Polls suggest voters want action, but the climate crisis – what it is doing to our world and what it demands in response – has not been front and centre in the election campaign. A search through the major party leaders’ public appearances over the past week reveals little-to-no discussion of climate science, how the country should adapt to deal with worsening extreme events or the news that 91% of reefs surveyed on the Great Barrier Reef recently bleached.
But climate change policy, and its impact on consumers, still rears its head. With nine days to go, here are some of the claims being made by Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese in press conferences, interviews and debates, and how they stack up.
Morrison: “The teal independents are putting forward policies that the government doesn’t support. I mean, we don’t support a 60% reduction in emissions. That would be catastrophic for our economy.”
Reality: Morrison presumably doesn’t mean what he says here.
The Coalition’s policy remains to reach net zero emissions by 2050 – though that is a point of internal contention. It suggests Morrison thinks the country can make a 60% cut and avoid economic catastrophe at some point between 2030 and 2050.
When? He hasn’t said. Might be a good question for someone to ask. The government’s net zero plan does not actually map a path to net zero. It suggests new cheap clean technology will arrive after 2030 and business and consumers will adopt it.
Several analyses have found much of the technology needed already exists and that an emissions cut of more than 60% – in the ballpark of what Australia could do to help limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial times – could be reached by 2030 without wrecking the economy. Corporate Australia mostly hasn’t gone as far as 60%, but key players support a 50% cut by 2030 as good for the economy and have suggested how it could be reached.
Morrison: “We’re already 20% down on our 2005 [emissions] levels.”
Reality: True, according to official government data – but the statement is misleading. Nearly all the cut happened when Labor was in power between 2007 and 2013, and most of that was due to state policies that slowed the country’s extraordinary pace of forest destruction for agriculture, particularly in Queensland. Government climate data suggests Australia is still clearing native forests, just at a slower pace (though there is some evidence that emissions from the land may be higher than reported).
Fossil fuel emissions – the main game – were rising before the Covid-19 lockdowns hit due to increases from transport, mining and major industry. Government projections suggest those sectors will do little to reduce their impact before 2030 under current policies.
Morrison: “We are investing $22bn to take us to meeting our net zero [target] by 2050.”
Reality: More than half the $22bn investment Morrison touts is just topped-up funding for existing government agencies until 2030.
Most of that is dedicated to the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, sometimes called the green bank, which the government wants to expand to invest in gas-fired power. The $22bn includes additional spending outside the agencies on gas, “clean” hydrogen – including hydrogen made with fossil fuels as well as renewable energy – and attempts to develop carbon capture and storage to limit emissions from fossil fuels.
The budget papers showed the Morrison government expects its annual spending on climate change will fall by 35%, from $2bn to $1.3bn, over the next four years.
Morrison: Electricity prices have come down by more than 10% “and there are many reasons for us being able to achieve that”.
Reality: Not exactly a climate claim, but it goes to the continuing weaponisation of climate policy – basically, the idea that more action would be terrible for power prices that are otherwise coming down.
The reality is that while it is true that power bills have come down over the past couple of years, Morrison’s repeated claim about what his government has been “able to achieve” is a selective take.
As the University of Melbourne’s Dylan McConnell has shown, the national retail electricity price increased by nearly 20% under the Coalition in 2017-18, largely due to the skyrocketing cost of gas power and the closure of the Hazelwood coal-fired plant in Victoria.
It then started to come down – gradually at first, and more significantly after 2019. They are now roughly back to where they were in 2016. In part, this was due to the influx of cheap solar and wind energy into the grid – a shift the Coalition has taken steps to slow.
But the key point about Morrison’s power bills claim is that it ignores what is happening right now. Wholesale prices – which make up roughly a third of the bill – have more than doubled due to outages at old, failing coal plants and the impact of Russia invading Ukraine. This is starting to flow through to bills.
Power prices are going up whoever wins the election. Tony Wood, from the Grattan Institute, has suggested the default offer for consumers might increase by 5-10%. Will the Morrison government also take responsibility for that?
Morrison: Labor’s policy to create a $20bn “rewiring the nation” corporation to invest in new transmission – poles and wires – to connect renewable energy more rapidly will put up electricity prices by an estimated $560 a year by 2030.
Reality: We have already written about this. The claim was initially made by Angus Taylor, the energy and emissions reduction minister: nothing has been released to back it up and no one outside government backs it. Morrison continues to roll it out at press conferences.
Labor says modelling by the consultants RepuTex suggests this would lead to power bills coming down by $275 by 2025 and $378 by 2030.
Morrison has quoted several organisations – Frontier Economics, the Victorian Energy Policy Centre and the Grattan Institute – as agreeing that Labor’s sums are implausible. This is broadly true, with some caveats: these organisations each have their own position, but they all either doubt or outright dismiss the suggestion that Labor’s policy will cut prices to this extent suggested.
None of them endorse the Coalition’s position either. All believe significant additional investment – whether in transmission, batteries, other “firming” power or all of the above – will be needed whoever is in government.
Albanese: Compared to a carbon pricing scheme, which is backed by most economists, Labor has “got a better system”.
Reality: Few, if any, experts agree.
Labor’s main climate policies are a $20bn fund to quickly build electricity transmission links, a commitment to use the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” to gradually reduce industrial emissions and lower taxes on electric cars. It is a deliberately modest and piecemeal approach building on what’s already in place.
Overwhelming, the expert view is a well-designed carbon price should be part of the answer. Of course, Labor once agreed: it introduced a scheme with the Greens and independents and then got badly burned at the 2013 election after imploding internally.
There is no political appetite to return to a fight over a misnamed “carbon tax”, but the current policy is a reflection of what the ALP believes is electorally achievable, not best practice.
Albanese: Labor’s policy will “end the climate wars” because it is supported by the Australian Industry Group, the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers Federation, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the ACTU.
Reality: It’s true – and still extraordinary, given the history – that those groups are now comfortable with Labor’s policies. Labor based its plan for the safeguard mechanism on a business council recommendation.
But many of the listed groups actually want whoever is in government after 21 May to go faster than the major parties propose (up to a 50% cut by 2030, versus Labor’s 43% and the Coalition’s 26-28%).
As for ending the climate wars if Labor was elected … it’s not impossible. But given the history, and the ongoing attacks on climate action from the Coalition and News Corp papers, the best that can be said is: good luck with that.
Albanese: “Climate change is an opportunity not just a challenge right now.”
Reality: This one is true.