- by Franc Stregone
- The Guardian
- Issue #1967
On 21st July, the National Party of Australia replaced their leader Michael McCormack with former leader Barnaby Joyce. There were several reasons as to why the Nationals brought back Joyce, with the Sydney Morning Herald citing that McCormack “slipped and stumbled in recent times and resentment grew among a group of former ministers on the backbench”. However, one policy issue has seemingly been at the heart of the leadership spill – the Coalition’s position on net zero emissions by 2050. At his press conference, Joyce was asked: “Do you believe Scott Morrison should be going to the Glasgow climate summit with a net zero by 2050 policy?” Here’s how Joyce responded:
“I will be guided by my party room. […] If the Nationals party room believes that the best deal for regional Australia is that we secure their jobs, is to make sure we secure their industries, is to clearly understand the dynamics of the Australian economy as opposed to a Danish one or a German one. If that’s the view of the National party room, that’s the view I’ll be supporting.”
The answer is as revealing as it is unsurprising. Under the thin veil of “protecting Aussie jobs,” the Nationals are positioning themselves to fight their Coalition partner – the Liberal Party of Australia – every step of the way on the mildest of climate policies. By talking about Denmark and Germany, the Nationals are attempting to delineate climate policy as something cosmopolitan that only those in the “big cities” care about at the expense of everyday Australians.
Furthermore, it is not just the Nationals coming after this benign policy. The talking heads over at Sky News, and other media outlets, are gunning for the Liberals to drop the policy too. So what is all the fuss?
WHAT DOES NET ZERO EMISSIONS MEAN?
According to the Climate Council, net zero emissions “refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere”. Thus, the process simply involves removing existing emissions to allow for new emissions, so further damage is not done. This is why it is called net zero, rather than zero, as the latter would require halting emissions altogether. What does this look like in practice? While emissions are still produced, we could, for example, plant new forests that would offset the existing emissions in our atmosphere. This removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is known as sequestration.
WHAT IS THE LIBERAL PARTY’S PLAN?
So how does the Liberal party plan to achieve net zero emissions by 2050? The answer is: we don’t really know. Earlier this year, the Coalition injected funds via the budget for hydrogen and carbon capture and storage projects. However, as we have previously highlighted, these projects are marketing ploys that offer no serious commitment to reducing the use fossil fuels (see Guardian #1959 “Morrison’s hydrogen scheme another marketing ploy”). And this seems to be the main framework for net zero emissions. Just before US President Joe Biden’s virtual greenhouse gas summit, Morrison admitted that “Australia’s energy mix needs to change over the next [thirty] years ‘on the road to net zero emissions’” (ABC). Environment Minister Sussan Ley has stated that “net zero will happen as soon as possible and the prime minister has made that very clear.” But Morrison hasn’t made it clear, which is why the conjecture exists and questions about attaining the target remain.
However, what is clear is that the Liberal party understands how much of an ideological powder-keg the issue remains. In an attempt to downplay the differences between her party and its coalition partner, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne stated that net zero emissions by 2050 is “the broad position of the Australian government.” However, Resources Minister Keith Pitt has already been on record saying that such a policy would “absolutely cause damage in regional communities.” Furthermore, it is not just a battle confronting the federal Liberal Party; NSW Liberals also seemingly understand the ideological struggle. In April, NSW Liberals issued a statement that former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would not be chair of the Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board, that the decision was about focusing on “outcomes” rather than “personality.” It is evident that the NSW Liberals see Turnbull, a so-called, longtime “advocate” for climate action, as a lightning rod among their base. Thus, at the Federal and state levels, the Liberal Party, after years of demonising climate action, are trying to find the path of least resistance on the issue.
But are the concerns of the Nationals legitimate? Is such a target going to affect the jobs of regional Australians? Or is this just another scare tactic?
ARE JOBS UNDER ATTACK?
The same day that Joyce was re-elected into the Nationals leadership position, Andrew Bolt had on his show, The Bolt Report, Daniel Wild, the Director of Research at the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a conservative think tank. Wild estimated “that up to 650,000 jobs would be put at direct risk from a net zero emission target and that those jobs would be concentrated in regional areas and industries such as mining, manufacturing, and agriculture.” This figure came from a report that the IPA did earlier this year called Zero Jobs: An Analysis of the Employment Impacts of a Net Zero Emissions Target in Australia.
How does the report come to the conclusion that over half a million jobs are at “direct” risk from the policy? The report calculates how many jobs are in industries that produce above-average levels of emissions (0.22 kt of CO2 per job), adds them up, and asserts that, therefore, these jobs “are deemed at risk.” Yes – that’s it. As stated above, net zero emissions do not imply the forgoing of jobs but rather the removal of existing greenhouse gas emissions to even out the production of new ones. Thus, to imply that climate targets are automatically linked to a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs is fallacious. Furthermore, why is the average level of the emissions produced per job used to calculate this number? Who knows!
It may seem ludicrous (and it is) that this is how the IPA arrived at the number of “at risk” jobs – but how else could they arrive at it? There is nothing to draw from outside of a vague commitment from the Morrison government. Furthermore, the “report,” claims that “‘Green’ jobs have not offset destruction of manufacturing jobs.” What “research” does the IPA do to back-up this claim? It references the Clean Jobs Plan by the Climate Council, the Greens’ Jobs Plan, and Beyond Zero Emissions’ The Million Jobs Plan, which claim to create 76,000, 179,770, and 207,100 jobs, respectively. Obviously, these numbers do not match the number of “at risk” jobs. However, does Wild and co. expect us to believe that every single job in agriculture, air and space transport, and Primary Metal and Metal Product Manufacturing (three of the five affected industries), among others, are simply going to evaporate if net zero emissions is aimed at? Apparently so!
The IPA also makes another preposterous claim:
“many of the estimates of jobs created under a net zero emissions target would be created directly through government policy and taxpayer support. […] By contrast, the industries placed at risk by a net zero emissions target tend to have very high levels of private sector employment, suggesting that these workers are vital contributors to the taxation pool which funds the public sector. For example, 99.6 per cent of jobs in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industry are in the private sector, 100 per cent of mining jobs are in the private sector, and 99.7 per cent of manufacturing jobs are in the private sector.”
Here, the IPA is attempting to make it appear as if renewable jobs primarily come “through government policy and taxpayer support.” But this is not the case. For starters, the documents referred to above are from a political party, non-profit organisation, and think tank – all of which attempt to make interventions into parliament; so why wouldn’t they attempt to create jobs “through government policy and taxpayer support”? However, the IPA has to present their narrative in this underhanded way because the reality is starkly different. According to the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Renewable Energy Investment in Australia:
“Investment in large-scale renewable energy projects increased significantly between 2016 and 2019. It is estimated to have accounted for nearly five per cent of non-mining business investment at its recent peak in 2018. This investment was completed almost entirely by the private sector, with large-scale renewable projects driving much of the strong growth in private sector electricity-related investment during this period […].”
The IPA could claim that the renewable energy sector receives incentives at the taxpayers’ expense, but I suggest they don’t make that argument. Adani and other mines have received billions in subsidies. In the case of Adani, it would be “unbankable and unviable,” without the subsidies, according to a 2019 report from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (so much for the Coalition being “good economic managers”). Of course, the IPA is well acquainted with the mining industry. According to New South Wales Supreme Court documents, in 2016 and 2017 it received $2.3mil and $2.2mil respectively from none other than Hancock Prospecting – Gina Rinehart’s company. For her efforts, she was made a life member of the IPA.
However, as we move to a net zero (and hopefully near zero) emissions, industries like mining of fossil fuels and, therefore, those mining jobs will no longer exist, but workers won’t necessarily be left out behind. With a real commitment to a “just transition,” Australia can retrain workers from diminishing industries into new trades. The Institute for Sustainable Future found in their Renewable Energy Jobs in Australia: Stage One report that “Renewable energy can play a meaningful role in transition for coal regions” and that “around seventy-five per cent of renewable energy job opportunities to 2035 could be distributed across regional and rural Australia.” Among these jobs, there is much diversity from labourers to trades and technicians to managers. However, “depending on policy decisions taken now, the renewable energy industry could create 20,000 new jobs in the next five years or lose 11,000 jobs by 2022.”
Thus, it would appear as though jobs aren’t under attack – they’re just changing.
Whether or not Morrison supports a net zero emissions target by 2050 non-fossil fuels industries and the finance section are moving in that direction. Ideologues within the Coalition want to use the issue to pretend that they care about their constituents when the reality is that they care about their big donors in the mining sector.
Given that climate change concerns our very existence, you would think it would be a nonpartisan issue. However, those with profit motives (i.e. the capitalist class) have framed the discussion between “Left” v. “Right” to distract from the fact that they are earning hundreds of millions of dollars as the planet burns. This is even evident in the IPA report, where they dedicate a section to which electorates would be “placed [most] at risk by a net zero emissions target.”According to their “research,” seventeen of the twenty electorates are Coalition seats. This raises two concerns. First, what purpose does this serve other than to agitate in a report about “green” jobs? Second, the Morrison government has been plagued with scandals, such as the Sports Rorts affair, where it was uncovered that grants were used in marginal seats to favour the Coalition in the 2019 federal election. Does the IPA really think that such an opportunist government would chase after an emissions target if it in any way materially affected its electoral success in an upcoming election?
If Morrison does adopt a 2050 target, it’ll be the first step in the right direction. However, Australia and the rest of the world can’t rely on gradual reforms. Climate action needs to be revolutionary and decisive. Without it, our planet will continue to suffer.