Labor’s hot air on climate

24 July 2022
Jamiel Deeb

What does Albanese mean by his pledge to “end the climate wars”? One indication came from the Business Council of Australia’s CEO Jennifer Westacott, who recently applauded Labor’s climate commitments on the basis that they “give businesses the certainty they need to get on with the work they’re already doing and do even more”. Perhaps Westacott had in mind the 72 new coal projects and 44 new gas and oil projects under development. If they all go into production, Australia’s exported share of global emissions will rise from 5 percent to 10.3 percent. Currently Australia is the third highest export emitter in the world. Doubling production would make it the highest, and greatly enrich fossil fuel companies.

Another indication of what Albanese may mean came from opposition leader Peter Dutton, who, in his first speech as opposition leader, declared that corporate Australia is now “more in step” with Labor. Albanese has achieved something the Liberals failed to: convincing the public a transition is on its way without doing anything to curtail the profits flowing from fossil fuels. With the Australian Council of Business supporting Labor’s target, and a host of fossil fuel companies committing to net zero by 2050, Labor can genuinely say that big businesses are on board with their climate agenda.

Furthermore, Labor’s attempts to be seen to be committed to climate action have been aided by the liberal press’s coverage, which has scarcely been critical of the government’s 43 percent emission reduction target, despite a 2021 Climate Council report finding Australia needed a 75 percent emissions cut by 2030 to do its fair share to limit global warming below 2 degrees.

While Labor doesn’t have to legislate its 43 percent climate target, it nevertheless intends to. The bill needs the support of the Greens, which hold the balance of power in the Senate. While it is not clear whether the Greens will block the legislation in its current form, Greens leader Adam Bandt has been vocal about the need to include a ban on future coal and gas developments. Labor has made it clear it won’t support such a ban, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek recently declaring that “mining will continue to be an important part of Australia’s prosperity”.

It’s easy to see why big business backs Labor’s climate policy. The party will oversee what is likely to be Australia’s largest fossil fuel boom, without enforcement of any meaningful emission reductions. Western Australia’s Scarborough project, recently approved by Labor, will on its own emit around 12 percent of the state’s 2005 emissions by the late 2020s, according to Climate Analytics’ estimate. Labor claims its safeguard mechanism will keep polluters in check, but the mechanism will be voluntary and won’t require emissions cuts by polluters until 2025, as per a recommendation by the Business Council of Australia to ensure the export industry remains competitive.

Gas companies recognise that posing as a green alternative will help them expand their domestic operations. Resource Minister Madeleine King told the Age she believes gas could replace retiring coal-fired power stations as a transition fuel. Never mind that this would make it near to impossible to achieve significant domestic emission reductions before the end of the decade.

This is being justified by the government on the basis of a supposed energy shortage. But the government could simply require a larger share of energy production be put aside for domestic use—around 90 percent of black coal and 74 percent of natural gas production is exported, according to government figures for 2019-2020. But the government doesn’t want to, as it would eat into the industry’s profits. Instead, Labor’s solution to this fictitious energy shortage is new gas projects. For example, King has pressured Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews into lifting a moratorium on fracking by suggesting the state may not always .be able to receive interstate gas when or if it needs it.

All ranks of the Labor Party are behind this campaign to expand Australia’s gas production. Premier of Western Australia Mark McGowan argues “gas exports can supplant coal and that actually reduces carbon emissions in countries like Japan and China and India”. This is a lie regularly peddled by Labor and gas companies. In 2019, the owner of the Western Australian Scarborough gas project, Woodside, and its partner BHP Petroleum paid CSIRO $140 million to confirm their claims that the Scarborough gas field would reduce emissions in countries receiving the gas. Unsurprisingly, CSIRO’s research found the opposite to be true. The report concluded that an expansion of gas extraction would risk increasing gas and coal emissions, delaying an energy transition in Asia.

A responsible climate policy cannot involve new fossil fuel projects, and must rapidly decommission existing ones. A report by the Climate Council, Unburnable Carbon, found that to limit warming to 2 degrees requires that no new extraction projects be built and that most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels be left untouched. But the expansion of fossil fuels is nevertheless happening across Australia, backed by the Labor premiers. In Western Australia, Mark McGowan supports the most high-profile of the new projects—the development of the Scarborough gas field. In Queensland, the notorious Adani Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin is now up and running. The basin contains 150 gigatonnes worth of carbon dioxide emissions—40 gigatonnes more than the global carbon budget left to take us to a 1.5 hotter degree world, according to estimates by the Climate Council. It was the then Labor Queensland Premier Anna Bligh who visited India to court Adani into mining coal back in 2010, and current Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk who has seen it through. Political and economic conditions are currently so favourable to fossil fuel production that the CEO of Adani Australia, Lucas Dow, told the Australian Financial Review that the company is considering expanding the mine’s capacity.

Labor’s enthusiasm for fossil fuels stands in stark contrast to its efforts to portray itself as the champions of Indigenous rights. Its support for a referendum on creating an Indigenous voice to parliament has been backed by the Business Council of Australia and fossil fuel companies BHP and Rio Tinto—a clear indication it will do nothing to alter the functioning of Australian capitalism, which depends on trampling Indigenous rights every day to keep the profits rolling in.

No-one in parliament will be listening to the voices of the traditional custodians of the Murujuga/Burrup Peninsula, where pollution from the Scarborough project’s processing plant risks dissolving a UNESCO heritage site containing a 50,000-year-old natural rock art gallery of more than 1 million rock carvings. Nor those of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, who continue to resist Adani’s mine, situated on their land. “The state government extinguished our native title on the unallocated state land and handed it to Adani”, explains an adviser of the Wangan and Jagalingou council. More recently, major gas corporation Santos has been in court trying to bypass native title rights to get its Narrabri gas project approved, despite the Gomeroi traditional owners voting overwhelmingly against it and opposition even coming from the New South Wales Liberal government. In all three cases, Labor is backing the projects.

In Victoria, the Andrews government lifted a ban on onshore exploration and development of conventional gas extraction during Melbourne’s 2020 winter lockdown, a time when the government anticipated minimal opposition. Soon after this decision, Australian oil and gas company Beach Energy began expanding both onshore and offshore production along the Otway national park coastline.

The Scarborough, Adani and Beach Energy projects suggest that even conservation areas are not safe under Labor. More than 400 kilometres of pipeline will be built through a host of protected marine parks to the Burrup Peninsula to pump Scarborough gas onshore. In Victoria, Beach Energy is drilling for gas 450 metres outside of the Port Campbell National Park. The bore extends 1.3 kilometres into the national park and only five kilometres from the famous Twelve Apostles, according to the Guardian. The magnificent Otways coastline will now have gas drilling rigs close to the shore.

In Queensland, the Adani project is the latest example of Labor’s history of trashing Australia’s largest conservation reserve, the Great Barrier Reef. In his book Adani and the War Over Coal, Quentin Beresford explains that during the Rudd Labor government, the reef was turned into a “coal super highway” with an expansion of the Gladstone and Hay Point coal ports unlocking a coal boom. The environmental harm continued during the Gillard Labor government, as mass death of marine life in the reef and the collapse of the local fishing industry was attributed to dredging from Gladstone port.

Yet coal mining projects continued to be approved. By 2012, two years after Queensland Labor Premier Bligh met with Adani, the federal environmental minister, Tony Burke, approved the expansion of the Abbot Point port (which services the Adani mine) despite the Marine Park Authority in 2011 identifying that port development would threaten local marine species. Since the publication of Beresford’s book, Labor’s port upgrade has significantly aided the viability of the Adani project, promising further harm to the reef.

Going into the federal election, Labor promised a $1.2 billion investment in the reef’s preservation. But no amount of money can reverse the damage being caused by continued dredging, shipping and periodic mass bleaching. Furthermore, a 2018 report by the International Panel for Climate Change found that warming of 2 degrees would push the reef into extinction, along with 99 percent of reefs internationally. Labor’s current climate policy makes containing warming to less than 2 degrees extremely unlikely, at least based on Australia’s contribution.

Albanese’s Powering Australia Plan is supposed to concretise the party’s commitment to climate action. But the plan involves little more than an upgrade to the electricity grid and a sprinkling of funds for green research and industry. The keynote $20 billion joint public-private venture to upgrade the ageing electricity grid through the “Rewire the Nation” plan is well overdue: the existing grid does not have the flexibility required for base-load renewable power.

Not only will the national grid remain privatised and subject to the whims of profiteering companies, but the upgrade is also insufficient for a genuine transition to renewable energy. Labor plans a 26 gigawatt increase in energy capacity by 2030. Based on former chief scientist of Australia Alan Finkel’s estimates, Australia will need to expand the national grid from 53.5 to 460 gigawatt capacity to transition all energy use to renewables. That is 15.6 times more than what Labor is proposing.

Furthermore, to reach the Climate Council’s 2030 goal, renewable energy production would need to expand by almost a factor of 20, which according to Finkel’s estimates would be enough to reduce the country’s emissions by 82 percent. Yet not a cent has been put aside in the federal budget for solar and wind farms. Indeed, the total value of the measures in the Powering Australia Plan is less than half of what federal, state and territories have committed to in fossil fuel subsidies between now and 2030, close to $55.3 billion.

Labor might be hoping for a consumer-led transition, but the reality is that is simply not viable. Take solar energy, for example. More than 25 percent of households have solar panels, but they produce only 2.5 percent of Australia’s electricity needs. Labor will subsidise 85 solar banks and 400 community batteries to connect more people to home owners’ rooftop solar energy. But even if rooftop uptake doubled, it would still generate only a fraction of Australia’s energy needs.

Federal Labor’s climate inaction stems from its dedication to big business. Meaningful action would mean going to war with the fossil fuel sector and all polluting industries, something the party is not willing to do. Albanese’s version of the “end to the climate wars” has him dancing with the devil that has painted itself green.

If Labor’s plans today come to fruition, party leaders will knowingly drive miraculous and ancient ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef, alpine regions and countless more to extinction. They will turn fertile lands, such as the Murray-Darling Basin, into semi-arid deserts; heat densely populated regions until they are uninhabitable; and cause large numbers of people to be displaced. Labor’s actions today will punish future generations, who will inherit a hostile and unstable planet. Labor is waging an all-out war on our one and only planet. A more unforgiveable crime is difficult to imagine.

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