Climbing out of Australia’s climate hole Opinion Article

Sep 18, 2015 - 1:49pm

This article originally appeared in Crikey on 18 September, 2015.

John Connor   
CEO, The Climate Institute
  

There’s an old Arab proverb that it is easier to get into a hole than to get out of it. When it comes to climate, clean energy and carbon policy in Australia, it is clear we are in a deep hole. 

Investment in renewables has crashed by some 88% in Australia, precisely at the time when global clean energy investments have overtaken fossil fuel investments. And it is a matter of fact that since the removal of laws that capped and priced carbon, emissions from the electricity sector have rebounded strongly. 

Energy and business lobbyists, as well as community groups, have been bemoaning the lack of integration of clean energy policies in Australia. It is now time we stop digging and find a way out.

First and foremost in this task is to be clear on our destination.

That is why yesterday’s statement from Australia’s biggest companies is so important. Companies like BHP, AGL and Santos have now made it clear that avoiding global warming of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels will deliver substantial benefits to our economy, business and communities.The companies, also including Mirvac, Unilever, GE, Wesfarmers and Westpac, acknowledged the scientific reality for this goal is that we have to get to net zero emissions of greenhouse gases.

There is growing common ground, both in Australia and globally, about the need to clean up pollution from our electricity sector and the fact that delayed or piecemeal action will increase the costs. This was highlighted by the Australian Climate Roundtable including business, investor, union, welfare and environment groups in June. For pollution-intensive economies like Australia’s, this matters.

Globally, conservative financial institutions like the World Bank and even the G7 group of nations acknowledge avoiding 2 degrees world warming requires a zero-carbon global economy. This is not being anti-fossil fuel it is being pro-math.

For the new Prime Minister it is an urgent time to take a fresh look and to throw off the shackles and divisions that have beset this policy area. We need to leave behind the attitudes that formed and became deeply entrenched between 2009 and 2012.

It is time for a fresh look at the systemic risks that climate change poses to Australia’s interests, assets, regional security and financial security.Our new government should have a fresh look at the strength of community support for climate action and agreement that tackling climate change creates opportunities for new jobs and investment. Over 70% of Australians agreed with that view mid-year.

It is also time for a fresh look not only at the global investment trends surging in favour of clean energy and the thrilling drop in the cost of clean energy alternatives. It is time to look seriously at the ageing and inefficient fossil fuel power plants, which are now real threats not only to investment in modernising our energy system but also, through declining maintenance investment, to its very stability.

This has been a deeply divisive debate, but we need to leave that behind.

To get out of this hole there are some important steps.

We must first remove the fatwah from key independent agencies that can help bridge these divides. Let the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority get on with their jobs. Together they provide an independent, transparent architecture that develops modern, smart and clean technologies, assists their deployment and reviews our abruptly diminishing carbon budget.Making clear there are no further threats to Australia’s renewable energy industry would also help.

Even the Abbott government’s initial post-2020 target offer (inadequate in our view) made clear there is significant policy development to be undertaken. Malcolm Turnbull comes to the prime ministership at a time when government policies are at their most fluid.

It is important to make clear that Australia is on a clean energy pathway and a pathway to net zero emissions. A critical step in that direction would be to have a clear plan for replacing our old power plants, some literally with hardware from the 1940s, with modern, smart and clean technologies. This is an exciting opportunity and necessary if we are going to fulfil the full potential of the global clean technology boom.

If Australia is serious about the bipartisan goal of avoiding 2 degrees warming, it, like other countries, will need to make stronger post-2020 pollution reduction targets. The time for that will be after the UN Climate Change conference in Paris this November 30 to December 11, but there are extra financing and other commitments that can be made in Paris.

There is a way out of Australia’s climate, carbon and clean energy holes. Let’s stop digging and start climbing. There is some promising common ground revealed in yesterday’s business statement and the joint policy principles of the Climate Roundtable.

There are exciting opportunities to disrupt the entrenched political model, let’s grasp them.

John Connor

John Connor is CEO of The Climate Institute. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.

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