The Greens, the climate and the politics of compromise
The Greens, the climate and the politics of compromise)

Arguably the biggest moment in the Greens' parliamentary history is now upon us. The party’s left-wing climate rhetoric will be put to the test as it decides whether to block Labor’s safeguard mechanism legislation—a barely updated policy carry-over from the previous Coalition government that’s more about greenwashing Australia’s fossil fuel economy than reducing emissions.

Labor needs support from the Greens to get the legislation through the Senate because the Coalition has refused to back it, something that has caused considerable dismay among Australian business leaders.

Labor is the main climate criminal here. It’s the one pushing a policy that is, in effect, a gift to the fossil fuel industry—one which will ensure Australia remains among the world’s biggest contributors to global warming for decades to come.

The Greens are a bit part player in this drama. The party’s role, however, has been massively elevated by the coincidence of two factors. First, that winning serious action on climate change is perhaps its single most important reason for existing. Second, that its success in the 2022 federal election has, by giving it the balance of power in the Senate, put it in its strongest position yet to do so.

How is the party handling the situation? When you’re in as strong a bargaining position as the Greens it would be best, you’d think, not to consistently emphasise how open you are to compromise. Yet that is exactly what Greens leader Adam Bandt has been doing.

Bandt has offered to back the legislation in full if there is a ban on new fossil fuel extraction. To the extent that there’s an identifiable “red line” for the Greens in negotiations with Labor, this is it. Even on this, however, Bandt appears shaky. When pressed by ABC Insiders’ David Speers, he refused to commit to blocking the bill should Labor refuse to accept a ban. Instead, he emphasised that the Greens are in the business of compromising, and a range of alternative proposals are “worth having a look at”.

In the same interview Bandt talked up his party’s record of compromise on other pro-fossil fuel legislation since holding the balance of power. The Greens had “concerns” about the energy price cap bill but passed it anyway, despite the inclusion of hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for coal-fired power plant owners. The party also passed Labor’s climate bill—legislating a new emissions reduction target of 43 percent by 2030—despite recognising, in Bandt’s words, that it meant “the end of the Great Barrier Reef”.

Beyond this push for a ban on new fossil fuel projects, the Greens appear prepared to accept Labor’s safeguard mechanism without significant further amendment. This is despite the mechanism allowing the 215 biggest polluters (the vast majority being fossil fuel companies) to increase their emissions providing they “offset” these sufficiently by buying up some of the unlimited quantity of carbon credits the scheme allows for.

Worse, the Greens' flagged compromise includes part of the mechanism that financially incentivises increasing emissions. The mechanism assesses emission intensity rather than baseline emissions. So big polluters could double their emissions, and even be financially rewarded for it so long as they do it more efficiently.

Ketan Joshi explains it well in Renew Economy. “Let’s say you’re a coal mining company”, he writes. “You double your production of coal from one year to the next. Normally, your emissions from doing that would also double, but you find some efficiencies and you reduce the intensity of your emissions a few percent. That would meet the demands of the Safeguard Mechanism, but your actual, total emissions would still increase by just under half.”

This company could then be “granted a special kind of in-policy carbon credit, called a ‘Safeguard Mechanism Credit’, which can be sold to other companies that find themselves above their baseline”.

The standoff over the safeguard mechanism is set to escalate in the lead up to the Senate sitting later this month. The Greens’ concessionary, even defensive, tone so far has been taken by Labor and the big polluters as an invitation to press home their advantage. Instead of the focus being on the safeguard mechanism’s utter inadequacy as a means to drive down emissions, Labor has been able to claim it’s the Greens that are holding back “progress” by threatening to block it.

At least five Labor ministers have already taken digs at them, with Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek arguing the party is yet again aligned with the Coalition to “vote against action on climate change”.

The accusation refers to a similar dispute in 2009, when the Greens twice blocked the Rudd Labor government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) in the Senate. At the time, Liz Walsh wrote in Socialist Alternative magazine that under the CPRS “it would be possible to outsource the entirety of [a company’s] emissions reductions by buying carbon credits on the market”, meanwhile big polluters would receive billions of dollars in handouts.

The Greens were right to block the CPRS in 2009, and they should do the same with the safeguard mechanism today. This isn’t, as Labor claims, a matter of “making the perfect the enemy of the good”. The CPRS wasn’t “good” climate policy. It was a policy that (like similar schemes around the world) would have achieved little in the way of emissions reductions—meanwhile lending a green veneer to the “business as usual” of the big polluters.

The safeguard mechanism is the same. It’s not good policy. It’s not “progress”. It’s a bad policy that if implemented will entrench the fossil fuel industry’s role at the heart of the Australian economy and make winning real action on climate change even harder to achieve.

It’s clear however that Labor’s smear campaign has the Greens on the back foot. The more Bandt talks about the party’s openness to compromise, the more any move in the other direction can be painted by Labor and the mainstream media as unreasonable intransigence. They are backing themselves into a corner.

There is an alternative way forward: protest. An origin story of the Greens demonstrates the power of activism. In the early 1980s the Tasmanian Greens’ predecessors led a grassroots campaign to stop the damming of the Franklin River. They organised mass protests in Hobart and a four month blockade of the dam site, with 2,500 activists participating and 1,400 being arrested. The campaign won.

There is no evidence to suggest a large campaign against new fossil fuel extraction and for genuine and rapid emissions reductions can’t be built under Labor. Opinion polling conducted by the Australia Institute in 2022 found 57 percent of Australians oppose new fossil fuel projects, and Australia’s largest environmental NGOs have been critical of Labor’s bill. The Greens could, conceivably, use their power in the Senate to provoke a political crisis for the government that would be conducive to building a mass movement on the streets. Unfortunately, the Greens have shown little inclination to do this nor to use their considerable resources and national platform to mobilise people.

The party’s reluctance even to make an attempt at something like that shows how far it has shifted from its radical origins in pursuit of acceptance within the political mainstream. The Greens have been able to win increased influence inside parliament in part by sacrificing the party’s commitment to building movements for change outside it. But if that increased influence amounts to almost nothing when it comes to something as central to Greens’ policy as climate action we might justifiably ask: what was the point?

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