Australia

Labor commits to net-zero emissions by 2050, but 'can't tell you what it costs'

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese and Prime Minister Scott Morrison at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: AAP

The Federal Government has demanded to know how much Labor's emissions reduction target would cost the economy.

Labor's commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 would cost the economy, but not as much as the price of inaction, experts have cautioned.

The warning comes as the policy divide on climate change widened between Labor and the Coalition as Labor Leader Anthony Albanese committed to the long-term target for the first time.

The Federal Government has labelled the Opposition's target as "extremist", suggesting the party is repeating past electoral mistakes for not explaining to the public how much the transition would cost the economy.

But Melbourne University economist Tom Kompas said the price of achieving net-zero emissions would pale in comparison to the expense of not taking this action.

“The real point is the avoided damages if the world and Australia doesn’t move to reduce emissions … the damage is going to be severe,” he said.

“It makes sound economic sense to do this … it is time to do this and Australia is a country that is made for renewables.”

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese.
AAP

Mr Albanese laid out his vision for the party’s climate policy in a major speech to a think tank in Melbourne on Friday.

The opposition has locked in behind the net-zero emissions 2050 target and has unanimously voted to dump the use of Kyoto carryover credits.

The plan would see Australia join 73 countries, 398 cities and 786 businesses who’ve already signed up to the goal, including every Australian state and territory.

Some in the Labor party have previously raised concerns its climate policy cost it votes at the last federal election.

“This should be as non-controversial in Australia as it is in most nations,” Mr Albanese said.

“Action on climate change will mean more jobs, lower emissions and lower energy prices … we have so much to lose by not acting."

The Coalition has so far resisted committing to the long-term target, instead focusing on reducing emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.

It is also relying on the use of carryover credits from the Kyoto protocol to reach close to half of this target.

Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor said his opponents had not learned from their climate policy “mistake” – which the Coalition weaponised against them before the last election.

“It’s a target without a plan to get there, and a 2050 target is no substitute for a 2030 target,” he said.

“Our position is clear – we won’t set new targets without being able to look Australians in the eye and tell them how we’ll get there and how much those policies will cost.”

Labor has not set a shorter-term 2030 target after dumping the plan it took to the May federal election to cut emissions by 45 per cent in the next 10 years. 

Energy Minister Angus Taylor.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor.
AAP

Cost to the economy

The cost of transitioning to the 2050 target remains uncertain, but Mr Kompas said modelling estimated it at $122 billion.

“There are costs to this transition … there is a change in net exports if the world moved towards the Paris target – we would see far less coal and gas,” he told SBS News.

“The transition itself moving out of an electricity grid that is run by fossil fuel into renewables isn’t costless – it takes time, it takes money to transition.”

But he said this would be insignificant compared to estimates of the cost of not reaching the target, which could amount to up to $2 trillion.

This estimate includes the cost of associated extreme weather events, infrastructure damage, agricultural and labour productivity losses and costs to biodiversity and human health. 

Research from the CSIRO also suggests Australia could reach the mid-century net-zero target without a significant hit to the economy and wages.

The Australia Institute’s director of climate and energy program, Richie Merzian, said the comparison should be a straight forward one.

“The cost of inaction is huge – it is huge and the longer we take to transition the more costly it will get,” he told SBS News.

“That has become clear to far more Australians after the summer that we just had that has been supercharged by climate change.”

“By putting a marker like net-zero you are actually allowing everyone to orient themselves to that target so they can get there.”

The Federal Government has said it will settle on its 2050 strategy before this year's Glasgow summit, where countries are being encouraged to extend targets on their Paris commitments. 

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison has held back from signing up to the 2050 target citing uncertainty about the impact of this transition on jobs or increases to electricity prices.

“Anthony Albanese is just Bill Shorten 2.0 when it comes to not being able to explain to you the cost of his policies,” he said.

“He can't tell you what it costs, he can't tell you what industries will be affected, he can't tell you how many jobs will go.”

Renewable Energy Researcher Dr Bin Lu is optimistic Australia is in a strong position to transition to net-zero emissions, despite some holding concerns it is currently not on track to do so.

“We think 100 per cent renewables is reliable and affordable and cost-competitive,” he told SBS News.

“[But] we need a clear renewable energy policy to support that – not only support renewable energy, solar and wind, but also support storage and transmission.”

Greens Leader Adam Bandt said even the 2050 target does not go far enough.

“Without strong 2030 targets, a 2050 target is next to meaningless. Unless we act in the next decade, it will be too late to stop runaway global warming.”

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