The quiet surrender on climate

The climate wars are finally over. Not with a bang, but a whimper. The Coalition is now moonwalking towards installing some of the basic climate and energy policy architecture they mostly railed against for the past decade. Resistance is finally giving way to quiet acceptance. The trick is to make it look like they always meant to do it this way.

The signs of grudging acceptance started coming at the start of this year from coalition hard-liners The Nationals, who have spent much of the past three years trying to get Australians to believe that a new coal fired power station in Collinsville, Queensland, would solve the nation’s energy problems.

The Nationals have started including nuclear power in their shifting narrative, pushing to get it included in the future scope of Clean Energy Finance Corporation investments, even though building ncuealr power is technically illegal in Australia.

Nuclear is controversial, expensive but the zero emissions equivalent of coal. It is the natural fall-back position of coal fired electricity advocates when the ir position is lost, as it pretty much is in Australia in 2021.

Last week the Morrison Government appointed former Origin CEO Grant King as the new Chair of the Climate Change Authority. The fact that the Federal Government is finally resuscitating the CCA is significant in itself.

The CCA was a centrepiece of climate policy under the Gillard Government, a federal agency designed to coordinate climate policy economy wide, well beyond the state-based energy mandate.

King is seen as a climate pragmatist by the Federal Government, a former gas CEO and Business Council of Australia chair who is seen as a safe pair of hands on delicate maters like ramping up national climate policy.

The appointment of a new senior government position of climate co-ordinator only strengthens the back room movements on climate. The role has been given to senior Department of Foreign Affairs official James Larsen, a former adviser to Labor Minister Bob Carr.

Larsen will be used to help manage the global perception that Australia is a laggard on climate change, made more significant by the accelerated efforts by the Biden Administration to push for international agreement on climate ahead of the next international climate negotiations in Scotland at the end of this year.

The Morrison Government has already committed to net zero emissions. Just not a time frame. The pressure is global, the constraint is internal. Sustained low electricity prices from overbuild of generation capacity might be tearing the energy industry apart, but it is making it easier for the Coalition leadership to wear down international climate divisions and present a revised political course that matches the rhetoric from key Asian trading partners like China, Japan and Korea.

This doesn’t mean a carbon price or any other substantive national climate policy platform. It does suggest a shift to a “me-too” net zero by 2050 commitment later in 2021. And that reflects the reality of climate and energy policy at the moment in Australia. It’s style over substance. The look not the feel, pushing the substantive reforms down the road a bit further for another political cycle. For next time.