Political will for a climate-smart post-covid recovery 

Image c/o greghunt.com.au

Creating the political will for a climate-smart post COVID-19 recovery

By Rod Mitchell – National Chair

With science, collaboration, plus bold and early action over recent months Australia has been a global success story in overcoming the threat of COVID-19. Our governments responded swiftly and collaboratively and saved many lives. Australians also responded by pulling together to protect the health of the community and to save lives.  

Now we can do the same for an even greater challenge, namely the climate crisis and save many more lives. As our US Board member, Katharine Hayhoe  put it back in March  –

“this crisis really brings home what matters to all of us … the health and safety of our friends, our family, our loved ones, our communities, our cities and our country. That’s what the coronavirus pandemic threatens, and that’s exactly what climate change does, too.”

Many have been surprised, even delighted by the effectiveness of Australia’s response to COVID-19 and our governments’ ability to act flexibly and rationally. Open, collaborative processes have generated good will and further collaboration throughout society; very different to politics as usual.The emergence of the National Cabinet and daily images of health experts standing side by side with political leaders were and still are  particularly pleasing.

In early May in an interview with Alan Jones the PM said

“… when it comes to foreign affairs advice, I’ll take my foreign affairs advice from foreign affairs officials. When it comes to business advice, I’ll talk to business people. When it comes to health advice, I’ll talk to health people. That’s what I’ll do, I’ll talk to the experts in their fields”      Prime Minister of Australia – official website

He was  justified in saying this with pride. It is a sound principle; one that must equally be applied to climate advice from now on. 

We witnessed some early pushback to health restrictions and demands for re-opening the economy, most notably in the US. Fortunately, because we are not as deeply divided by the culture wars as the US we were able to respond more quickly and effectively and stay on course for longer.

There have been calls to stimulate the economy with a return to ‘business as usual’ as well as an  increased production of fossil fuels  The Chair of the National COVID -19 Coordination Commission is also advocating a gas-led recovery. These have been swamped by waves of calls for climate-friendly stimulus measures from business and community groups alike and even from the Reserve Bank. Churchill’s maxim “don’t waste a good crisis” is being put to good use.

Citizens’ Climate Lobby is developing a range of resources that will enable our volunteers to promote a climate-smart recovery by encouraging our politicians to build on their recent achievements and adopt the same principles for addressing the climate crisis. There are many good proposals for ”building back better” and “green recovery” and we can support the most suitable ones when we are meeting with MPs.  However it’s important to focus primarily on the principles and processes necessary for a climate-smart post-COVID recovery, specifically –

  • Building on the success of using a crisis management approach to securing a safe climate
  • Taking advice from and working closely with climate-aware scientists and economists to address the nation
  • Collaborating with the many businesses and industries now calling for a carbon price – consider joining the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition
  • Expand the role of the a national cabinet to develop climate policy
  • Adopting bold, future-oriented policies that flatten the emissions curve and go beyond just meeting our Paris commitments 

Many of the green recovery proposals are excellent but would only make a significant impact on carbon emissions if all or most of them were implemented. Large subsidies to fossil fuels will continue to favour their consumption and make it much harder for all other initiatives to get us to the point where we flatten the emissions curve and start to bring it down. Removing the subsidy is vital. Only an efficient carbon price can internalise the social costs of fossil fuels and in effect, eliminate the subsidy.

Australia has a semi-secret carbon price! It’s the Climate Solutions Fund (CSF – formerly the Emissions Reduction Fund or ERF) coupled with the little-known Safeguard Mechanism. The CSF pays farmers and businesses for reducing emissions or for sequestering carbon. This creates a carbon market through which other businesses can buy carbon credits when they exceed their own  ‘baseline’ emissions as determined by the Safeguard Mechanism. 

The CSF is funded by the tax-payer, not the emitters, so there is still no price incentive for industry to reduce its emissions. The Safeguard Mechanism sets an emissions ‘baseline’ beyond which businesses must purchase carbon credits but many have applied for their baseline to be raised, thus allowing them to increase their emissions. If the government were to fully implement the mechanism it would reduce emissions for some industries but would only have a marginal effect on fossil fuel subsidies.

Our preferred carbon pricing method (a Carbon Fee and Dividend scheme) would end the subsidy in a few years and put us on a clear track to a low-carbon economy. It is a solution ready to be deployed as an effective and efficient foundation for the many other initiatives needed to tackle the climate crisis. It’s a clear means for ensuring both a healthy economy and reducing emissions.   Bold, principled, collaborative policy making is likely to find its way to our preferred solution sooner or later. It’s our job to make it sooner.