Albanese needed to somehow lay out a vision that at once demonstrated Labor was taking the threat of climate change seriously, did not galvanise communities in Queensland and NSW coal-country against Labor, and did not alienate inner-city voters demanding ambitious climate change action.
In an effort to thread these ranked needles, Albanese adopted a conciliatory tone, going so far as to send a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison offering a climate detente before he even rose to speak.
In his address, he welcomed the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, adding that, “when the science is clear politicians would act”. He outlined concessions Labor was willing to make to break the climate deadlock. Labor, he said, would embrace any policy mechanism the government chose to adopt.
It would not demand a price on carbon, which many economists say would be the fairest and most efficient way to drive down costs, and it endorsed the technology “roadmap” outlined by Energy Minister Angus Taylor earlier this year.
Labor would even support carbon capture and storage technology, viewed by many environment advocates as a sop to fossil-fuel interests.
It would not lay out short-term targets designed to push Australia onto a path of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
To this extent, the position Albanese sketched out appears to be compatible with the strategy advocated since the last election by Labor’s MP for the Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon, who has seen his primary vote evaporate by 15 per cent through the climate wars. Since the last election, he has called on his Labor colleagues not to voice detailed opposition to the government’s climate and energy strategies.
On the other hand, Labor would, said Albanese, set reductions targets before the election in line with advice on climate science, and it would not use the so-called Kyoto carry-over credits the government was counting in its own reductions strategy.
After the speech, Pat Conroy, a Left faction leader from another Hunter electorate, told the Herald and The Age that “there is absolutely broad support for the policy stance announced by Albo yesterday”.
“Everyone in the country knows the country has suffered from lack of energy policy. This is a genuine attempt to reach bipartisan support.
“I want the Hunter to remain a powerhouse of the nation. We have a hugely skilled workforce and great natural resources and we’ve got four coal-fired power stations that are rapidly ageing and reaching the end of their life.
“The importance of the investment framework is it lets the energy sector know no matter who is in government, the same rules will apply to how they invest.”
Labor even won some support from some climate change advocates. Greenpeace Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation congratulated Albanese for backing two key renewable energy agencies, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
But Amanda McKenzie, the chief executive of the Climate Council — a leading independent climate advocacy group — was bitterly disappointed.
She says it was frustrating that just months after the worst fires in Australian history had been extinguished and weeks before the next fire season was to begin that Labor had failed to outline a clear vision on how to reduce Australian greenhouse gas emissions.
“The government is failing on climate change policy. The job of the opposition is to oppose it, to push the government to do better and to articulate a vision of how it could do better. There is no vision here,” she said.
Greens leader Adam Bandt was equally scathing, saying Labor was failing in its duty to prosecute the government over the issue, while crossbenchers such as the Greens and Warringah MP Zali Steggall were keen to work on the issue.
“Labor needs to decide who their dance partner is on this,” Mr Bandt said. “The government clearly wants to take no action on climate change. [Labor] can work with them or work with us.”
Ms Steggall said Australia was on notice over “severe economic and health impacts” from global warming. “Long-term security and prosperity should absolutely be a bipartisan commitment and I welcome Labor’s acknowledgment of this.”
Perhaps most crucially, there was a suggestion from the government that it was prepared to accept Labor’s peace offering to abandon policy warfare.
“We welcome the fact Labor has embraced our technology roadmap, that’s great news,” Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said, before going on to criticise Albanese who he said “didn’t explain how their energy policies will create a single job”.
“They didn’t explain how they’re going to bring down prices, how they’re going to keep the lights on, they didn’t explain what their targets were and they didn’t explain how they’re going to achieve those targets,” Mr Taylor said.
Meanwhile, the list of institutions — public and private, domestic and international — calling for more ambitious climate change policy kept growing as the week played out.
On Thursday, the Energy Council, which represents power suppliers, the heaviest-polluting Australian industry, called for a nationwide target of net zero emissions by 2050.
“Settling on an economy-wide target will let us then decide the best ways to get there and what policy mechanisms could be applied,” its chief, Sarah McNamara, said in a statement.
“Our members have long accepted the science of climate change and the need to decarbonise the economy. In that regard, we have consistently argued for well-designed, market-based and stable national policy settings around which our members can invest.”
That same day, Australia’s Reserve Bank endorsed a warning issued by a group of 66 of the world’s central banks that the world’s GDP would collapse by a quarter by the end of the century unless governments made their climate policies drastically more ambitious.
Australia’s emissions have been increasing every year for four years. The new minister responsible for emissions reduction, Angus Taylor, missed the May 31 deadline for releasing the December quarterly emissions data, in his first act in the post.
With carry-over credits from Kyoto, Australia easily reaches its Paris target of a 26 per cent cut in emissions from 2005. Without them, the reduction would only be 16 per cent, and we would have to almost double our efforts to meet the target. Carry-over credits were not allowed under the Paris Agreement, and developing countries lobbied hard against them being allowed at Madrid.
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.