Less than two years ago, Scott Morrison won the so-called “climate change election”. His victory was due in no small part to the Coalition’s successful attacks on the ALP’s climate change policies, including Labor’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. In 2019, the Coalition labelled Labor’s targets as expensive, job-destroying, and “reckless”.
In 2020, Morrison said the aim of net zero was merely “a glib promise”.
Now, in 2021, as net zero has supposedly become some sort of “global norm”, the Prime Minister says he wants Australia to reach net zero emissions “as soon as possible”, and preferably by 2050.
Bill Shorten and Labor are entitled to feel a bit miffed. And voters in regional Australia who believed their interests were better represented by the Coalition instead of Bob Brown’s anti-Adani convoy might feel just a little misled.
The ALP’s policies often lose elections, but invariably win the policy contest.
Under the Paris Agreement, Australia pledged to make dramatically deeper cuts to its emissions on a per capita basis than the European Union, the United States and, of course, China. The Coalition gained no political benefit from signing the Paris Agreement.
In the same speech at which he committed the Coalition to net zero emissions, the PM pointed out Australia’s emissions are now nearly 17 per cent below 2005 levels, compared with a 9 per cent reduction across the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, and a 1 per cent reduction in New Zealand.
Such evidence gets almost no media coverage. Nor does the fact that, for example, a few years ago families in South Australia were paying for what was literally the most expensive electricity in the world.
Exactly what benefit for the Coalition, political or otherwise, Morrison thought would be gained by him expressing his support for net zero emissions by 2050 is a mystery.
Labor and the Greens are certainly not going to campaign any less vigorously against the Coalition, and indeed Labor can point out, quite truthfully, that the difference between its climate policies and those of its opponents is negligible.
And the Canberra press gallery, many of whose members are personally committed to their image of what saving the planet means, is not going to now stop pursuing the Coalition over the issue. Already activists and academics (often one and the same) are demanding Morrison must “walk the talk”.
The Prime Minister said that “getting to net zero, whether here or anywhere else, should be about technology, not taxes and high prices”, but this entirely misses the point. Technology, taxes, and prices are secondary issues to the agenda of net zero.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made it quite clear what the purpose of the target is: “To achieve net zero emissions by 2050, we need an urgent transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.”
One way of measuring the impact on employment of Australia adopting a net zero policy is by analysing the number of workers in jobs in the industries and sectors that will need to reduce their emissions to achieve the target.
On that basis, according to research from the Institute of Public Affairs, a policy of net zero by 2050 puts 653,000 jobs at risk, primarily in agriculture, heavy manufacturing, electricity supply, and coal mining.
Of course a net zero policy might led to job creation in other sectors, but the record shows that whatever new employment is created in the renewable energy sector is far outweighed by job losses in other sectors. Over the past 10 years, for every new job in renewable energy, five jobs in manufacturing were lost.
There’s a reason some Nationals MPs are up in arms about net zero. Of the 10 federal electorates with the highest share of jobs at risk from the policy, six are held by the Nationals and four by the Liberals.
To put that figure of 653,000 people whose jobs are at risk from net zero into some perspective, that’s about twice the number of Australians who became unemployed in the first half of last year because of the impact of COVID-19.
Just as no politician or public servant who made decisions to shut down business because of COVID-19 lost their job as a consequence of those decisions, so it is for those demanding net zero emissions by 2050.