Australia’s climate debate has transitioned from obsessing over coal to obsessing over gas. It is the talk of the big end of town.
Australia’s energy minister Angus Taylor has always been a big fan of gas (and not a big fan of big fans). For fossil fuel advocates, COVID19 recovery efforts have created a wide playground from what was previously a narrow crawlspace. Direct taxpayer support for mega-polluting projects locking Australia into fossil fuels for decades is now being openly discussed.
It is not, as you might assume, limited to News Corp’s papers. The platform for this COVID19 fossil fuel advocacy, which centres so profoundly around gas, found a home on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last Monday.
The bad show?
The Q&A panel, on Australia’s energy future, featured three great voices: “Sustainability technologist and entrepreneur Sophia Hamblin Wang; Independent MP for Warringah Zali Steggall; and the director of Investor Group on Climate Change, Zoe Whitton”. Instead of appending that panel with two energy experts, the producers invited “Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources Joel Fitzgibbon; Queensland Nationals senator and former Resources Minister Matt Canavan”.
You can guess which voice dominated the conversation. Canavan spoke 2,564 words of 9,407 in total. That was more than a quarter of the total time – four times as much as Hamblin Wang, twice as much as Steggall, and around 1.5 times as much as each of Whitton and Fitzgibbon:
It matters that Q&A was the Matt Canavan show. There are few in Australian parliament from any party so brazenly in support of fossil fuels, and particularly of coal. The ABC is one of Australia’s most trusted sources of information, and although it’s unlikely anyone mistakes a panel show for news, those discussions are still imbued with both a heavy responsibility for accuracy and the need for good, useful discourse.
Q&A has breached the first of those before, when since-retired radio host Alan Jones flubbed the figures for wind and solar costs by several orders of magnitude (gloriously, precious minutes in Jones’ last ever broadcast were dominated by a compulsory correction of wind and solar proportions in New Zealand).
But the second responsibility – moving beyond ‘free speech’ and thinking about ‘good speech’ – is still a major problem for the show. There have been failures – climate change denying Senator Malcolm Roberts has been a regular feature. It has earnt the goading Twitter nickname ‘the bad show’. But there are genuine signs of improvement too, with a panel in February on ‘climate solutions’ not featuring a single politician – a panel that was received far more positively than Monday’s.
Was the speech good?
Much of the debate on the show centred around whether gas-fired power is a compulsory part of decarbonisation. “Do you really think, Zali, really, that we’re going to have enough renewables in the system to replace that baseload [coal] power and battery storage? No”, said Labor’s Fitzgibbon, rehashing decades-old conservative fossil fuel talking points.
Nationals Senator Matt Canavan focused on coal, saying that “The reason we should build coal-fired power stations in Australia is it’s the cheapest form of power we have available. This week – this week – Germany opened a new coal-fired power station. Germany”.
No, the speech was not good. Despite frequent attempts by the other panellists to calmly refer to the market, engineering and planetary realities of these technologies, Canavan and Fitzgibbon free-wheeled and dropped their lines unchecked and uninterrupted.
The gas debate is already tiresome. “The reality is we’re going to have to rely on it for 10-20 perhaps 30 years. Up to three decades”, declared Australia’s outgoing Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, during the previous week. The word ‘rely’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there – what is left out is exactly how much gas will be needed.
The Australian Energy Market Operator’s model of least-cost options for replacing aging coal-fired power stations in the National Electricity Market is called the ‘Integrated System Plan’, or ISP. It is a model issued with two major commands: make it cheap, and ensure reliability standards are met. And for each scenario they model, gas-fired power is nearly non-existent
Okay – it won’t be a large percentage of generation in any of those scenarios, within this model and its constraints. But surely we’ll need to install massive capacities of gas-fired power stations, so they can fire up during times of low and solar, even if total output is low? Again, no.
This model priorities new interconnection, hydro and distributed batteries that form ‘virtual power stations’ as the cheapest pathways for integrating high percentages of wind and solar power. None of these are easy or simple, and all come with their own unique risks, but AEMO’s new ‘Renewable Integration Study’ provides a further blow to the idea that gas-fired power is a compulsory, grid-dominated requirement for climate action.
Zali Steggall tried her absolute best to bring this up on the panel, but due to the presence of two people happy to misinform, the audience would have surely been left with the impression that both sides are equally correct, despite one side clearly aligning with the expert position more closely.
Why not add energy experts, on a panel on Australia’s energy future? Wind, solar and grid integration will be three major pillars of the next decades, no matter what direction policy goes. And “energy” isn’t just electricity – what about agriculture, industry and mining? Australia’s energy past dominated a discussion about Australia’s “energy future”:
No matter your feelings for the show, it’s certainly important. It rates highly and when it gets the formula right, it’s well loved. But the presence of two fossil-fuelled politicians, alongside a discussion agenda that clearly centred around old energy instead of new, rapidly disassembles any hope of good, future-facing discussion.
It is far better than the days of Alan Jones and Malcolm Roberts, but there’s still so far to go.