10 things to know about Scott Morrison’s so-called climate “pivot”

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Scott Morrison’s week-long celebration of climate and energy policies looks less like a pivot than a crouch. It would make more sense if more renewables were on the agenda, but they aren’t.

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I could turn this into a ring. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
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Prime minister Scott Morrison has spent all of this week trying to shore up the Coalition government’s climate credentials, or at least to diffuse the idea that it doesn’t have any.

The government which scrapped the carbon price, tried to kill the renewable energy target, defenestrated the Climate Change Authority and tried to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corp and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency appears to be taking note that climate focused independents are posing a real threat to incumbent MPs.

But what to make of the suite of policy announcements? Is the man who cradled a lump of coal in parliament experienced an epiphany? Or is the government just paying lip service. Here are ten things to think about.

Australia’s economy-wide emissions are rising

Since Tony Abbott first took power and repealed the carbon price, emissions have been on a rising trend in Australia.

New federal government data released on Thursday shows emissions for the year to September 2018 were up 0.9 per cent on the previous year, thanks to increases from LNG exports, stationary energy, transport (up 2%), fugitives (up 7.3%), industrial processes and waste sectors.

In December, the Morrison government confirmed its intention to use the controversial Kyoto overhang of credits negotiated in the Howard era to further offset Australia’s emissions reduction targets under Paris.

Meanwhile, they have consistently pushed back against calls to deepen emissions cuts in the electricity sector – one of the few sectors where any progress is being made (see below) – and have attacked the federal Labor opposition’s 45 per cent emissions reduction target policy as reckless and economy-wrecking.

Wind and solar are slashing emissions in the electricity sector

The good news is that electricity sector emissions are falling – thanks to wind and solar, and no thanks to the federal Coalition’s consistent and concerted efforts to slow the rollout of renewables.

That government data which confirmed the rise in economy-wide emissions also shows that since 2009, renewables have slashed emissions in the electricity sector by 15 per cent, as the share of coal fell from 83 per cent to 75 per cent, and renewables grew from 8% to 17% of total generation.

New data this week from The Australia Institute showed that the renewable share of generation, including rooftop solar, may be higher than that, reaching 21 per cent in January, and all non-hydro renewables reached 12.6 per cent.

Both these shares seem set to keep growing from now on – with particular thanks to grid-scale solar, which TAI notes accounted for more than half of the total year-on-year increase in renewables from January 2018-19, while rooftop solar accounted for another quarter.

So much for solar and wind not reducing emissions.

Climate impacts are getting worse

As our English cousins enjoy an unseasonably warm end to their winter, Australia brings to close its hottest summer ever. As The Conversation reports, the 2018/19 “summer of extremes” set new national temperature records and saw worsening drought, locally significant flooding, damaging bushfires, and heatwaves.

So to reiterate, that’s Very Hot – a national average temperature of about 2.1°C above average – and Very Dry; total summer rainfall was around 30% below average, the lowest for summer since 1982–83. In the Northern Territory, the Bureau of Meteorology authors of the article explain, the monsoon onset was delayed in Darwin until January 23, and typical monsoonal weather was absent for most of summer.

And this is expected to carry on into autumn, with health alerts issued for South Australia and Victoria as yet another intense heatwave sweeps over Australia’s south in what the BoM is forecasting to be the hottest start to Autumn in 30 years.

And that is just in Australia…

So what’s a poor, coal-loving ScoMo to do?

You might be tempted to think that the PM would recognise the solution as yet more renewables, which is what the experts say, and encourage their push into transport, manufacturing and heat as well.

Well, you would be wrong. But he is trying to diffuse the issue as the government goes into an election campaign and as sitting Coalition MPs face increasing pressure from climate-focused independents.

To this end, Morrison has:

  • Rebadged Abbott’s Direct Action policy, and called it Climate Solutions

Yes, he same mechanism that has underpinned a relentless rise in emissions since the scrapping of carbon tax. A lot of this is supporting farmers to do things they would likely have done anyway, or not do things they were unlikely to do. Worse, it is providing money to super-rich companies like Rio Tinto to build a diesel generator, and others to do gas. Worse again, it even allows coal investment. no other country in the world allows that.

  • Embraced Turnbull’s pet project, the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme

This week Morrison tossed $1.4 billion into Snowy 2.0; money that Snowy Hydro says it didn’t ask for and didn’t need, but the question remains about the financial viability of the project. There is no information about how this is value for money, because the government and Snowy refuse to release their modelling, or even their final costs.

Snowy insists that it will be good for wind and solar, but has produced no modelling to back that up. Earlier modelling, prepared for its first feasibility study, and by AEMO, says it will actually encourage more coal generation unless there is a big increase in wind and solar, which the government does not support.

The Tasmania battery and the new transmission link

The Morrison government is also looking to fast-track the Tasmania Marinus Link project, with $56 million tipped in to that project and the offer of more government money towards the island state’s “batter of the nation” renewable energy project.

But ,as with Snowy 2.0, this only makes financial sense – or so the project’s proposed builder, Tas Networks says – if the transition to wind and solar is dramatically accelerated and coal plants (7,000MW) are retired early.

The government says it has no intention of doing that. So what happens if it is built and there is no fast-tracking of wind and solar? According to its own modelling, it will result in more coal generation.

Picked an early winner on underwriting baseload

While in Tasmania, Morrison also said that the government would provide an underwriting project to one of the pumped hydro installations planned by the state government owned Tasmania Hydro as part of that Battery of the Nation project. The only problem is that Hydro Tasmania has not decided what that project would be, or where, or how big, or anything.

That must have been interesting news to the other applicants to the underwriting tender who were asked to provide specific details of the investment, including customers.

Electric vehicles

As Bridie Schmidt and Giles Parkinson reported on The Driven, the federal Coalition unveiled an electric vehicle strategy with some fanfare on Monday, claiming it as a core component of its newly based Climate Solutions policy – but so far it turns out to be a single page with no targets, no policy incentives, no mention of addressing one of the main barriers to EV uptake, that is the higher cost of electric vehicles.

What the seven paragraph, one minute read does do is to acknowledge that EV sales are on the increase overseas, and the various potential benefits on offer to Australia should it decide to get with the program – as long as that was “managed sensibly,” of course.

Energy efficiency

It’s taken a federal election campaign to see the Morrison government finally wake up to energy efficiency, so often labelled the “low-hanging fruit” of not just emissions reduction, but of lowering consumer electricity bills.

Even better, a recent Green Energy Markets report found that energy efficiency was also a bumper job creator, currently offering the equivalent of 59,000 full-time positions – more than coal or gas.

For their part, ScoMo and Co are promising $50 million in grants for businesses and community organisations to undertake energy efficiency projects, and a further $17 million for building owners. But that would only scratch the surface of what is needed to really get this sector going, particularly in the areas of existing housing stock, including low-income and rental homes, which would not only reduce emissions but offer big cuts to consumer energy bills.

As the CEO of Australia’s Energy Efficiency Council, Luke Menzel, put it, the policy commitment is a small step forward, when what is required is a big leap. “Ramping up ambition on energy efficiency could cut households’ and businesses’ energy bills by over 30 per cent, saving them $7.7 billion a year,” said Luke Menzel.

Hydrogen

In what is dressed up like a new initiative, but isn’t, the federal energy minister Angus Taylor and resources minister Matt Canavan released on Friday a statement announcing that the National Hydrogen Strategy is open for consultation.

That is the National Hydrogen Strategy that the Council of Australian Governments asked Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, to set to work on, after he made a compelling presentation to COAG about the potential for a national renewable hydrogen industry.

Like the pumped hydro schemes, and even the EV initiative, this might make sense if it was about renewable hydrogen, but Canavan said it is also about coal, and made mention of the $500 million project in the Latrobe Valley that will produce a grand total of three tonnes of hydrogen.

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