Labor’s climate bill is mostly symbolic – the big questions are about what comes next | Adam Morton

TheLast week was a big deal for anyone who cares about the faltering efforts to meet the Paris Agreement and tackle the climate crisis. It could be seen as something of a highlight. The major step forward was not in Canberra, where an increasingly circular debate is raging over Australia’s first climate change legislation in more than a decade.

This does not mean rejecting the Albanian government’s climate change bill or the various MPs working to strengthen it. Australian legislation is important, primarily to enhance confidence for investors looking to stand behind clean energy and other climate solutions. It sets minimum targets – a 43% reduction by 2030 compared to 2005 and net zero by 2050 – and includes some useful transparency and accountability measures. But the truth is that there is hardly anything in it.

It does not include any mechanism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and no funding to drive change. Anyone browsing its 16 pages can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.

No, the real transformation last week was in the United States, where A deal was struck between the democratic leadership and the party’s perennial climate barrier and great admirer of coal, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

Just two weeks ago, Manchin – a millionaire thanks to the family coal company and a prominent recipient of the US Senate for oil and gas money – was called. “The man who single-handedly destroyed humanity”a villain and a bunch of unprintable stuff after he promised to use what’s effective to vote for him repeatedly Ban serious climate legislation.

It was widely assumed that it was, but Manchin shocked everyone on Wednesday by announcing that it would support $369 billion (A$527 billion) in climate and energy spending.

If passed by Congress, it would potentially be truly transformative. The bill allocates huge amounts for tax credits on renewable energy and battery production, discounts on home electric cars and green appliances, support for environmental sanitation projects in communities disproportionately affected by climate emergencies, and funding to tackle highly potent methane emissions.

The authors say it could take the country from 30% to 40% emissions cuts by 2030 over 2005 levels and put Joe Biden’s 50% reduction goal within reach.

Not everything in the bill, optimistically called the Reducing Inflation Act, is climate positive. It also includes significant fossil fuel concessions, which were deemed necessary to cross the Mansion line. There will be new leases for oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska – a move that would break Biden’s commitment in the election – and faster approval processes for gas pipelines.

At another time, these actions may have led to a stronger negative reaction. Some critics have argued that while the fossil fuel elements of the deal dwarf the support for renewable energy, They can drive the increasing demand for gas that lock him up well into the future. But Democrats and pro-climate activists mostly hailed the bill as a major advance. Their position can be summed up as a combination of “the positives are enormous” and “that’s far more than anything we expected a week ago”.

Expectations in Australia, of course, are in a different place. With the coalition continuing to miss the adults’ conversation on climate policy, the center of the debate lies somewhere between last year’s assessment of what could have been politically achieved after years of electoral losses and the science-based stances of the Greens and independents last year.

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Climate Change Secretary Chris Bowen’s position – that Labor will stick to its modest electoral commitments but not stand in the way of deeper cuts – is not an unreasonable starting point given what we have been up to, but it has been undermined. From Anthony Albanese’s extravagant suggestion that expanding the Australian coal export industry could be good for the climate because domestic coal is “cleaner” than that from abroad. It is an old charcoal making line, As Graham Redfern explained,do not accumulate.

The prime minister’s other rhetorical tool was to misrepresent a push from the Greens to halt the development of new coal mines and gas fields as an attempt to quickly shut down current fossil fuel developments, claiming it would have a “devastating effect on the economy”. It’s a stark policy, but one unlikely to be significant by 2025, when voters will be able to judge the Albanian government on what it has already achieved.

The main questions would go something like this. Have you implemented your promised climate policies in a way that prepares the country for the future? Have you convinced Australians that their emissions cuts are real and not environmentally friendly? Was she honest with the communities that would be most affected by the inevitable change and put in place a plan to support them?

Have the dishonest allegations by the coalition and others trying to blame Labor for rising electricity bills due to international factors have been refuted? And has the incumbency been used to set an ambitious 2035 emissions reduction target that sets a new course and redundant the debate on the 2030 target?

We’ll get a pretty good idea of ​​how much this is going to look over the next 12 months.

In terms of new spending on climate, the government does nothing on the scale of what is planned in the United States, but it has introduced legislation for tax credits for electric vehicles and says that $20 billion will go to building the electricity transmission linkages needed to get to 82% of renewable energy by 2030 .

But the big questions will be about how Labor will deal with industrial pollution and future proposals for coal and gas.

Bowen promised a discussion paper later this month on options for the government to use the Protection Mechanism – the coalition’s policy that has been around for years without achieving anything – to cut out of control emissions from a major industry. Labor has won support from the business community for its climate goals, but negotiations on safeguards — which will decide how quickly 215 large emissions facilities and mines make the cuts — are where things can get tricky. The Minister will not have much time to elaborate on the details. He promised that the renewed preventive measures would start by July next year.

Labor has made it clear that it does not intend to ban new fossil fuel mines entirely, no matter what the world’s climate scientists say, Secretary-General of the United Nations And the International Energy Agency Says. But a well-designed protective mechanism could at least make the development of new coal and gas fields more difficult.

Total industrial emissions should start to decline. Clearly enough, allowing new fossil fuel projects will make this more difficult, and put more pressure on existing polluting companies to make deeper cuts. But the government has also said that large emitters exposed to trade will be protected. And something you have to give. One option is to place stricter emissions requirements on new fossil fuel proposals than those already in place.

A more straightforward approach would be simply to introduce a climate test – often called a climate trigger – into national environmental laws so that major new developments can be prevented or curtailed if they cause significant emissions. The Minister of Environment, Tanya Plibersek, has I promised to amend those laws next yearWith the details to come.

As the government considers all of this, it will also need to determine what it is doing about carbon credits. Many large polluters under the protection mechanism want to use it, which means they are actually paying someone else to act while they continue to emit. But the integrity of the national carbon credit system is under the cloud, having been Described as a scam and “largely false” by one of its engineers.

review in progressled by former chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb. His year-end answers — including whether there should be limits on the number of credits that can be used — will go a long way toward deciding whether Labor can bring about the meaningful change needed.