27 July 2010 – Our new Prime Minister has wasted no time in creating a new political push for a “lasting and deep community consensus” on climate change action by proposing new measures to engage and consult with the public.

On the surface, this is a welcome development.  Our political system thrives on competition rather than consensus, and the building of society’s support for action is invaluable.

But there are pitfalls to this approach.  Recent experience on climate change, which is as all-encompassing as a political issue can be, demonstrates that the forces protecting the status quo are infinitely more powerful than the voices for change.  Just ask Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd.

It’s easy to conclude that differences of public opinion on such a thorny issue may well be irreconcilable, and that as a result “lasting and deep community consensus” may, somewhat conveniently, be defined as never being reached.  This is especially true of a randomly selected Citizen’s Assembly, which will likely agree on the need for action, but diverge dramatically on the actions that are required, and who ought to pay for them.

This in a sense is where the climate debate has already got to.  The pursuit of consensus through such an approach may not necessarily lead to a consensual outcome without a more forthright display of leadership that sets the tone.  Popularity cannot be the only benchmark for introducing new and far-reaching policy.

More importantly, there is plentiful evidence of remarkable convergence and agreement on issues that can successfully reduce emissions.  Take for example energy efficiency, which is simply about eliminating non-productive energy use.  There is widespread untapped potential for greenhouse gas reductions in this area, much of which can be achieved at a financial gain.

In its Low Carbon Growth Plan ClimateWorks undertook an extensive bottom-up analysis of emission reductions opportunities and created the first economy-wide emissions reduction strategy for Australia.  The report found that over 50 Mt of abatement is available through energy efficiency measures across sectors at negative cost.  If these savings were achieved, it would mean no net growth in energy usage for Australia between now and 2020, obviating the need for major investment in new energy network infrastructure, thus leading to further significant financial benefits.

It is difficult to find any Australian organisation that is not pro-energy efficiency, other than those who profit by volume of energy sold. Even energy sector businesses are open to the idea that incentive structures dictating their activities could be re-aligned to better recognise the available efficiencies.

Better energy efficiency is agreed policy to be pursued by all sides of Parliament; mainstream businesses agree with it either in principle or as active implementers; and it is a key vehicle of community engagement and empowerment.  Support for energy efficiency exists across all sectors and in all walks of life, but being so disaggregated has meant its support base is too diffuse to stand up and be noticed.

As David Hetherington and Tim Soutphommasane have pointed out in their recent think piece for Per Capita, the politics of climate change require progressive actors to build broad coalitions of support behind their ideas, and to be successful, action on sustainability must be supported with a ‘nation-building’ narrative about transition to the economy of the future.

The Labor Party has set out its plans to build broad coalitions of support behind climate change action.  In a range of ways, the Australian Alliance to Save Energy is assisting this by working to demonstrate the existing depth of consensus on energy efficiency action.  If these pockets of support for energy efficiency are brought together and made more of a priority we may actually start to build some mainstream momentum for scaled-up change.

On a nation-building narrative, there are encouraging signs of late – the Prime Minister used Sunday night’s great debate as an opportunity to link climate actions to her vision for “a prosperous Australia and for a sustainable Australia”.

The weekend’s announcements on tax breaks for green buildings is sound policy that will reinforce the government’s rhetoric with tangible actions.

These are first steps in the right direction, though the potential for a stronger linking of these themes by either party remains a largely untapped opportunity.  In a practical sense, further energy efficiency policy announcements during this campaign can provide a bridge to a more positive re-framing of climate change action in the longer term, because the community agreement is already so developed, and the economic payoff is also compelling.

If in the current political times a firm consensus is a precursor to climate change action, on energy efficiency it remains high time for Australia to act.

Mark Lister is executive director, Australian Alliance to Save Energy

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