The Abbott government turns 2 today, so it’s a good time to file a report card on how it is performing in climate change and clean energy policies..
Others have written on the broader perspective of the Abbott government. Veteran reporter and commentator Michelle Grattan labels it as “divided, divisive and authoritarian”. The Guardian‘s Lenore Taylor describes it as a government of broken promises and confected crises. The right wing commentator Andrew Bolt wants it to “toughen up.”
We’re going to focus on our specific areas of interest – climate change and clean energy. And on both, the Abbott government gets a fail. Marked out of 10, the Abbott government gets just one on climate change, because at least it has an emissions reduction target. In clean energy, it gets a big fat zero. And it’s exactly how we predicted, here and here.
Why Tony Abbott scores zero out of 10 for clean energy
Why the zero? Well, it should be obvious. The Abbott government’s not-so secret policy objective, from the moment it was elected, and despite denials not to change the renewable energy target , was to bring the large-scale renewable energy industry in Australia to a halt. And it has been devastatingly successful in doing so.
There has not been a single wind farm or solar farm financed and installed in Australia since the election of the Abbott government in September 2013, apart from those funded by the institutions that Abbott has tried and failed to dismantle, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and the successful policies of the ACT government.
This was not Abbott’s stated policy leading into the election. But in June this year Abbott made clear what others suspected that he really wanted to achieve. In an interview with radio shock jock Alan Jones, Abbott said he wanted to “R-E-D-U-C-E” the number of wind farms to be built in Australia, if not stop them altogether.
There is no doubt that he has succeeded in stopping the turbines. Even after reluctantly agreeing to a smaller-than-he-wished-for but still significant cut in the RET to 33,000GWh from 41,000GWh, he threw another spanner in the works by declaring wind farms to be offensive, and supporting a new Senate inquiry led by strident anti-wind activists that called for the industry to be bound by red tape and restrictions.
He even instructed the CEFC not to invest in wind turbines, and also to stop financing of rooftop solar. Last year, Abbott said no to installing 12 solar panels on the roof of Kirribilli House, which were being offered free from a Christian group as a Christmas present. Why? Because of “security concerns” and “cleaning costs”.
The Abbott government, meanwhile, has endorsed the work of the Royal Commission into nuclear energy. If you ever wondered why the fear of households installing rooftop solar, it is because – as the WA energy minister and the Australian Energy Market Operator have pointed out – it leaves no room for large-scale conventional centralised power stations. That includes nuclear and that includes coal. There is a lot at stake for vested interests.
Why Tony Abbott scores 1 out of ten for climate change policies
The Abbott government gets a one for climate action because, well, at least it has a target of some sort for 2030.
That is probably more than expected from a government led by someone who was labelled as the world’s “climate grinch” in 2013; who was put into power by a cabal of climate change deniers and who tried to keep climate change off the agenda at the G20 in Brisbane in 2014, and was mortified when Barack Obama put it centre stage.
The fact that is has a target at all can probably be credited to the likes of Environment minister Greg Hunt and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and other members of the Liberal minority that accepts both the science and the imperative to act.
The 2030 target – presented as part of Australia’s contribution to the Paris conference – is to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels (its baseline has been shifted to take advantage of higher emissions in that year rather than the previous baseline of 2020). Critics say that while it is, indeed, a target, it is weak, and the government has no policy to actually achieve it.
Abbott’s action on climate policies bear a strong relation to some people’s gardening skills – not much good at growing anything new, and too afraid to try, but pretty adept at cutting things down.
Abbott has killed off the Climate Council, cut funding for climate research, killed off the Department of Dlimate Change, and reduced numbers in the department of environment. Words such as climate change and cleantech been been “verboten” in the corridors of power and in the bureaucracy.
His government has tried and failed to kill the CEFC, ARENA, and the Climate Change Authority, and has ignored the reports of the latter. Abbott has, of course, cut the carbon price – the first country in the world to do so – and has set up something called Direct Action.
This includes the Emissions Reduction Fund, which has a $2.5 billion of taxpayers fund to spend on projects that will supposedly reduce emissions, but now face questions about whether they were going to happen anyway. This applies as much to the landfill gas projects already operating as to “avoided deforestation schemes”, where farmers are paid not to cut down trees in marginal farming areas that many believe they had no intention of cutting down anyway.
The flip-side of the ERF is something called the “safeguards mechanism”, which is supposed to limit emissions from the biggest polluters, but appears to be an open invitation to pollute more. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane described in amusing detail last week, businesses can pollute at the highest rate of the last five years, and if they worry they might emit more, they can apply for permission to do so. Any “accidental” surplus of emissions that can be blamed on “natural disasters” or “criminals” are also excused.
Big business wants something credible and longer term, but the Abbott government has been digging deeper into its rhetoric by claiming that Labor’s mooted 50 per cent reduction target would have a $600 billion impact on the economy. This, of course, is nonsense. The government’s own modeling shows that the added cost of an ambitious target – say 45 per cent by 2030 – is barely distinguishable from its modest one, and that includes using inflated forecasts for the cost of renewable energy that are already redundant.
The big question is what will happen in the last year of the Abbott government’s mandate. The signs are not promising, either for a change in heart, or for Abbott’s own long term prospects.
In response, Abbott has circled the wagons. According to Grattan, Abbott is relying on an increasingly narrow group of advisors. That appears to be based around key appointees – Maurice Newman, Dick Warburton, David Murray, and Tony Shepherd, and of course the Institute of Public Affairs. None of these accept the science of climate change or favour renewables. None are likely to change between now and the election.
The Coalition is now dominated by right wing conservatives who share these views, or who are too afraid to stand on principle. (Abbott actually triggered the spill against Malcolm Turnbull in 2009 by resigning from the shadow cabinet blaming it on a policy matter over Turnbull’s support for emissions trading). As the world leads in Paris, there is no sign that any of his Cabinet colleagues will return the favour this time round.
But change does happen. One ideological warhorse, the former head of the IPA, Mike Nahan, is now energy minister and Treasurer in Western Australia. After praising coal and dissing renewables for most of his career, Nahan now speaks of an energy revolution dominated by solar – which he says is not only cheap and democratic, it can chase out coal.
That, everyone agrees, is the future. But right now, Abbott is looking only to the past.