Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia

29 January 2016

The euphoria of the Paris climate agreement has been followed by a difficult political reality, writes John Hewson.

There is an urgent need for a mature debate about just how we, as a nation, are to make the essential transition to a low carbon economy/society.

There was much euphoria globally with the signing of the Paris climate agreement last month. For its part in that agreement, Australia pledged to cut emissions by some 26-28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

This seems a lot, when compared to the cut of a mere 5 per cent by 2020 promised earlier by both sides of politics, but is only about half the cut recommended by the Climate Change Authority.

Despite its turmoil on this issue, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Government was making some headway in cutting emissions, having introduced a carbon tax and actively encouraged the development of renewables.

The Abbott Government both abolished the carbon tax and did just about everything it could to discourage renewables, actions that virtually killed investor confidence and resulted in a fall in investment in the sector by some 80-90 per cent and the loss of some 15,000 jobs, a process that saw a reduction in the Renewable Energy Target (RET) from 41,000 – 33,000 Gigawatt hours.

Turnbull, in turn, to ensure support for his leadership challenge, assured Abbott’s supporters that he would basically stick with the Abbott climate policy; the reduced Renewable Energy Target (RET), the emissions reduction targets for 2030, and the abolition of both the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

So, despite the Paris commitments, Turnbull is effectively left without a policy to achieve the 2030 targets, to even begin the transition to a low carbon economy/society. His position is unsustainable. The question is both when and how he will change this unsustainable position.

More on this: Sharing the global climate finance effort | Jonathan Pickering & Frank Jotzo
The truth is we are already laggards on the global stage. The 2016 Global Performance Index published by Yale University this week reveals that in the climate and energy category Australia ranked 150th for our trend in carbon emissions from electricity generation.

Yale said that, among wealthy nations, only Saudi Arabia had a lower ranking than Australia for the decade to 2012.

Our greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector jumped by 3.8 million tones in 2015 alone, and were 5.1 per cent higher than in June 2014 before the Abbott Government scrapped the carbon tax.

Talk about being “hoisted by their own petard”! Environment Minister Greg Hunt had previously lauded the Yale Survey as “the most credible, scientifically-based, hard data-based analysis in the world”.

The tragedy is that Australia has lost several decades in which we could have led the technological revolution that is essential to an effective response to climate change – the development of renewables, energy efficiencies and other alternative technologies.

We have the sun and wind; we have the solar and wind technologies; we have the technology to develop world leading-edge heat and battery storage, and innumerable energy efficiencies.

What we don’t have is the government, business and finance sector leadership framework within which such a revolution would flourish.

Government has been neutered by short-term politics, game playing and point scoring; business has largely sat on its conservative hands opting for the status quo; the finance sector (both banks and funds managers) has been so locked into fossil fuels and old-world technologies that it has been incapable of responding but, ironically, is now in a much riskier position vis-à-vis a possible climate-induced financial crisis, than it was in the sub-prime induced Global Financial Crisis.

This must all change. It will probably now require Malcolm to match his rhetoric about opportunities, innovation, and how good it is to be an Australian, with some concrete policy and leadership.

The transition to a low carbon economy/society is an urgent, but realistic possibility, and with it more growth, more investment, more jobs, and a sustainable planet.

As Voltaire said: “Men argue, nature acts”.

This article was also published by the Southern Highland News.

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Hewson, John. 2017. "The Necessity Of A Low-Carbon Australia - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/the-necessity-of-a-low-carbon-australia/.