Australian Public opinion on carbon pricing and climate change

Was Australia's Federal election a referendum on the carbon price and Australia's policies on climate change? Prime Minister Tony Abbott would have us believe that it was. Indeed, he campaigned strongly to 'axe the carbon tax'.

But exit polling by the Climate Institute and results from the ABC's Vote Compass show that Tony Abbott's views on carbon pricing and climate change are sharply at odds with the views of the electorate.

The estimated 60,000 people who rallied for climate action across Australia on November 17 also shows there is substantial support for climate action and for carbon pricing.

VoteCompass reveals community attitudes and opinion

During the election campaign leading up to September 7, 2013, the ABC ran a special online educational survey called Vote Compass to canvass the opinions of the electorate on a whole range of questions. Although the survey was self-selecting, which tends to increase potential bias in small surveys, the huge number of people who took part, over 1.4 million responses, means the survey has a high degree of relevancy in reflecting the opinions of Australia. When matched with census data, the effective sample size is 573,444. This is far more than public opinion surveys carried out by commercial pollsters which usually involve just 500-2000 participants weighted for demographic factors.

Vote Compass asked two questions of relevance which I wish to discuss:

  • How much should the federal government do to tackle climate change?
  • The Federal Government should put a price on carbon?

The results to each of these two questions and many others can be viewed by different demographic groups: Age, Birthplace, Education, Gender, Ideology, Income, Industry, Language, Marriage, Political Interest, Religion, Rural versus Urban, State, Student, Voting Intention.

How much should the federal government do to tackle climate change?

Let's deal with the more general question first about "How much should the federal government do to tackle climate change?".

The election campaign started with both major parties with a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 5 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020, but to escalate this in the target range of 5 to 25 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020 if comparable escalation of mitigation action is taken by other countries. The difference was over the methods of achieving the target. Labor's scheme, a capped ETS with an initial fixed price period combined with a Renewable Energy Target and investment finance to assist private capital raisingfor renewable transition through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was already showing dividends in reducing emissions from the electricty sector and increasing private investment in renewables.

Labor also established the Climate Change Authority to assess relevant targets that Australia should adopt, and take this process out of the hands of politicians to make this assessment. The Climate Change Authority has already issued a draft report recommending Australia should lift it's target to at least a minimum of 15 per cent but could go up to 25 per cent. Clearly climate scientists have been recommending since at least 2007 that developed countries like Australia should be reducing emissions by 25 to 40% on 1990 levels by 2020.

Third world and developing countries strongly argue that countries like Australia should be targeting at the top of this range. Meena Raman from the Third World Network said in a media briefing at Warsaw COP19 on Friday 22 November:

"In relation to emission reductions. Developing countries have been calling for 40 per cent emission reduction by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. What we saw in Doha was very little in the second commitment period there was only agreement to 18 per cent reduction in emissions. Come to Warsaw we saw backsliding. Japan announcing increasing emissions. Australia dragging it's feet on many of the issues. So this is not really the atmosphere we should be witnessing on the final day."

Here is the Vote Compass result by Vote Intention.

Only 16.47% want less action, 20.2% about the same as now, and 63.3 per cent want greater action. Even 40.3% of Coalition voters want greater action to tackle climate change. Clearly, the majority of Australians want to escalate effective action to tackle climate change. The Coalition policies and actions to date have gone against public opinion on this issue.

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The Federal Government should put a price on carbon?

Tony Abbott didn't really campaign on climate change as such. His campaign was entirely against the 'carbon tax', the Labor Government's carbon pricing package - which was far broader than just a tax including positive incentives and compensation payments to citizens and to businesses likely to be highly impacted. It had a one off 0.4 per cent impact on productivity.

So what was the public opinion on the Labor Government's price on carbon. Definitely more people were affected by Tony Abbott's relentless negative campaign against carbon pricing and this is reflected in the survey results, but certainly not to the extent where Tony Abbott can argue a mandate. The number of people who strongly disagree and somewhat disagree amounts to only 35.9 per cent. 15 per cent were neutral on the question, and 49.2 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed with the price on carbon. Even 20.72 of Coalition voters supported carbon pricing.

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Looking at the demographics by state we find more people in agreement with pricing carbon in the ACT, NSW, Tasmania and Victoria. The mining states consisting of Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia have a higher proportion of people opposing carbon pricing, but it is still substantially less than a majority. Take Queensland for example with the most opposition to carbon pricing: 43 per cent strongly or somewhat disagreed with carbon pricing, 15.3 per cent were neutral, and 41.7 per cent agreed with carbon pricing.

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These results concur with a survey commissioned by the ACT Government that has recently reported that the majority of residents (88%) believe that climate change is a genuine problem for the future. The survey sample size was 1,197 people with a a +/-2.9% margin of error and was conducted in August and September 2013, about the same time as Vote Compass. Main findings were:

ACT householders (84%) believe that actions by householders can help make a difference in tackling climate change. While 68% believe they should personally take more action, 62% believe householders would have to make difficult or inconvenient changes to their lives in trying to help tackle climate change.

76% of residents believe it is moderately or very urgent for the ACT Government to take action to tackle climate change and 81% want the ACT Government to take a strong leadership role to help ACT residents tackle climate change. On average, ACT residents consider $1.62 per day (per household) an affordable amount to pay to contribute to the cost of new infrastructure and technologies required to reduce carbon emissions.

Most ACT residents (81%) believe they would feel good knowing the ACT Government was taking serious action to tackle climate change, and 79% believe it is a moral duty for the ACT community to take action. 62% of residents report their friends, family or work colleagues would encourage them to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emission and 56% said they would be more willing to take action if they knew that others were also taking action.

While support for the ACT Government plans to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change was very high with between 73% and 95% of residents supporting each of 10 suggested initiatives, only 40% of residents believe they are aware of ACT Government plans to reduce carbon emissions.

No Mandate to change carbon pricing or reduce climate action

Clearly Tony Abbott does not have a mandate to reduce action on climate change either domestically or diplomatically on the global stage. But what of the domestic methods in tackling our own emissions and targets: on carbon pricing? These results are clearly closer but the number of people agreeing with carbon pricing is still greater than the number of people who disagree.

But didn't people vote Tony Abbott in to 'Axe the tax'?

People vote for candidates for a huge variety of reasons, including on a variety of issues from local to national, personality and media performances.

There are strong grounds to believe that only a very small proportion of electors based their vote entirely on the climate change or carbon price issue. The Climate Institute had exit polling commissioned to determine why people voted as they did. Here is what I wrote in my blog on September 20 on exit polling on election issues, which bears repeating:

Exit Polling on climate change and carbon pricing

National exit polling (Results PDF) done on behalf of the Climate Institute showed that voters primary concern was for the economy and jobs (31 per cent) with Climate Change (5 per cent) and carbon tax (3 per cent) significantly lower. Even among Coalition voters only 3 per cent listed the carbon tax as a top issue.

“After a campaign which saw a return to 2012’s focus on the costs of carbon pricing, surprisingly from the ALP as well, there was no majority support for repeal with voters split 47 per cent for repeal and 47 per cent for maintaining some form of carbon pricing when asked to choose between the two,” said John Connor from the Climate Institute. "A bigger challenge looms for the Coalition regarding the effectiveness of their climate policies.”

"Despite commentary to the contrary, the Coalition maintained support for its 2020 pollution reduction target range of 5 to 25 per cent and have supported this commitment being made to other nations." Connor said in a media statement.

It was stressed by John Connor that the Coalition needs to effectively show how their policies can achieve the agreed targets before attempting to repeal the current policies presently in place.

“Climate change is complex and the solutions aren’t easy but the Coalition rushes into repeal of the carbon laws at their peril because climate change and its impacts aren’t washed away by this election result,” concluded Connor.

Liberals break promise over emissions target range of 5 to 25 per cent

Tony Abbott was careful to restrict his campaign to purely against the 'carbon tax', not against the efficacy of climate change action. In his press conference held 5 days before the election Tony Abbott mentioned the 'Carbon tax' 37 times but did not mention the process of climate change or its impacts even once. He announced that the budget for meeting the 5 per cent emissions reduction on 2000 levels by 2020 would be limited to the $3.2 billion they had budgeted in their climate policy.

"The bottom line is we will spend as much as we have budgeted, no more and no less,” Mr Abbott said. "We will get as much environmental improvement, as much emissions reduction as we can for the spending that we've budgeted." he said on September 2, five days before the election, at the National Press Club.

The fact that this was only brought up in the final days meant discussion and implications could not be widely discussed in the electorate.

Since the election, the Liberals have retreated even further saying that the emissions target range of 5 to 25 per cent could not be committted too unless other countries made a binding commitment to similar targets. But under the Copenhagen accord targets have been voluntarily set by each country - no binding commitments were entered into. Only under the Kyoto Protocol are commitments binding on a global level. This is a substantial reversal of long running Liberal policy for bipartisan commitment to the target range.

Under the Liberals Direct Action Policy Australian Emissions are set to increase by 12 per cent by 2020 under Tony Abbott, according to the Climate Action Tracker who issued an announcement and policy brief on this on 12 November 2013.

There are many reasons why Governments lose elections and opposition parties win elections. Firstly there is a tendency in Australia for a Government to be given a second term by the electorate - Labor had already had 2 terms in office so were fighting from incumbency for a third term. Mistakes by Government's can cause them to lose, rather than the Opposition persuading the electorate that they deserve to win power. Tony Abbott ran a very tight and focussed populist campaign, but minimised negative coverage with the Liberal Campaign strongly advising local candidates not to front the media or public forums to avoid the potential negative coverage such as arising from Jaymes Diaz media interview.

Control of the main narratives is also important. Tony Abbott campaigned to 'Stop the Boats', 'Axe the Tax', and stressed the debt and deficit to portray Labor as poor economic managers. His narratives were effective, even if Labor's draconian Manus Island and Nauru refugee policies were actually being effective in slowing asylum seeker boats from Indonesia. On economic management of the Australian economy the Labor Government were lauded internationally for bringing Australia through the Global Financial Crisis virtually unscathed, with very low levels unemployment, interest rates, inflation, and Government debt as compared with OECD countries. But Tony Abbott was able to gain traction that Government debt and deficit budgets were a huge problem, when they are clearly not given current global circumstances.

Recent controversies with our relationship with Indonesia is showing the Abbott Government lacks diplomacy and is incompetent in managing the relationship. This has already resulted in reduced cooperation which will almost certainly mean more asylum seekers will embark in leaky boats for our shores, even if it means spending years in Manus Island or Nauru.

Australia's plays the wrecker at Climate negotiations

On climate change and carbon pricing the Abbott Government has shown it's incompetency on the global stage. Australia has been identified at the UN climate change talks in Warsaw (COP19) as being destructive to the negotiations, winning 5 Fossil of the Day awards as well as the Colossal Fossil Award.

Australia generally has a much greater influence in global negotiations than our population size would normally dictate. But the strong reversal of policy has caught many other countries by surprise.

China’s lead negotiator Suwei expressed China’s strong disappointment over the backtracking by developed countries like Australia and Japan from their commitments on mitigation ambition and finance. China spent much time studying our carbon pricing and ETS scheme, and is about to launch several city and provincial Emissions Trading schemes, just as Tony Abbott is embarking upon repealing all of the Australian carbon pricing package.

Conservatives often cite the need for market mechanisms to determine the most efficient action, and this is exactly what a cap and trade Emissions Trading Scheme does for reducing emissions, but instead we are being offered an inefficient Direct Action plan that is unlikey to meet the woefully small target of 5 per cent reduction by 2020.

Is there a way Tony Abbott can keep his promise to 'axe the tax' while increasing ambition on emissions targets? Surprisingly, Michael Howes, a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Environmental Policy at Griffith University outlines How the Coalition can keep a carbon price and its election promises.

Certainly the Labor Party caucus have indicated they would support a Government introduced Emissions Trading Scheme as a precondition for their repealing the present scheme. But I suspect Tony Abbott is too ideologically driven to adopt what many economists think is simply good policy in this area.

In fact a new report from the University of Queensland finds that Australia’s power system needs a combination of both a carbon price supported by direct action incentives aimed at businesses if it is to withstand future supply and price shocks.

Professor John Foster, Program Leader Clean Energy, UQ Global Change Institute said it was important for Australia to gradually phase out coal as coal-fired plants needed to be retired in favour of a broad mix of sources of power. “The more the energy system is diversified, the safer we shall be, but right now we’re too narrowly dependent on coal and gas,” Professor Foster said. “There are a range of dangers that we have identified. In your own life, it is never a great idea, for example, to invest all your money in the shares of only one or two companies.”

“If we choose to do little, we’re basically gambling on the world doing little in relation to reducing carbon emissions,” Professor Foster said. “If it is felt that there is a good chance that other countries will start to decouple their economies from carbon emissions, then it makes a lot of sense for Australia to join the trend right now in a sensible and pragmatic way.”

So Tony Abbott, cut the bullshit that you have a mandate to repeal the carbon pricing and associated mechanisms. According to public opinion you clearly don't.

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