Labor expected. There have been news stories describing the ALP policy as targeting big emitters – which is true, with the important caveat that it is gradual and has the support of business groups. Others have raised doubts about whether it would create more than 600,000 jobs and the extent to which it would lead to a reduction in energy bills – though it was not disputed that they would be cut.

The most aggressive media attack was on the front page of News Corp’s Brisbane daily, the Courier Mail, which quoted backbencher Matthew Canavan creatively describing a plan to use an existing Coalition policy – the safeguard mechanism – to start to cut emissions from big industry as “Labor’s revenge” on Queensland.

Morrison and his ministers have not gone as hard and the initial attack was quickly over, but it’s early days, and campaign lines have been tested. The prime minister claimed Labor’s policy would be bad for coal regions and manufacturing, and several MPs described the promised changes to the safeguard mechanism as a “sneaky new carbon tax”. In reality, Labor is proposing a more gentle use of the safeguard than promised by its architect, Liberal cabinet minister Greg Hunt, back in 2015.

In response, Albanese said the Coalition was “frozen in time while the world warms around it” and that he expected the government to lie about Labor’s policy.

Closing the climate policy gap

Analysts expect Coalition criticism to be more targeted than in previous campaigns, reflecting not only the shared net zero target, but that the government is under pressure from climate-focused independents in heartland Sydney and Melbourne seats. A differentiated campaign – trying to convince inner-city residents the government is acting, while telling some parts of Queensland and New South Wales a Labor government would be devastating for them – is not impossible, but harder to land than in the past.

Allegra Spender, an independent candidate who is running against Dave Sharma in the seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s east.
Allegra Spender, an independent candidate who is running against Dave Sharma in the seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s east. Her message is that action on the climate crisis is an economic as well as an environmental imperative. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Labor’s policy was designed with this in mind. There is a gap between the parties on 2030 targets, but it is relatively narrow once the government’s rhetoric is factored in. The prime minister still backs a target set under Tony Abbott six years ago, but claims official projections show the country would cut emissions by 35%. Whether you accept this or not – and there is reason not to – it leaves Labor promising just eight percentage points more than the Coalition. Albanese accurately described the ALP’s target as modest.

The gap between the parties on renewable energy is similarly difficult to exploit. The government forecasts that 69% of electricity in the national market will be zero emissions by 2030, largely due to the tumbling cost of solar energy and incentives offered by state governments. Labor says it would lift that to 82% just by bringing forward construction of transmission lines to planned renewable energy zones.

Richie Merzian, the climate and energy program director for the Australia Institute, says Labor has gone out of its way to avoid any area where it was at risk of being wedged by the government or other opponents.

“It means the animosity and ridiculous scare campaigns about climate change that we’ve seen are unlikely to dominate this election,” he says.

If this proves correct, it may leave the biggest battleground where those who believe the debate should be led by climate science say it should have always been – over what Australia needs to do to live up to its global commitment to try to limit global heating to 1.5C. Politically, they include the Greens, who want a 75% cut by 2030 including a rapid phaseout of coal power, and some independent candidates.

Merzian, a former diplomat representing Australia at climate talks, is among those who believe this is where the debate is finally headed.

“The battle will not be over until we have a decent climate policy that reflects the reality of what’s needed,” he says.

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