June 16, 2024

Federal parliament is back for the next fortnight and I have a wishlist. Not for things that will happen – let’s not get ahead of ourselves – but for questions that could be addressed if the country is to treat the climate and extinction crises as seriously as our leaders claim they do.

There is no shortage of discussion about nuclear energy due to the Coalition’s much-hyped but yet-to-appear plan to overturn a national ban and bring it to Australia. The issue got plenty of attention after a CSIRO-led assessment that it would be far, far more expensive than wind and solar backed by energy storage and new transmission lines.

It also found that, even under the most generous set of assumptions, there would be no nuclear power here before 2040. These are, of course, important points in their own right. Given the scale and pace of change needed to avoid blackouts and set up the country for a rapidly changing future, and the lack of bipartisan support, they should logically be enough to kill off nuclear as a serious medium-term alternative.

But there are broader questions about the Coalition’s stance that go beyond logistics and cost and deserve attention. They are not the same, but there are also issues with the government’s rhetoric on the climate crisis and environment, and the gap between what it says and does.

Let’s start with the Coalition. As things stand, the opposition has no climate policy.

It does not back the legislated national emissions target for 2030 – a 43% cut compared with 2005 – and its support for net zero climate pollution by 2050 is purely rhetorical. It wants to make new fossil fuel developments easier, opposes policies to limit industrial emissions and boost electric vehicles, and promises to slow the rollout of large-scale renewable energy rollout.

Short of a remarkable policy about-face, a Dutton government would oversee an increase in national emissions. This would have substantial economic, social, environmental and diplomatic ramifications, and raises a host of questions. Some that have a low profile will be crucial. For example, why do the Liberal and National parties oppose the creation of the Net Zero Economy Authority, which is proposed to help coordinate the country’s transformation from a dirty to a clean economy and make sure workers and communities are not left behind?

Given the potential for social rupture, the authority – if properly implemented – may prove among the most important things the Albanese government does on climate. Ideally, it would have cross-parliament support.

An obvious question between now and the election is: what would the Coalition do, if anything, to help people in places such as Gladstone through what lies ahead? Lives and livelihoods will depend on getting this right.

On the global stage, Australia committed under the landmark Paris climate agreement that there would be no backsliding on national emissions targets. The nearly 200 countries that signed up to the deal agreed to boost their commitments over time. Pledges of what will be done by 2035 are due next year.

Nationals leader David Littleproud has intimated that the Coalition may go to the next election without a 2035 target, suggested – without evidence – that a nationwide economic transformation could somehow be left until close to 2050.

Is the Coalition preparing to break Australia’s commitment to the Paris agreement? If it does, it will be seen by the international community as Australia walking away from the global effort to address the climate crisis.

It seems like something we should have an answer to well in advance.

Labor has its own questions to answer on climate. Unlike the Coalition, it has policies – to underwrite an expansion of renewable energy and transmission links, encourage electric vehicle uptake and support the development of green industries.

But its position is undermined by its confused stance on the future of fossil fuels, particularly gas. Last week, the Western Australian Labor premier, Roger Cook, argued again that his state could help “save the planet” while increasing its own emissions from an expanded gas export industry.

As Guardian Australia has reported, this is a line used by the gas industry. The WA government has been asked if it has evidence to back it up, but not produced any. There has been no analysis released that looks at what expanding a highly polluting industry will mean for global emissions. There has been no consideration of what clean industry opportunities may be lost in the process, or what steps could be taken to ensure taxpayers aren’t left footing the bill for stranded assets.

A key question for Anthony Albanese and his ministers is: how will they meet their climate targets while WA’s carbon pollution – up 20% and counting since 2005 – continues to soar?

Put another way, will the current political calculation – that WA is captured by the gas industry, and Labor needs to placate this to hold on to government – come at the cost of an ambitious 2035 emissions reduction target before the next election?

A “future gas strategy” recently released by the resources minister, Madeleine King, suggests the government sees gas as Homer Simpson sees beer – both the cause of, and solution to, life’s problems. The strategy acknowledges emissions from gas need to be rapidly cut but argues new sources will be needed to meet demand “to 2050 and beyond”.

Logically, it suggests the government could take a more interventionist approach to minimise gas use to where it is absolutely needed – in some industrial processes, for example – while supporting the rapid expansion of clean alternatives wherever possible.

The question we should ask: what more, if anything, will the government do to push the country down this path? Or will it just leave it up to the industry to decide?

The natural environment is too often a footnote in Australian politics, and so it is here.

But this column should not finish without noting that it is nearly two years since the environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, spoke at the National Press Club about a “story of crisis and decline in Australia’s environment, and of a decade of government inaction and wilful ignorance” under the Coalition.

A five-yearly state of the environment report compiled by scientists found Australia’s natural heritage was in poor and deteriorating health. Hundreds of species were newly listed as threatened with extinction and vast amounts of forest and woodlands were being cleared without federal oversight.

Plibersek promised the national environment laws, which everyone agrees are broken, would be fixed, declaring: “Under Labor the environment is back on the priority list.”

But the new laws have been delayed, and delayed again.

The government will soon introduce legislation to create Environment Protection Australia – the first national EPA – and a second agency to compile environmental data. But it is no longer guaranteeing the promised sweeping law reform before the election – and there was no meaningful new funding for nature protection in the budget.

The state of the environment report quoted a World Economic Forum finding that environmental degradation was a threat to humanity that could “bring about societal collapses with long‑lasting and severe consequences”.

The question it leaves hanging remains one for both sides of politics, and maybe the country at large. What are we prepared to lose before we take this more seriously?

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