The fallacy of neoliberal environmentalism in Australia

On the “technology not taxes” narrative.

On 9 August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first instalment of its 6th Assessment Report. Aptly titled Climate Change 2021: The physical science basis, the report outlines, indisputably, the link between human activity and climate change. It highlights the current trend towards further warming (having achieved approximately 1.1°C of warming since pre-industrial times), and increases in unprecedented changes in the climate, many of which are irreversible. The report sought to offer some hope to policy makers and concerned citizens alike, claiming that the worst of the potential impacts of climate change can still be mitigated, but only if the world commits to “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide”.

Expectedly, such news from the peak international body on climate change triggered responses from world leaders, activists and the media. Also expectedly, leaders and political figures have mostly fallen short in their responses, seen most evidently in the response of the Liberal-National Federal Government. While the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reductions evaded interviews, apparently unaware of the responsibilities of his portfolio, senior government figures, including Scott Morrison, took it upon themselves to resurrect fears of taxes and higher costs of living.

The last time taxes were seen as a solution to climate change in the Australian political landscape was in 2011 with the passing of the Clean Energy Act (dubbed the ‘carbon tax’ by conservative politicians for cheap political point-scoring). Much has changed in the last decade in both the common understanding of climate change and its impacts, and the policies recommended to combat them. What has not changed has been Australia’s response to climate change and the trajectory of its carbon emissions.

Under conservative leadership since 2013, Australian policymakers have used this global lack of cohesion in regard to climate policy to avoid taking any responsibility for emissions reduction, and the response to the IPCC’s latest report indicates there is no intention of changing this approach anytime soon. The slogan “technology not taxes” has been introduced to mainstream political discourse, capitalising on the Australian Labor Party’s weak political standing and inability to sell climate action to the electorate. However, this slogan does not represent a way forward nor does it represent a clear indication of a government prioritising the futures of Australians over corporate profit. In fact, it represents the opposite.

“Technology not taxes” creates a false dichotomy when it comes to action on climate change; you can either wait for green technologies to catch up to the capacity of fossil fuels (in the eyes of conservatives) or you can face large tax hikes and increases to the cost of living. Anyone who is close to the issue would know that this false dichotomy is neither necessary nor constructive, but much rather is a shallow justification for the continual government support of a dying fossil fuel industry.

In fact, the narrative of “technology not taxes” quickly falls apart upon further investigation. In 2019, the IMF reported that the Australian Government spent $37.4bn in fossil fuel subsidies. The next year the Morrison Government committed a fraction of this amount ($1.9bn) to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and investment in renewable technologies. The Government then tried to use this money to fund research into clean coal. This, in itself, signals the intentions of a government with no regard for the environment nor the supposed necessary technologies required for a transition away from fossil fuels. You would think that a government which is supposedly waiting for technologies to catch up would be significantly investing in those technologies.

This again highlights the flaws of the narrative. The technology that is required to transition away from fossil fuels largely already exists. The day after the issuance of the IPCC report, Australia’s biggest energy user, the Tomago aluminium smelter, committed to being run entirely on renewable energy by 2029, abandoning energy company AGL and significantly hindering the business case for the Bayswater coal-fired power station, which currently supplies electricity to the smelter. The decarbonisation of energy networks and infrastructure throughout Europe via re-municipalisation and the establishment of renewable energy collectives also speaks to the idea that the technology already exists. When the focus moves away from profits and to the people, cleaner technologies face surprisingly minimal resistance.

While the technologies required for renewable electricity grids may already exist, they are unfortunately incompatible with a political class propped up by the donations and revenue of Australia’s mining sector. The ever-revolving door between federal politics and fossil fuels highlights the significant grip the industry has on our political system, and indeed our future. Any threats to the coal-supportive status quo in the past have been met with force; Kevin Rudd was deposed after his proposal of the Mining Super Profits Tax, Julia Gillard met a similar fate following the introduction of the aforementioned Clean Energy Act.

I would contend the worst part of the “technology not taxes” slogan is that it is a downright dangerous lie. To mitigate the worst impacts of climate change we need nothing short of economic restructure. This doesn’t mean simple regressive taxation, a policy which has all but died in mainstream Australian politics, but reassessing the role of perpetual economic growth in exacerbating an existential crisis. 

As the decoupling of the trends of increasing GDP and increasing resource use (and carbon emissions) prove almost impossible, it is essential that the way in which we assess economic success is in fact reassessed. What is necessary is a just transition away from fossil fuels, that not only accommodates the needs of fossil fuel workers and communities, but also reinvests in the citizenry and in public wealth. We need to shape a society that is not driven by excess and expansion, but one in which people are adequately supported, at all stages of life, building a sustainable, carbon-free future. 

For now, the lyrics of Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine still ring true 30 years later: “nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground”.

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