Hewson's View: Climate action at last?

Way of the future: A wind farm near Hamilton, Victoria. Photo: John Carnemolla, Shutterstock.
Way of the future: A wind farm near Hamilton, Victoria. Photo: John Carnemolla, Shutterstock.

It is a commentary on the sad state of politics in this country, with the major parties obsessed with themselves, and in scoring points against each other, that an attempt to move on from the "Climate Wars" to real action on climate is now being led by the new independent member of Parliament, Zali Steggall, the Member for Warringah, by way of her proposed Climate Change Bill. Such a bill has been important in the UK, France, Germany, and New Zealand

The Bill proposes a national framework for mitigation and adaptation, the key elements of which are a legislated national commitment to net zero emissions by 2050; the establishment of an independent Climate Change Commission (CCC) to provide advice to government and crucial accountability; economy-wide emissions budgets and national plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; a national climate risk assessment; and transparent monitoring of progress against the plans.

The CCC is of fundamental importance in setting "pathways" for actions by all sectors in the transition to a low carbon society. Business and the broader community want certainty about the nature of the transitions to be made in power, transport, agriculture, buildings, industrial processes, and so on, and of the various roles to be played, and support required.

For example, it is really quite incredible that two major power plants - Northern in South Australia, and Hazelwood in Victoria, have been closed in recent years with absolutely no transition strategies in place, leaving workers, ancillary businesses, and the broader regional communities in the lurch.

It is also very difficult to understand why the government set out to create anxiety, even fear, at the last election about what is an inevitable transition to electric vehicles - recall you were warned, "Bill Shorten will steal your ute, and your weekend"!

In these terms we stand in very sharp contrast to the Conservative Boris Johnson who has committed to ban all petrol and diesel driven vehicles in the UK by 2035. We also burn the second dirtiest fuel among OECD countries, and persist without a national fuel security strategy, and a tax system that discourages change.

It is also very difficult to understand why we haven't prepared better in our increasingly hot and dry continent where climate change will drive more bushfires and droughts with increasing frequency and intensity.

For example, why haven't we introduced a national scheme for regenerative agriculture, to make our soils much more drought resistant, whereby with simple changes to farming practices we can improve the carbon content of the soils, with considerable financial benefit to farmers, and ultimately with the prospect of net negative emissions from the sector?

It is essential that there is bipartisan support, but the opposition is yet to declare.

The Bill mandates that the government consider the advice and recommendations of the CCC in setting climate policy - if the advice is rejected, the government will have to report in detail as to why. The CCC will also have the power to review and report on government policy with no referral by the Minister. As such, it will have more power than the current Climate Change Authority and should work to reduce political influence.

It is also proposed that, on CCC advice, there be five-yearly emissions budgets, necessitating the government to provide, in consultation with business and the community, five-yearly emissions reduction plans, across all relevant sectors, one year in advance to allow for parliamentary debate and scrutiny.

The Bill also provides for the CCC to announce regular risk assessments to which government will need to respond, especially important given our susceptibility to climate impacts, and to regularly monitor and report on progress.

For this Bill to actually be accepted for parliamentary debate/vote the government needs to list it on the agenda. Most Private Members Bills don't get listed. Hence Zali has launched a social media campaign to build essential stakeholder/community support. The Business Council and important individuals such as Cannon-Brookes have already supported.

It is essential that there is bipartisan support, but the opposition is yet to declare.

The essence is to ensure a Conscience Vote to get all members to declare their position, to thereby be accountable to their constituents and children and grandchildren.

For Morrison the opportunity to support this Bill is a "Get Out of Jail Free" card on climate, given his appalling handling of the issue, the bush fires and the drought.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.