Be honest and nuanced: how Labor can keep its green credentials and still support coal | Peter Lewis | Australia news

Having reached the self-evident conclusion that one can’t win government without the support of at least a handful of regional communities, Labor is now coming to terms with its use of the C-word.

With their opponents to their left and their right taking up the crude chant of “coal, coal, coal” – as shorthand for economic betrayal on the one side and environmental betrayal on the other – watching Labor field questions on climate is like watching a tightrope walker attempt to cross Niagara Falls.

For a party that was designing and implementing detailed economy-wide carbon reduction policies in government just a decade ago, their journey to the trenches of the coal culture war that passes as climate debate these days is like a descent into hell.

In some heartland communities coal has become Labor’s kryptonite: the lack of vocal support for the industry a sure sign of neglect and betrayal, “just transition” code for human redundancy, green jobs a fairytale.

When Labor talks of climate action, these communities hear that they are being asked to sacrifice their livelihoods for a greater good that doesn’t include them – a message the Nationals and those further to the right are only too happy to reinforce.

But for Labor’s progressive city base, the lack of a vocal rejection of coal is portrayed as a lack of genuine commitment to climate action. For them coal is more like a herpes sore: Labor’s got it, they are not going to get rid of it, they don’t want to talk about it, but they will be duty bound to ’fess up to their condition before they can expect anyone to kiss them. Ergh.

In this context, securing an alliance to win government becomes a challenging two-step. First, Labor must convince heartland communities that action on climate change does not render them collateral damage. Then they will need to convince progressives that maintaining the coal industry does not render them incapable of meaningful climate action.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has begun to confront the issue head on in recent weeks, bringing the party into line with global and state governments with a 2050 target for net zero carbon emissions while asserting an ongoing role for coal exports in the economy.

As this week’s Essential report shows, the first part of this formulation is not controversial, with the long-term zero target is accepted among the vast majority of voters. Indeed, Coalition support for net zero has shifted net 24 points in just a month:

To what extent would you support or oppose setting a zero-carbon pollution target for 2050 if it were adopted by the federal government? Federal voting intention (Lower House)

Despite the broad public sentiment, the Coalition can sniff division, seizing on these targets as a blunt instrument, with the “cost of action” mantra re-emerging amid threats of rural Armageddon.

But it’s not just Labor supporting the zero by 2050 mechanism. Independent Zali Steggall has introduced a private members bill to this effect. In the unlikely event that the bill ever sees the light of day, there will be a cohort of Coalition MPs who will be forced to make a call between backing in the global benchmark or staying on the side of denial. Fun times for them, to be avoided at all cost.

But given the 2050 target is endorsed by everyone from the NSW premier to Tory PM Boris Johnson, landing on the long-term target may be the easy part of Labor’s coal conundrum.

Coming up with a way of keeping faith with progressives, particularly younger people demanding urgent action that includes the rapid decarbonisation of the energy sector, will be the real challenge.

New Greens leader Adam Bandt’s response to Albanese’s weekend media where he accepted a long-term future for coal exports is instructive: “Scott Morrison loves coal, but it seems Anthony Albanese does too,” he tweeted. “If Labor thinks we’ll be mining and selling thermal coal in 2050, they’re not serious about climate change or ‘zero emissions’.”

But even in this attack, Bandt is using nuance, distinguishing “thermal coal” used to produce electricity with “metallurgical” or “coking” coal, which still is a necessary ingredient for producing steel.

Shining a light on this nuance may be the way through.

It starts with being open about what decarbonisation really means: a long-term transition in energy that will see coal-fired power replaced by renewable technologies at both a local and global level. Over time it may also see new technology, such as hydrogen, replacing coal in steel production, although that technology is still nascent.

For now, the transition means thinking through the next phase of government investment in energy, where the debate over new coal-fired power is critical and the points of difference between the government and opposition most stark.

What should give the opposition leader some succour in embracing the C-word is that voters are ready to accept this sort of nuance. When given the choice, nearly half support a staged phase out of coal-fired power plants, rather than a rapid shutdown or taxpayer-funded life support.

Which of the following statements regarding the future of coal is closest to your view? Federal voting intention (Lower House)

But the debate on coal can’t stop there. Labor needs to be upfront that coal exports are central to the Australian economy and prosperity, with steel critical to the development of our neighbours. In this context, differentiating types of coal and recognising the importance of this trade, when resources account for 60% of our export income, is crucial.

Finally, Labor can make the case to those who demand an immediate end to coal exports that this is outside the global frameworks that they champion, that the path to global abatement will come from domestic targets, not a unilateral closure of international trade. Playing a meaningful role in the evolution of the global framework, rather than sabotaging the process as the current government does, is the best way to ensure that exports taper off.

None of these debates are easy to mount, or popular for those who see the moral imperative to act in black and white terms. But engaging progressives by talking about coal as a resource to be managed and not as poison to be banned seems the only way through the morass.

Of course, by taking a middle track, Labor risks being wedged. When the political debate on climate action is reduced to a binary proposition on coal – for or against – the tightrope is impossible for Labor to walk. It’s not only politically fraught but nonsensical in practice.

But by confronting the complexity of coal, its importance to the economy, the difference between domestic and export use, Labor can bring the discussion back down to earth, and in doing so, offer its credentials to lead Australia through this complex transition.

After all, the 2050 net zero target will require transformation across many industries beyond energy, and what could be worse than a culture war every time? Trucks: for or against? Beef: for or against? And so on. It was a tantalising glimpse of climate wars 2.0 when agriculture minister David Littleproud posited that Labor’s net zero target meant “most of the national herd would likely have to go”.

The problem with so much of the climate debate is that it is defined by slogans rather than nuance. “Kill coal”, while an eventual consequence of energy transition, is not a theory of change.

Climate change is too big a challenge for slogans on either side of the debate. Finding a pathway to decarbonise the economy starts with changing government, and that will be even harder if Labor can’t use the C-word. Despite the sometimes deafening noise, our numbers suggest there are plenty of Australians open to a discussion about coal that’s not just black and white.

Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential, a progressive strategic communications and research company

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