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A Plan So Cunning... Or Courageous

By Simon Grose

The government’s backflip on a carbon price was politically opportunistic, but public support could suffer if global emissions keep rising.

Labor Senator and eminence grise John Faulkner has observed that his party has come to be seen as “cunning rather than courageous”. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s policy reversal on a carbon price could be seen to be either – or even both – depending on your view on dealing with climate change.

It was also boldly duplicitous, a fact that failed to anger the general polity, indicating that soon after an election win is probably the best time for you to change your tune.

In the election campaign Gillard ruled out imposing a price on carbon during this term of government unless it was part of an international effort to do so.

Yet soon after the election she started ruling it in, regardless of international developments, arguing that the game had changed because now Labor was in a kind of coalition with the Greens.
The reality is that she ruled out a carbon price before the election because she didn’t want to bleed votes to the Coalition. She has since ruled it in because she doesn’t want to bleed votes to the Greens.

This is more cunning than courageous, and sets the scene for a difficult compromise with her coalition partners.

In June the Greens put forward a plan for a carbon price as “a basis for open and constructive negotiation”.  They proposed that within 3 months of a Labor victory they would support legislation for a carbon tax starting at $23 per tonne to take effect from July 2011, increasing every year by the CPI plus 4%.

Such unilateral action by Australia would be courageous indeed, because it actually runs the risk of destroying support for a carbon price. If the Greens’ plan was adopted, by 2020 Australians would be paying about $40 per tonne for their carbon emissions, imposing a major new layer of cost across most products and services.

But as their carbon price ratchets up each year, they will discover that global carbon emissions also continue to rise. Total global emissions will be around
40 billion tonnes in 2010.

According to an analysis by the Climateworks Foundation of the unbinding pledges made after the Copenhagen negotiations, by 2020 the best-case outcome will see global emissions climb to 49 billion tonnes, with a worst-case outcome of 53 billion tonnes.
Popular support for a carbon price in Australia is focused on a willingness to do something to save the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and the Murray–Darling Basin from the depredations of climate change.

If Australians start paying for their carbon and then come to realise that this has done nothing to achieve these goals they will feel like they have been had. It will require a very cunning and courageous government to convince them otherwise.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (