THE RELEASE of the prime ministerial task group’s report on emissions trading represents an historic day in Australia’s economic history, though a reluctance to commit to specific targets may delay investment for key clients.
This was the view of Freehills’ lawyer Jason Johnston on Monday, who also applauded the move to bipartisan support for a national and broad-based carbon emissions control system, through emissions trading.
“There is a risk that, given this announcement and therefore the certainty that there will be a target and caps but the uncertainty about what those are, there could well be an effect of deferring in major investment, particularly an investment where you are looking at an operational life of 40 to 50 years … like base load generator capacity, for instance,” Johnston said.
“It seems almost to provide an incentive to defer those investment decisions, at least until the ‘aspirational’ target is announced next year, and more likely until after the precise caps are announced in 2011 or so.”
Despite specific differences between the major parties — such as Labor’s target of a 60 per cent reduction on 2000 levels by 2050 as opposed to the Coalition Government’s more vague ‘aspirational’ targets — Johnston welcomed the substantial common ground that now appears to exists.
“There will be inevitably much political carping about it,” he said. “One could say that from the point of view of the stated policies of the Labor Party, there really is nothing in the report that contradicts anything that the Labor Party has committed to, in terms of the design of the system. I think it would be useful for all sides to acknowledge that the contents of the report, so far as they go, are very good.”
Johnston said the report was to be commended in that it advocated “an all sources, all sinks approach to emissions control”.
“That is considerably move comprehensive than existing systems overseas or than, for instance, the state-based national emissions trading system that was proposed through that process,” he said.
“However, all this comes at a price. The report has completely deferred the question of both long-term ‘aspirational’ targets and the precise caps that will be introduced in stages. The report envisages that the actual precise caps, over a series of years, probably beginning from 2013, won’t actually be known until 2011.”
Predictably, industry groups and scientific bodies reacted differently to Prime Minister John Howard’s announcement over the weekend.
“The [report] offers a way forward that reflects Australia’s particular circumstances and seeks to position us in a meaningful way in the global climate change effort,” Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout said.
“The lead time suggested by the task group will provide the scope to build community and business understanding of the proposed measures and to ameliorate the impact of the cost,” she said. “It will also allow Australia time to design an approach that has rigour and avoids the pitfalls that have characterised previous approaches overseas.”
The executive director of the Australian Institute of Petroleum, Dr John Tilley, said the report “provides a considered basis for the Australian community to increase its efforts to respond to the climate change challenge”.
And according to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, Peter Handy, the report “provides a workable framework with which all businesses, whether large or small, can engage”.
“It represents a sensible approach which provides industry time to adapt yet provides more certainty in the economy especially where investment in carbon intensive industries and infrastructure is being considered,” Handy said.
However the Climate Institute and Australian Conservation Fund (ACF) were highly critical of the government’s reluctance to set specific targets.
John Connor, chief executive of the Climate Institute, said the report’s recommendations “which further delay key reforms for up to five years will fail to turn Australia’s greenhouse pollution around or help make the switch to a clean energy future for Australia”.
ACF executive director Don Henry said the report is too cautious on the question of setting emissions targets. “The absence of science-based targets for reducing emissions is a glaring omission from the task group’s plan,” he said.
“CSIRO advised the taskforce that Australia should reduce emissions by 60—90 per cent by 2050. The science is in, the economics is in — there is no excuse for Australia not to set 2050 and 2020 targets to substantially cut our greenhouse emissions by 2010.”