Australian politics is obsessed with a target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Like so many political decisions, it is being sold as a sea of righteousness with no rocks.
Climate politics has many quasi-religious aspects to it which, like many religions, breeds a cynicism at times, especially when the religion is forced on you. Absolute beliefs that tolerate no dissent; absolute belief, devoid of a highly scientific understanding by most followers. Compliance and tithings to a dogmatic sermon. Every word accepted as sacred and underwritten with hellish climate damnation if not adhered to.
This religion also requires people to speak to you from the other side as many of the politicians and commentators talking about a 2050 aspiration will be dead by then. They won’t have to deal with the economic consequences or pay for the policy. Further, just as COVID-19 has hit us from left field in the past year, lots of other issues will emerge between now and 10 federal elections away.
Therefore, the issue is what policy will be brought into the parliament now as part of a 2050 aspiration. We can’t stop cabinet signing up to a target but we can vote against any subsequent legislation if it is noxious to our constituents. Unlike other nations, Australian governments have an unfortunate tendency to do what they say. We were one of the few countries that met promises made under the Kyoto climate agreement, which came due at the end of 2020. Other countries, especially some that like to flaunt their moral superiority, such as Canada and New Zealand, did not deliver on their commitments.
In regional Australia we have a clear memory of the sneaky pact between the federal and state governments to divest farmers of their property rights so as to meet Australia’s Kyoto targets. In 1990, the baseline year for our Kyoto commitments, Australia cleared 688,000ha of land. We negotiated a clause in the Kyoto agreement that allowed us to claim a “carbon credit” if we cleared less than this amount each year.
This led to state governments imposing ever tightening restrictions on land clearing. Now Australia clears just 50,000ha of land a year. This is not enough to keep our farming land at a constant amount, let alone develop new areas. In fact, if we had not stripped the right from farmers to develop their own land, Australia’s emissions would have gone up, not down, in the past 30 years.
To put it another way, the emissions from people living in cities have gone up during the past 30 years, but their moral guilt has been eased by sending the bill to the bush.
All of these harsh farming restrictions occurred to reduce our emissions by just 5 per cent. To reduce our emissions to zero, it won’t just be the land that will be taken away. As a NSW government report recently concluded, “Unless the numbers of production animals (females) are reduced, there is unlikely to be a real reduction in methane emissions.”
The problem is that cows and sheep have a tendency to burp and fart large amounts of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Every cow emits about 2300kg of carbon dioxide equivalent gases a year. The CSIRO estimated last year that to reach net zero we would need to start with a carbon price of $30 a tonne now. Even a relatively small cattle producer runs about 1000 head. So they would be up for a $70,000 a year cost under a net-zero policy.
This is why the Nationals have always been opposed to a net-zero target. Even before you consider the impact on our mining and manufacturing industries, a net-zero emissions policy would destroy any hope of expanding Australian farming. If the Nationals supported net-zero emissions we would cease to be a party that could credibly represent farmers.
In our areas, the tyre shop relies on farmers doing well. In our areas, there is a greater proportion of blue-collar jobs more reliant on cheap power to be internationally competitive. In our areas any money that flows out in additional costs for new climate regulations cannot flow into the local shops. The work-from-home laptop class has done pretty well during COVID. In our areas, not many people work on laptops, they work — often in insecure jobs — on farms, in mines, in factories and at shops.
The climate discussion in the kitchen is vastly more intense when you are running out of magnets to put the bills on the fridge.
Last year, China brought online more coal-fired power than we have in the whole of Australia, and then China announced that it was committed to a net-zero emissions target by 2060. If you believe that, you probably believe Hong Kong remains free. The past year demonstrates that we should stop being naive and start focusing on the real issues that threaten the security and independence of our free country.