Taking climate action doesn't destroy jobs – they depend on it
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Opinion

Taking climate action doesn't destroy jobs – they depend on it

Fourteen years ago today, John Howard announced his prime ministerial task group to investigate the appropriate design of an emissions trading scheme for Australia.

Just six days before, a teary Kim Beazley had bid farewell to the nation as Labor leader, deposed by the dynamic duo of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Rudd would also commission esteemed economist Ross Garnaut to advise Labor on appropriate climate action.

Professor Ross Garnaut advised Labor on climate policy.

Professor Ross Garnaut advised Labor on climate policy.Credit:Wayne Taylor

During the 2007 election campaign, both Howard and Rudd took proposals to establish an ETS to the Australian people – a moment of bipartisanship in climate policy that has not been seen since.

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Garnaut’s final review would ultimately conclude that: "Australia’s interest lies in the world adopting a strong and effective position on climate change mitigation."

Surprising, you might think, coming from an economist. Particularly if you've heard the scaremongering that has ensued over the past decade pointing to the need to protect jobs and growth as a reason for inaction.

Illustration: Dionne Gain

Illustration: Dionne GainCredit:

Granted, those scaremongers most frequently are National MPs whose electoral boundaries just happen to encompass major fossil fuel industries.

Among the intelligentsia, war has also raged about the precise impact that restricting emissions levels could have on jobs and growth.

Economic consultants have variously estimated the potential jobs lost or gained as in the tens or hundreds of thousands – depending, of course, on the particular lobby group commissioning the study.

In truth, economics delivers no definitive answer on how many jobs climate action will destroy or create. There is no law of economics that states a less-emissions-intense economy is also one of fewer jobs. Nor is there a law that says a more-emissions-intense economy will produce more jobs.

The honest answer is always: it depends.

Read the fine print carefully and you'll always find economic modellers reverting to their standard defence of ceteris paribus: “all other things being equal”.

But friends, other things are rarely equal.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that economies are entirely what we choose to make them.

The Reserve Bank has estimated, for example, that the government's JobKeeper program has resulted in the retention of 700,000 more jobs than otherwise. A choice, plain and simple.

The Reserve Bank's mandate is to promote full employment.

The Reserve Bank's mandate is to promote full employment.Credit:Louie Douvis

And no coincidence, of course. Politics rewards politicians who protect jobs. And our central bank’s explicit mandate – enshrined in law – is to promote the “full employment” of the Australian people.

Arguably, the coronavirus recession has brought both the government and the bank closer in touch with their key responsibilities to protect the jobs of Australians. Measures once deemed unthinkable have, indeed, been thought and, not only that, implemented.

The truth, as it turns out, is that we can have as many jobs as we like. It’s entirely a matter of government control.

Of course, it’s far better if those jobs have sustainable futures – the product, in some way, of the real world ebb and flow of private demand and supply.

When it comes to climate policy and the future of jobs, those tides are flowing only one way.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will commit to an improved 2030 emissions reduction target at Saturday's summit.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will commit to an improved 2030 emissions reduction target at Saturday's summit.Credit:AP

At the climate summit he will host on Saturday, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson will commit to a beefed-up 2030 emissions reduction target, while also fleshing out his 12 billion-pound plan ($21 billion plan) to create or support a quarter of a million British jobs through his “Green Industrial Revolution”, which involves money spent on wind, nuclear and hydrogen technologies.

Announcing his plan last month, Boris touted all the new jobs to be created: “There will be electric vehicle technicians in the Midlands, construction and installation workers in the north-east and Wales, specialists in advanced fuels in the north-west, agroforestry practitioners in Scotland, and grid system installers everywhere.”

In rhetoric Scott Morrison should seriously consider nicking from his Conservative counterpart, Johnson declared: "We long ago proved that green and growth can go hand-in-hand. So let us meet the most enduring threat to our planet with one of the most innovative and ambitious programs of job creation we have known.”

Morrison’s recent decision to rule out using the controversial Kyoto credits to avoid more ambitious action on reducing emissions suggests our Prime Minister may, finally, be turning on his previously hardline climate action stance.

And not a moment too soon.

As China fires new trade salvos almost daily across the bows of the Australian economy, we can scarcely afford to ignore the new positioning of our major world ally and significant trading partner, the United States, on climate matters. Joe Biden has promised net-zero emissions by 2050, joining Britain, Japan and New Zealand.

A decade ago, Garnaut urged Australia to play a major role in leading global action on climate change, arguing: “This interest is driven by two realities of Australia’s position relative to other developed countries: our exceptional sensitivity to climate change, and our exceptional opportunity to do well in a world of effective global mitigation.”

Of course, we didn’t lead the world on climate action. Our brief flirtation with bipartisanship on emissions trading gave way to one of the most frustrating and self-destructive economic policy debates in Australian history.

But in this post-COVID world (touch wood), there is still time to make sure we are not left completely behind on the green jobs revolution (touch more wood).

The most valuable contribution Morrison could make now would be to follow the example of Johnson and publicly denounce the erroneous notion that taking action means losing jobs. This misnomer has been at the root of anti-action sentiment for decades and it's time to kick the myth.

Our jobs, increasingly, depend on it.

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