Bipartisan climate change policy challenge

By Elise Scott

Both major parties have hinted bipartisanship will play a role in Australia's efforts to curb global warming.

But they're still a fair distance apart on what climate change policy should look like.

In the first specific policy debate of the federal election campaign, Environment Minister Greg Hunt and his Labor counterpart Mark Butler went head-to-head over plans to slash carbon emissions.

The two parties have been at loggerheads over whether and how to price carbon since former Liberal prime minister John Howard took a trading scheme to the 2007 election.

Since then, Australia has implemented and scrapped a carbon tax.

The coalition replaced that policy with direct action which pays polluters not to pollute out of a $2.55 billion cash pool, while Labor wants to bring in a market-based emissions trading scheme.

Their policies look starkly different as they stand, but experts say modifications could lead them onto similar paths.

Mr Butler admits getting basic policy agreement is the challenge for the next parliament.

There wasn't one democracy in the world that had a serious climate change policy without some level of bipartisan consensus between major parties, he said.

"There really is a challenge for the next parliament," he told the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

"Otherwise, we'll be in the 2019 election ... again not having made progress in this area."

His counterpart admitted the question of bipartisanship was important while conceding it hadn't been sufficiently asked nor answered on any side.

Mr Hunt believes the bipartisanship could be found in his government's safeguard mechanism which forms part of the direct action policy and limits how much polluters can omit.

"It's the mechanism that matters," he said.

But Mr Butler isn't sold on that idea, saying Labor doesn't believe in taxpayer money purchasing emissions abatement.

Critics of the government's policy say the safeguard mechanism isn't strict enough to prevent emissions increases.

Going into the July 2 poll, the major parties aren't in agreement even on emissions reduction goals, with the government sticking with its 26 to 28 per cent target by 2030.

Labor has adopted the Climate Change Authority's recommendation of 45 per cent cuts by the same time - which the government says will impose massive costs on consumers.