‘For your children’: former top Australian public servants call for carbon price | Energy


Former senior public servants have called for the re-introduction of a carbon price, saying it would be the least economically damaging way to cut greenhouse gas emissions and could deliver the technological solutions the Morrison government says are needed.

In interviews on ABC TV’s Four Corners on Monday, several ex-top advisors expressed frustration and in some cases anger about the country’s failure to introduce durable policies to address climate change.

Ken Henry, the Treasury secretary between 2001 and 2011, said the question the government should be asking itself on climate was how to put a cap, or limit, on national emissions at least cost to the country.

“The answer to that question – and everybody will tell this – is an emissions trading scheme,” he said.

Martin Parkinson, a former secretary of Treasury and the now defunct climate change department, said it was incorrect to categorise carbon pricing as being “about taxing people”.

“The carbon price is actually about creating the right sort of incentives to develop the technology and then use it,” he said.

On national climate policy, Parkinson said: “What climate policy? I mean it’s basically … it’s a mess. It’s incoherent and has been for a decade.”

Peter Shergold, the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the final years of the Howard government, was asked what he would say to the prime minister, Scott Morrison, if he held that position now.

He said he would tell him: “My sense, prime minister, is that there is a mood to follow such leadership if it exists. Tell it honestly, and tell it truthfully, and don’t try and pretend there are not going to be costs imposed on industry and costs imposed on individuals, but it is worth that for the sake of your children and your grandchildren.”

The former bureaucrats made the comments while reflecting on the bipartisan support for carbon pricing between 2007 and 2009. Their shared position is consistent with advice given to governments since before that period.

The Morrison government has rejected calls for fossil fuel industries to have to pay for their emissions. Its central climate policy, the $2.5bn emissions reduction fund, uses taxpayer money to pay some businesses and landowners to limit carbon pollution, often by restoring and protecting native habitat.

Angus Taylor, the energy and emissions reduction minister, told Four Corners the answer to reducing emissions was to use incentives and focus on “technology, not taxes”. The government has promised a “technology investment roadmap” this year.

“Ultimately, reductions in emissions will happen when technologies that work, that are at parity with their higher-emitting alternatives, where rational people choose them because they’re good choices,” Taylor said.

“That’s how we’ll bring down emissions globally, and Australia is absolutely committed not just to using those technologies within Australia, but playing a role in areas like hydrogen, integration of household solar, land management, to help other countries to reduce their emissions in that longer term timeframe as well.”

Henry said the past decade of climate politics had left him in no doubt that “we have failed”.

“I look back on it now and I still feel gutted,” he said. “I feel angry. I know that’s not a good thing, and I probably should get therapy, but I’ve asked myself this question many, many times: why do I still feel angry about it? And the reason I feel angry about it is that I feel angry about what Australia has lost.”

There is a growing push internationally for governments and business to back a green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 120 countries and Australia’s six states have set a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Morrison government has not set this target, and has emphasised that gas, a fossil fuel, will be central to its economic recovery plans. It has also promised a long-term emissions strategy this year.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was commissioned at the 2015 Paris climate summit to report on what would be involved in limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. It found it was likely it could be achieved by cutting global emissions 45% between 2010 and 2030 and reaching net zero by about 2050.

Until this year, Australia’s emissions had largely flatlined since 2014, when the Coalition repealed the emissions trading scheme introduced by Labor with the support of the Greens and independents. Though often mis-described as a carbon tax, it was designed to become a trading scheme after three initial years of a fixed carbon price imposed on emitting businesses.

Both Australian and global emissions have fallen this year due to the economic shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, but analysts say they are expected to rebound unless recovery plans incorporate policies to address climate change.



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