Common ground and sound policies were absent but there was a fair dollop of sophistry and distortion, writes Paul Sinclair

The environment debate that took place at the National Press Club between Environment Minister Greg Hunt and Labor's shadow environment minister Mark Butler on Wednesday should have been an opportunity to stake out some common ground on how best to transition Australia to a clean energy future.

Instead we were subjected to sophistry, distortions and policy shortfalls.

We were subjected to sophistry, distortions and policy shortfalls

Butler started well by pinpointing the damage the Coalition has done to the environment sector – from defunding Environmental Defenders offices, abolishing the Climate Commission, attacking the charitable status of environment groups and seeking to delist large areas of Tasmania's World Heritage forests.

There's no doubt Labor's climate targets and renewable energy policies are well ahead of the Coalition's at this stage of the eight-week election campaign but there are still serious gaps.

One of Hunt's key points was that Australia will "meet and beat" – he said the phrase seven times – our 2020 emissions targets. What he failed to mention is that these targets are among the lowest in the developed world at just a 5 per cent reduction.

Another factor is Australia negotiated a very lenient Kyoto target that was very easy to beat. The negotiated and exceptional rules Australia won allowed the extra emissions to be carried over and applied to meeting our already low 2020 target.

At one point in the debate Hunt described the Emissions Reduction Fund, which most experts believe is inefficient and unable to deliver emissions reductions on the scale required, as "arguably the most successful market mechanism in the world". If this claim were true, why is Australia ranked 45th out of 50 countries globally for per capita emissions, only marginally better than Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates?

And while Hunt committed to funding round two of the Emissions Reduction Fund in words, it is not budgeted for in forward estimates, and the price tag is likely to be big. Sinking significantly more money into the ERF will be necessary to meet the Coalition's unambitious climate targets and see taxpayers paying for emissions reductions, rather than polluters.

There were several issues on which the differences between the two party positions were clear. On a question about Australia embracing nuclear power, Hunt left the door open and spoke of the need for a national debate but Butler slapped this down by putting the ALP's long-held position that there is no place for nuclear power in Australia, even on economic grounds.

Missing from both performances was any kind of adequate response to the fact that regional forest agreements are failing and will consign many endangered species to extinction.

In response to a question about the 17 per cent funding decrease for the environment in the budget, Hunt pointed to funding for the Clean Energy Innovation Fund, but this is not new money. The government created this fund by taking money directly out of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and in the process removed the Australian Renewable Energy Agency's critical grant making function – which fills a key part of the innovation chain – and its remaining budget of about $1.3 billion. This is inconsistent with the government's claims about supporting innovation.

The sad truth is since coming to office in September 2013 the Coalition has made no progress in reducing Australia's overall emissions. In its first quarter of government (December 2013), emissions were at 133.5 million metric tonnes of CO₂. In the most recent quarter (December 2015) emissions were at 134.2 million metric tonnes of CO₂.

Since coming to office the Coalition has made no progress in reducing Australia's emissions

Although the Abbott government was too closely aligned to the fossil fuel industry, history demonstrates that conservative members of Parliament should be good conservationists. In the past, this has been the case. The Australian Conservation Foundation's first president was Sir Garfield Barwick, a leading minister in a Liberal government.

Remember it was Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies who signed the first Antarctic Treaty in 1960. Malcolm Fraser first declared Kakadu a national park and signed an agreement with Japan to protect migratory bird species. Fraser was a committed conservationist and early ACF member. John Howard's government established the National Greenhouse Inventory and National Carbon Accounting System and committed $10 billion to improve national water security.

Sadly, the Abbott/Turnbull government has failed to curb Australia's pollution, adequately support our nation's transition to renewable energy or resource nature conservation.

Australia needs a "race to the top" between all parties on climate and environment policy. The Liberal Party should be leading the effort to find ways of deeply cutting pollution, supporting clean energy and protecting the environment.

Instead, it is leading a race to the bottom. Yet neither Hunt nor Butler was willing to talk about the big bad elephant in the room: coal. If we want to get our emissions under control and contain the damage to the reef, we have to consign coal to history. But neither Hunt nor Butler was prepared to mention coal.

This article first ran in the Canberra Times

Paul Sinclair

Campaigns Director at the Australian Conservation Foundation.