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Unveiled: Direct Action white paper

Cross bench support is crucial to pass the emissions reduction scheme, and the government is confident of its support. Nine News.

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From the subject of prime ministerial launches promising solutions for the moral challenge of a generation, to a lonely minister holding an afternoon press conference in the shadow of the nation’s most revered public holiday: climate change policy has fallen so far in Australia’s political life that the government gives a good impression of hoping we ignore it.

In this case, the low-key treatment probably makes sense.

Whatever the faults of the Labor-Greens-independents’ carbon price scheme, it is designed to play Australia’s part in a global push to cut carbon dioxide emissions out to the middle of the century.

The Coalition’s ‘‘direct action’’ policy, by contrast, looks like a solution to a different problem - something shorter term, of much less magnitude and inherently political.

Its goal is to help reach the emissions target of a 5 per cent cut by 2020, though no funding has been committed beyond the next four years and at least two analyses have found it is unlikely to be equipped to achieve it.

The emissions reduction fund white paper released on Thursday, four years after the policy was first announced, raises more questions than it answers.

It proposes to allow businesses to bid at a reverse auction to be paid by taxpayers to cut emissions. The lowest-cost bids would win a subsidy from the fund worth $2.55 billion over four years, with most of the cash available at the back end.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt promises a committee will be set up to ensure the proposals have integrity and the cuts are delivered. He expects the cuts to come from a list including making buildings and industrial sites more energy-efficient, reducing emissions from power plants, planting trees and storing carbon in soil.

But the policy does not require big industry to cut emissions. And the crucial question of how the government will make sure the cuts it buys are not undone by other businesses increasing emissions is deferred.

The white paper promises a ‘‘safeguard mechanism’’ that will ‘‘encourage’’ businesses to keep emissions at historic levels. But there are few details of how the safeguard will work – they will be thrashed out during consultation with business over the next year – and the government has decided only the biggest-emitting 130 companies will be covered.

It means those responsible for about half of Australia’s emissions will be able to pump out more without any risk of penalty. Even the 130 biggest emitters have little to fear: Mr Hunt stresses the government is not expecting to raise any revenue from the scheme.

There are some signs the government has listened to feedback. While it wants to sign contracts to cut emissions that last no longer than five years, it acknowledges advice that it would need to allow longer deals to make bigger cuts and says it will test the market for alternatives.

But the policy is in no way designed to deliver what the Climate Change Authority - headed by former Reserve Bank chief Bernie Fraser and including business leaders, economists, scientists and environmentalists - says is necessary for Australia to play its part given what other countries are doing: a 19 per cent cut by 2020 and a reduction of between 40 and 60 per cent by 2030.

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