Australia’s climate minister, Chris Bowen, has again challenged the Greens to support the government’s reforms to the safeguard mechanism, but flat-out rejected the party’s calls to ban new coal and gas, saying fossil fuels would continue providing one-fifth of Australia’s energy beyond 2030.
However, the Greens leader, Adam Bandt, claims the party has already made major compromises by offering to pass Labor’s plan through the Senate, saying the party’s request for no new coal and gas was reasonable if the government wanted to address climate change concerns. It potentially sets up more protracted negotiations or Senate gridlock when parliament returns in March.
“All we’re asking for is the bare minimum. We’re not asking for the perfect,” Bandt said.
The government will require the support of either the Greens or the Coalition in the Senate to pass its safeguard mechanism plan, which would require Australia’s 215 biggest emitters to gradually reduce their emissions over time. Some environmental and climate experts, as well as the Greens and fellow Senate linchpin David Pocock, have raised concerns about Labor’s proposal allowing big polluters to buy unlimited offset credits.
The Australian Conservation Foundation released a report this month casting doubt on the efficacy of offsets, saying they “should be a last resort” and “are no replacement for genuine emissions reduction”.
The Coalition has decided to oppose the changes. The Greens have proposed what they call a compromise, but what Labor has termed an ultimatum, to pass the safeguards changes if the government agrees to no longer approve new coal and gas developments.
A Queensland coal development proposed by Clive Palmer was recently rejected, but a coal seam gas development was last week approved by the government – a decision savaged by Bandt, as news of the approval broke during the safeguards negotiations.
On the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, energy and climate minister Bowen criticised the Greens for “focusing on one particular element, new resources” while the government was “doing something a bit different”.
“This is the biggest chance the parliament has had in more than a decade to actually get a sensible framework to reduce emissions from all our big emitters,” Bowen said.
“Inevitably, when you bring in a big reform like this a whole bunch of people will say it doesn’t go far enough. A whole bunch of other people will say it goes far too far.”
He said the government remained in discussions, and called on the Greens to suggest “good faith proposals”. Bowen backed the offsets element of the plan, saying some industries would struggle more to reduce emissions than others.
“If people want to argue for limits on offsets, they have to show me how an industry like cement could reduce emissions without laying people off or reducing production,” he said.
The government proposes to transition Australia’s energy mix to 82% renewables by 2030. When asked why the government wouldn’t rule out new fossil fuel developments, Bowen said the government planned huge change, but that it still meant the remaining 18% of energy would come from non-renewables.
“Eventually we’ll build from that 82, but in the medium term, we are still going to have 18% of our energy grid coming from non-renewables and increasingly that will be gas. As coal-fired power stations leave the system we’re not going to do nuclear, that leaves gas,” he said.
Pressed by Insiders host David Speers on whether negotiations with the Greens would include any ban or timeframe on new fossil fuel developments, Bowen said: “That’s not part of our agenda. It won’t be part of those negotiations.”
“The Greens need to decide, are they a party of protest or a party of progress? This is big progress. If they want to protest, they can do that. But this is about progress.”
Responding to Bowen’s criticisms at a press conference in Sydney, Bandt said the Greens would continue pushing for their goals, and that his party would pass the bill in the next parliamentary sitting week if their asks were met.
“The onus is on Labor to explain to people why they want to make the climate crisis worse by opening new coal and gas mines,” he said.
Bandt criticised the safeguards policy for its reliance on offsets and the government’s “weak targets” on emissions reduction, but said his party would put those concerns aside in exchange for rejections of fossil fuel developments.
“We want to say yes on climate. We don’t want the government to make the problem worse.”