Conditional and unconditional targets
There’s been a striking divide in reactions to the government’s changes to the ETS, with most of the major environmental groups supporting it, while the Greens (and most commenters here) seeing only negatives. The headline change (a one-year delay in the start date) is so minor that it’s not worth discussing, but it seems to have set the tone for a lot of responses. And some responses have taken it for granted that the government is acting in bad faith, but on that assumption, there is no point in arguing the specifics of policy.
Coming to substantive issues, a major complaint appears to be that the unconditional target of a 5 per cent reduction is not enough. Those making this complaint seem to me to be influenced by an error that’s the mirror-image of the doolittle-delay claim that, since Australia only accounts for 2 per cent of global emissions, we may as well do nothing.
The element of truth in the doolittle-delay line is that, in the absence of a global agreement, the planet is done for. That means that, when offering a conditional and an unconditional target, the crucial requirement for a defensible policy is a conditional target consistent with a global agreement to stabilise the climate. The unconditional target is important only insofar as it helps to achieve such an agreement, and a higher unconditional target is not necessarily a better one.
There’s room for argument over the 25 per cent target, but
(i) it seems consistent with a path leading to 60-90 per cent reductions by 2050
(ii) relative to the Kyoto targets it’s as large as anyone else is offering,
On this point it seems to me that the government’s position that the Kyoto targets should provide the starting point is more convincing than the European preference for 1990. Of course, both are self-serving, but that’s the way international negotiations tend to go.
As regards the unconditional target, it needs to be sufficient to show that we are willing to take some pain without waiting for everyone else to move first, but also far enough below the unconditional target to make it a credible bargaining chip. If I had to pick a number I’d probably go for 10, but it really doesn’t make much difference if it’s 5 or 15.
Coming back to Australian political choices on this, it’s hard to see how rejecting this proposal, as opposed to trying for some amendments, can possibly be a good idea for anybody. Whatever the short term politics, the conservatives will pay a big price in the long term for their consistent sabotage. As for the Greens, how will things look for them if the government goes to Copenhagen with no ETS and no alternative plan, and if our failure contributes to a similar failure at the global level? And if Fielding provides the swing vote against (I think Xenophon will be OK), there can be no option but a double dissolution to wipe out the consequences of the disastrous Labor preference deal that put him into Parliament in the first place.