The Abbott government has released its white paper for its climate change policy but questions remain about what happens to big polluters who don’t cut emissions.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt released the final version of the federal government’s emissions reduction fund, which will spend $2.55 billion over four years paying companies to clean up their act.
The money will pay for activities that slash pollution – like planting trees or improving soil carbon – with the aim to reduce CO2 emissions by five per cent by 2020.
But there’s unanswered questions about what happens to companies that continue to pollute at high levels, as the “safeguard” mechanism to cover these emitters hasn’t been finalised.
Green groups are concerned that if emissions are reduced in one sector, it won’t make a genuine difference if major emitters like power companies continue to pollute without recourse.
Mr Hunt said a “safeguard” would be implemented for companies that exceed 100,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year – but that hadn’t been designed yet and wouldn’t be introduced until July 2015.
“If they breach that, then that may then be the cause for discussion or activity,” Mr Hunt said, without going into more detail.
Environment groups say that isn’t good enough, because the success of the scheme hinges on the big polluters needing to make change.
“The Australian Senate should not repeal the carbon pricing mechanism until, at the very least, the design of the safeguard mechanism is known in 2015,” WWF’s Owen Pascoe said.
Mr Hunt wants the Senate to accept the plan, and will be writing to the crossbench senators to try to get them to support legislation when he introduces it in May.
But even if they try to block it, Mr Hunt seems certain the emissions reduction fund will be operating from July.
“Our clear preference is to legislate,” he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
“But I am extremely confident that under every circumstance we will implement the ERF.”
The funding is locked into the budget, meaning the Senate can’t really stop the money being spent without triggering a constitutional crisis.
Australian Greens acting leader Adam Bandt said the existing carbon price takes money from polluters and gives it to people.
“With its feeble white paper, the Abbott government has confirmed it wants to do the opposite, taking money from everyday Australians and giving it to polluters,” he said in a statement.