OPINION: Good Climate Laws Should Not Be Bare Minimum

Legislated targets, an independent regulator, and regular reviews will need to win multiparty and Senate support. 

- Zali Steggall OAM MP, originally published in the Australian Financial Review


Last week, the Albanese government foreshadowed it will introduce climate change legislation in the first sitting of parliament next month. This is welcome and will set the tone for the coming parliament as one that is constructive and proactive on the issue of our times.

When it comes to climate action at this critical time, we cannot afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as the Greens did with the blocking of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2009. However, the government should also not present a skeleton model as the Morrison government did with the Federal Integrity Commission it proposed in the last parliament. Bare minimum should not be the government’s goal. Best practice should be.

We know what key elements are needed to make such a law successful over the long term. Many of these elements are contained in my Climate Change Bill – based on the successful UK model. My bill is ready to go, has been subject to inquiry and, whilst in opposition, Labor supported its principles and debate.

Firstly, the law must lock in ambitious climate targets with scope to ratchet them up over time. Labor’s target of 43 percent on 2005 levels by 2030 is a welcome start but should be reviewed as soon as possible by an empowered and independent Climate Change Authority with an expert skill base in climate policy and science. As should the net zero by 2050 goal, every five or so years.

I appreciate that this is where our politics is at, but our target’s ambition must be responsive to changes in the international context and in line with the latest science. An authority with respected and skilled members can reflect on the latest academic studies and developments and produce a recommended target that is responsible.

On the current authority, it was stacked with the last government’s fossil fuel executive allies. This destroys the body’s independence and calls into question its advice. The members and chairman linked to vested interests should be sacked. It should also be staffed and funded sufficiently to get the job done.

Emissions budgets should be set out by sector every five years until we reach net zero by 2050. They act as rolling caps on emissions. These budgets must be binding and have enforcement mechanisms to stop backsliding by the government of the day. Having budgets will break the goal up into manageable chunks whilst also allowing business to invest with confidence and the public to trust the government is on the right track.

The policies provided by the government in its “Powering Australia” plan are welcome and will go a long way to reducing our emissions. But what is missing are substantial policies in other key areas like agriculture and carbon sequestration. The climate change law proposed by the government should contain the requirement that emissions reduction plans are developed for all sectors affected by the transition and that these plans should be consulted on widely with the community and the Climate Change Authority.

Submissions to the consultation should be public and the advice of the authority should be released. Alongside regular reporting towards budgets and targets, these measures will bolster accountability and clearly track how Australia is balancing its emissions budgets. Only then will government rebuild trust in climate policy.

We cannot also forget that we need regular national climate change risk assessments to assess how our society, nature, business, and community are exposed to escalating climate impacts.

This will inform a comprehensive adaption program that will help buffer our communities against floods, droughts, fires, and storms. We cannot be caught flatfooted like we did with the 2019-20 bushfires and the recent floods. Preparation and adaptation are better than scrambling after the fact.

Energy Minister Chris Bowen would like this law to be accepted by parliament as a whole. Multi-partisanship would provide the stability to make long-term decisions without the threat of repeal of the law by future governments - as happened with the carbon price in 2014 by the Coalition. To achieve this, we must not rush this process and ram through legislation.

In the last parliament, I watched the former government’s bills being rushed through, and they were unsuccessful in the Senate due to pushback because of a lack of review.

A committee inquiry will be essential in giving this legislation the best chance to survive with buy-in from the enlarged crossbench, and the Coalition.

The components I have set out are a good foundation that will go a long way to addressing climate change and making this law a success over the next three decades and beyond.

- Zali Steggall OAM MP

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 June 2022