Clive Palmer and Al Gore: What does it mean for climate policy?

Clive Palmer and Al Gore: What does it mean for climate policy?

Kingmaker Clive Palmer has just saved the furniture on climate policy, in a bizarre press conference with international enviro-crusader Al Gore.

Palmer stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Gore in Parliament House as he confirmed that yes, his Palmer United Party party will vote to repeal the carbon tax. That means the carbon tax is gone, and there will be no other form of carbon price to replace it.

But Gore has had an effect. Palmer has gone partially green — and it’s a very inconvenient truth for Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who will struggle to get any climate-related policy through the Senate without Palmer’s senators.

It was one of the strangest press conferences in recent parliamentary history, as journalists struggled to understand what on earth Gore was doing there and follow Palmer’s change of policy. Sample quote from Palmer, on why all countries need to act on climate change: “Air moves around the world.”

A slightly breathless Palmer announced his Senators would not vote down the Renewable Energy Target (RET), a crucial part of Australia’s climate architecture. The RET obliges electricity providers to buy a certain proportion from renewable sources (we’re talking about wind here — solar power is in the scheme, but makes a tiny fraction).

Now, there is no legislation to scrap the RET, and it’s not even Abbott government policy. But Abbott has been moving towards gutting or scrapping the scheme. Palmer has cut that off at the pass. Yes, there might be some scope to wind back the RET (20% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020). But the RET will survive. That is major news.

Palmer also announced his Senators will keep the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. That is also very big news. The CEFC is the government’s green bank — it has $10 billion to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency. It’s new, and its investments seem to be working fairly well.

The Abbott government wanted to scrap the CEFC and until today, that looked like a pretty sure bet. Now the CEFC is saved. Abbott will be fuming.

Tonight’s press conference was confusing, but it sounded like Palmer said his senators would also vote to retain the Climate Change Authority. This is a government body which gives top-level advice (especially economic advice) on addressing climate change. The Abbott government wants to scrap the CCA, and until tonight it looked dead (half the staff have already left). A last-minute reprieve?

So what Palmer has done is reel back some of Abbott’s plans to dismantle Australia’s climate policy.

But did he just herald the start of an ETS? No, and here’s why.

Palmer said he’d attach an amendment to the CCA bill stipulating that Australia would have an ETS with a zero carbon price, and that when Australia’s main trading partners established a similar ETS, Australia’s ETS would crank into action (i.e. the carbon price would rise). He named those partners: China, the United States, the European Union, Japan and Korea.

The EU and Korea have a carbon price. The US has no national carbon price and is not moving towards one (some states do have one). Instead, Obama wants to directly regulate emissions from coal-fired power stations. China does have various carbon prices in some regions and is moving towards linking them up with a national scheme. But this is taking time; it is some years away. Japan is not doing much on climate change and is not moving towards a carbon price.

Another issue is how would this bill get through the Coalition-dominated lower house? If the Coalition gives up on scrapping the CCA, the bill will die off and the ETS would not be established.

So in all, Palmer’s ETS sounds like a phantom one — his conditions would not be met for quite some time. They have certainly not been met now. So the carbon tax goes, and the ETS does not replace it.

And if you listen closely, what Palmer says on an ETS — Australia will have one when our major trading partners have one — is actually what the Coalition says. It’s just that Abbott says it pretty quietly and not very often.

It could be argued that Palmer’s phantom ETS is nothing but a smokescreen to allow the PUP to get on with its election promise to vote to get rid of the carbon tax.

But, in moving a small step back towards carbon pricing, the announcement does have some value. And it leaves the Coalition more isolated in being hostile to pricing carbon. From now on, the ALP, the Greens and the PUP will all say they believe in an ETS.

And in the other announcements tonight — the RET, the CEFC, the CCA — Clive has greened up quite considerably. That’s why the genial Gore, who is in Australia to train people to communicate on climate change, stood next to him.

It will be interesting to see what Abbott does now. If Palmer stands his ground on these bills — and if his Senators toe the line (which might be a live question) — does the Coalition government go to a double dissolution election? Given the carbon tax repeal, Abbott’s sacred cow, will go ahead, the answer is perhaps not.

This article first appeared on Crikey.

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