Back in 2009 the Australian Greens helped the opposition to vote down the then Labour governments Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation. They said that it was weak on emission reduction targets; the proposed 5% was too distant from the minimum 25% the Greens wanted.
Now, as a much weaker carbon-tax-to-trading-scheme hybrid proposal is debated, they are prepared to compromise. The Greens propose to accept a modest carbon price prior to a ramp up later. This is the very same approach they previously rejected. The fundamental premise of a cap-and-trade system is to manipulate supply and demand in a way that changes behaviour. The only difference with the current proposal is it begins with a clunky and hugely unpopular new tax.
After years of delay that has seen debate erode policy options and scarify public support, the Greens are agreeing to an option that is even less likely to achieve the outcomes they support.
It is time to call them on this blunder. Back in 2009 their inability to see that effective climate change policy is a long play, tipped the result over to inaction. Structural economic transitions never happen overnight. Economies adjust, they do not jump, and any policy that forces change too rapidly risks collapsing the system. Wise policy recognizes this and finds a more gentle and expedient path. The rough edges of a CPRS are a compromise worth taking to achieve smooth transition.
In 2009 the Greens missed this reality. The risk they take this time is to botch it again. They may accept the tax now only to balk again at the emission targets set in any subsequent trading scheme. Do so and decades of hard work progressing the environment into the public psyche and onto the political agenda will be undone.
Politicians of all hues need to understand that climate change policy is a once in a millennium opportunity. And for the Greens a carbon market will inject serious funds into the environment and begin the long and necessary process of business accounting for environmental costs. How else, other than through a market approach, will we see manufacturing, development and energy accounting for natural environmental services.
Perhaps when oil hits US$300 a barrel and our continued carbon intensity cripples our exports we will look back to 2009 and say, if only. Let’s hope the same will not be said of 2011.