This week marks 10 years since the Greens voted with the Coalition in the senate to defeat legislation for a comprehensive economy-wide climate change policy, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).
They bear a heavy responsibility for the fact that Australia still does not have an effective policy to tackle climate change by reducing emissions. If the five Greens senators had voted with Labor, the CPRS would have passed the parliament.
A carbon price would have been embedded in the economy, reducing emissions in the most environmentally-effective and economically-efficient way, and driving the rollout of clean energy technologies.
Australia's greenhouse gas emissions would be 81 million tonnes lower in 2020 than currently predicted. And over the past 10 years, an additional 218 million tonnes of emissions would have been prevented from entering the atmosphere.
The Greens' rationale for voting against the CPRS was that its emissions reduction targets were inadequate and its transitional assistance for emissions-intensive industries was too generous. Yet two years later, they voted in favour of Labor's Clean Energy Future package, which had the same 2020 emissions targets as the CPRS and vastly more generous assistance for emissions-intensive industries such as coal-fired power generators, the steel industry and underground coal mining.
While the Clean Energy Future package was in place there were substantial declines in Australia's emissions and strong growth in investment in clean energy while the economy continued to grow healthily.
The policy was working, but the political damage had been done. Tony Abbott won the 2013 election on a carbon scare campaign, repealed the Clean Energy package, and emissions resumed their upward trajectory.
There is no denying that Labor made mistakes. We should have gone to a double dissolution election in 2010. Much of the political momentum Mr Abbott gained on carbon pricing had its origins in that 2009 Senate vote on the CPRS.
This year Labor went to the election with policies proposing ambitious reduction targets based on scientific advice. Climate and energy policy were not everything in our election loss. But the way the issue was framed by our opponents certainly did cost us electoral support in parts of the country.
The government lied about our policy. They misled and scared coal mining communities with the claim that Labor was targeting them in the Just Transition element of our policy. In fact, our Just Transition approach would not have had a negative impact on any coal mine.
All those involved in the political failure of the last decade need to engage in honest reflection. It's not comfortable. But if a way out of the impasse cannot be found, future generations will not thank us. This impasse has been created not only by the Coalition, climate deniers, right-wing ideologues and vested interests. Progressive forces must accept some of the responsibility.
The Greens seek to increase electoral support from progressive voters by attacking Labor on climate change. And elements of the environmental movement also bear a share of responsibility, preferring to pressure Labor to commit to closing down coal mining rather than focusing on the Coalition's inadequate policies.
The business community is now understandably frustrated with the political blockage on climate policy. Yet many business leaders helped steer Australia down this political cul-de-sac. The business scare campaigns focused on the cost of reducing emissions. But by blocking sensible policies and prolonging confidence-destroying uncertainty, these scare campaigns have only served to increase costs.
Perhaps most importantly there are also the lost opportunities for Australia to develop clean energy and low emissions technologies and businesses.
The challenge of addressing climate change is too often portrayed as a burden when it can be a substantial driver of investment, new businesses, economic modernisation and the creation of well-paying, skilled jobs. At the last election, Labor's policies to deliver 50 per cent renewable energy and build a hydrogen industry would have created 87,000 direct jobs.
The shift to renewables also offers Australia the opportunity to revitalise manufacturing. And we are also well positioned to reap the benefits of mining and processing key inputs for renewables.
These are the kind of the opportunities Australia can realise. Now all we need is to find a path out of the political impasse.
This opinion piece was first published in NEWCASTLE HERALD on Tuesday, 3 December 2019