Is the emissions trading scheme doomed?

After months of earnest assertions to the contrary, the Rudd Government has finally caved in to the pressure and postponed its emissions trading scheme. Although the nation’s worsening economic situation no doubt accounted for a substantial component of that pressure, its certainly fair to say that the government’s backdown represents a political victory for the Opposition. For some time now Malcolm Turnbull has been promoting the postponement cause, and despite the fact that his party has engineered yet another schizophrenic change of mind on the issue, refusing to back the government’s revised approach to emissions-trading even though it owes much to its own, it would appear that he has won this little stoush with the Prime Minister.

Personally, I think there are credible cases that can be made for either side of the debate. It goes without saying that while the economy was getting a pummeling, introducing a new, somewhat risky mechanism that threatened to impact profitability and therefore jobs for thousands of Australians was a politically dubious step to take. While I accept the fact that the climate change science demands swift and effective action, most people (myself included) instinctively feel that a delay of a year or two is probably not going to end life on Earth as we know it. In ideal conditions I would love to see action now, but we are living in far from ideal conditions. The government has already spent billions of dollars during the past nine months, stimulating the economy and sending the country into a significant amount of debt in the process. It must have a serious concern that it commands neither the requisite economic or political capital to launch the emissions-trading scheme during this time of crisis.

On the flip side of the coin, one really does have to question the Rudd Government’s commitment to climate change. The science calls for bold steps, not delays or a pragmatic watering down. I frankly don’t understand why the government has only now decided to cave in to the Opposition on this issue. If it really is the case that the economic situation is so dire that implementing the ETS would be unsustainable, the government should have known this six months ago. When economists the world over were saying six months ago that it is likely going to take over a year to get out of this slump, the government should have been paying attention and started sounding the alarm bells then. Instead, it continued to glibly peddle the line that the ETS would be implemented as scheduled, despite the fact that the global financial system was crumbling all around it. Putting the science aside completely for just a second, we would have to conclude that this exemplifies poor judgement.

While we have an Opposition full of climate change sceptics and opportunists and a government with such a wavering commitment to the issue, it’s hard to be very confident that we are eventually going to get an outcome. At this rate, I would certainly not be putting money on a functioning emissions-trading scheme being implemented in Australia any time soon – whether 2010, 2011 or 2012.

Senator Penny Wong – unfashionable but right?

Senator Penny Wong has an exceptionally erudite column in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that – I think – does a remarkable job of cutting through the crap on both sides of the climate change issue. With all the hubbub in recent weeks about a mooted further government review of the proposed emissions trading scheme, and the Coalition amusingly promising a stronger scheme but declining to outline what that scheme might amount to, one could be forgiven for being confused about what the hell is happening on climate change.

Wong’s column goes some way towards dispelling this. On one front, she mounts a defense of the government’s scheme and the much-publicised low targets:

By starting to reduce our emissions from next year, Australia will be putting a cost on carbon pollution before some competitor economies. We are doing this because we know it is in our interest to take action now and encourage the rest of the world to do the same. But there is no point in putting a cost on carbon pollution in Australia if it simply results in jobs and emissions being exported to countries that do not yet face a carbon price.

And whatever people think about these so-called “big polluters”, the fact remains that many Australians are employed in these industries.

We are embarking on an economic transformation to create the low pollution jobs of the future, but it is a transformation that will take time.

Wong then goes on to reiterate the case for action:

We can do nothing – and lock in more emissions growth. Current projections show emissions would be 20 per cent higher by 2020 than they were in 2000 if we choose not to act.

Alternatively, we can initiate the scheme to ensure we are 5-15 per cent below where we were in 2000 by 2020. The scheme will result in emissions being up to 30 per cent lower in 2020 than if the scheme is rejected. The scale of this transformation cannot be brushed aside.

Make no mistake – Senator Wong has to sail the government’s emissions trading boat on a profoundly tempestuous sea. She and the Rudd Government are facing formidable attacks from the left; the government’s targets certainly seem on first consideration to be pathetically low. The government is also under considerable pressure from conservatives and indeed polluting industries to water down the plan, or to scupper it altogether given the economic crisis that the world still finds itself in. If the nation emerges from all of this political and economic turmoil with a functioning apparatus to reduce emissions – even if it is a little weak to start with – Wong will have done an amazing job.

The first cut is be the deepest. Yeah sure, there was Rod Stewart, but before him, just remember it was Cat Stevens.

ELSEWHERE: Harry Clarke also thinks Penny Wong is on the right track.

Time to go Alexei (finally?)

While I have less than a glowing view of Alexander Downer’s performance as a parliamentary representative and indeed as a Foreign Minister, I feel I should echo Senator Penny Wong’s comments on Downer’s imminent resignation from parliament today. Downer has been a member of parliament for almost 25 years; since 1984 to be precise. Assuming a basic level of faith in democracy, one would have to think that if the voters of Mayo have deigned to endorse a candidate at the polls on so many consecutive occasions, the candidate must be doing a fairly good job of representing them. I may not agree with that endorsement, but I can certainly respect it.

What I don’t really respect, on the other hand, is Downer’s fairly drawn-out loitering on the parliamentary backbenches over the past eight months, as he evidently waited for some suitably plum job opportunities to come along. It was always assumed after the election that he would leave parliament rather than stay to fight on until 2010, and Downer has certainly foreshadowed his departure quite often in recent months. I am sure that at least in part Downer has sought to shield the fragile Nelson leadership from a by-election by his hanging around, but I am afraid that really isn’t a good enough reason for him to sit around on the taxpayer’s coin like so much dead lumber waiting to be carted off on a truck somewhere.

I would like at some stage to write a more ruminative piece on Alexander Downer’s contributions to public life over the last quarter of a century; a figure of his prominence deserves as much. For the time being though, I wish him well in his new mooted role, am pleased that he is leaving Canberra, and very much glad that the foreign policy of the Commonwealth of Australia is no longer in his hands.

ELSEWHERE: Janet Albrechtsen and Jamie Walker have a bit of an up-beat political obituary of Downer in The Australian. The soon to be former Member of Mayo does seem to be leaving the door ajar for a possible future tilt at South Australian politics, and manages to make himself sound like an ass with respect to smoking laws. What part of “cancer-causing second-hand smoke” do you not get Alex?