Libs left with Chinese model

I usually wait a day or two before reposting my Fin column. But the Liberal Party is such a rapidly moving target that this column, drafted on Tuesday, looks prescient in retrospect, but may well be obsolete by tomorrow.

Apologies in advance if this gets posted multiple times. The server is flaky, so I’m using Posterous which works, but sometimes too well. Please comment on the first (lowest on page) version.

Attentive readers of the Letters page may have noticed a letter from The Hon Wilson Tuckey MP (Quiggin sticks to problem not solution Letters 24/11). Mr Tuckey gave his account of a discussion of climate change policy held at Parliament House, organised by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Alliance, in which he and I took part.  As is usual in such cases, I had a rather different recollection of events. But, since Tuckey appeared to be, in Malcolm Turnbull’s words a fringe figure of the far right, I saw little value in responding.

Now, however, the situation has changed. As one of Turnbull’s earliest and most vociferous critics, Tuckey can consider himself vindicated by the decision of the Liberal Party to replace Turnbull with Tony Abbott, someone whose views on climate change are much closer to his own.

More significantly, as Tuckey himself has pointed out, the proposals presented on his website now represent the closest thing the Liberal Party has to a climate change policy. It may therefore be useful to examine these proposals, and, in the process, to recapitulate some of the points I made during our meeting in November.

As was noted in Tuckey’s letter, I did not discuss the specifics of the government’s ETS policy, canvass alternatives such as a carbon tax, or speculate on the amendments being negotiated between the government and the then leadership of the opposition. The position presented by the Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Alliance was that a 25 per cent reduction in emissions was needed by 2020, and that a market-based emissions reduction policy should be the central approach. We did not seek to promote one market-based policy over another, and my answers to Tuckey’s questions reflected that.

I was however, quite happy to explain the merits of a primarily market-based approach as against a centralised command-and-control solution, in which governments seek to determine and impose by fiat, particular technological fixes for climate change. Within a market based framework, there be room for some policies, such as feed-in tariffs for solar energy, aimed at nudging decisionmakers to adopt new technologies. But the central element must be to ensure that there is a price attached to carbon emissions, whether through taxes or through tradeable permits.

A visit to Tuckey’s website reveals a different approach. Tuckey is an enthusiast for the tidal power potential of the Kimberley region, as indeed am I. Given the incentives associated with a high enough price for carbon, and reforms to the National Electricity Market to encourage more investment in long-distance transmission lines, there is huge potential in tidal energy.

But such an incentive-based approach is of no interest to Tuckey. Rather, he suggests ‘To respond to these problems the Government should take an up front role investing in and developing Australia’s only significant and predictable renewable energy resource which is to be found in the tides of the Kimberley.’

Tuckey also proposes extensive public investment in High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines, noting that ‘China will not have an ETS. It will invest in Hydro, Nuclear and other renewable energy. Its Government is already building an extensive HVDC network.’

There are strong arguments for a return to greater reliance on public investment in energy infrastructure.  But, in the context of a policy response to climate change, it is important to avoid ‘picking winners’. There are many candidate technologies for reducing our CO2 emissions, ranging from nuclear power and ‘clean coal’ to extensive investment in energy efficiency. 

The most cost-efficient way to choose options for emissions reductions is to ensure that investors in energy infrastructure, public or private, face a price for each tonne of carbon they emit, and earn a return for each tonne they prevent. If that is done, standard commercial criteria will select the most cost-efficient path.

Tony Abbott has effectively ruled out such an option. Having denounced the government’s emissions trading scheme as a massive new tax, he can scarcely embrace the main alternative, a carbon tax. On the other hand, he has committed himself to achieving the emissions reductions promised by Labor.

In these circumstances, the Chinese approach endorsed by Wilson Tuckey is probably the only feasible option. It is, perhaps, surprising that, having elected its most conservative leader ever, the Liberal Party may have to turn to the Communist Party of China for policy guidance. But politics makes strange bedfellows.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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