That is the inescapable conclusion of the Abbott government’s green paper on energy – supposedly designed to provide a long-term blueprint of Australia’s energy future, and of its message to the UN-sponsored climate summit in New York. If the repeal of the carbon price, and the determination of the government to dismantle the renewable nervy target and other climate and clean energy institutions did not make it clear enough, then these last two events certainly punctured the rhetoric that might pretend otherwise.
The green paper – as we outlined on Tuesday – is almost entirely focused on the ability of the fossil fuel industry to extract coal and gas, and for their possible replacement in the future by nuclear. Wind and solar and other renewables are marginalised – the department of energy that lies within Ian Macfarlane’s broad Industry portfolio thinks that they are only useful, at best, in off-grid and edge of grid applications.
The green paper does this by virtually ignoring the potential of climate change to impact Australia’s domestic energy market and its exports, and by not even countenancing the competition of renewables on the basis of costs. Climate change is mentioned only six times in the green paper, and its potential impact on Australia’s electricity market – which accounts for one third of the country’s emissions – and its exports, is dismissed in a single paragraph that concludes that post-2020 climate change commitments “could have implications for the composition of the global energy mix.”
Julie Bishop’s speech – you can read it in full here –pretty much reaches the same conclusion as the green paper. It is striking for its lack of ambition; it ignores the government’s own advice (from the Climate Change Authority) that it should dramatically increase its targets, and puts the emphasis only on economic growth. It is completely out of step with the rhetoric of other major nations.
In other words, as other ministers from PM Tony Abbott through Treasurer Joe Hockey, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane and environment minister Greg Hunt have stated, the primary concern is that of fossil fuel extraction and fossil fuel exports, despite the fact that Australia has zero ability to influence ultimate demand.
In effect, Australia has redefined its national priorities: Those priorities are no longer to protect the country, its economy and its people from the impact of climate change and help limit warming to 2C. It is to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
Australia is punting its future on the premise that Coal will remain King. And apart from a few sympathisers such as his international “bestie”, Canada’s Stephen Harper, and his not-so bestie, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, it is completely out of step with other nations.
Given that Abbott has made security and counter terrorism activities his single biggest priority – and deliberately avoided the UN climate summit – the words of US president Barack Obama were an interesting counterpoint:
“For all the immediate challenges that we gather to address this week – terrorism, instability, inequality, disease – there’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate,” Obama said.
“No one can stand on the sidelines any more.”
Yet that is exactly what Australia is doing. The New York summit may be downplayed some for its failure to elicit binding promises – 350.Org’s Bill McKibben borrowed a baseball analogy in describing Obama’s actions as a “bunt for a single” when the team is down 10 runs in the 9th innings – but that was never the point of the summit.
The purpose, as defined by UN secretary general Ban ki-Moon, was to develop momentum and to galvanise political and public attention. That it did, with more than 400,000 marching in New York, and 120 leaders attending.
The actions of China – now the largest polluter – remains the key. Over the past five years it has rapidly evolved its position from one that counted on others to act, to one where its own actions could help deliver a more ambitious climate target than anyone thought possible.
At the summit, China made clear its intentions for a national emissions trading scheme, to put a cap on total energy consumption, to vigorously develop renewable and other clean energies in a move away from fossil fuels, and to reach “peak” emissions.
Numerous studies in recent weeks have pointed to how emissions can be dramatically slashed – and meet the 2C target to which Australia is a party – without threatening economic growth.
It requires, however, as the research by Nicholas Stern, Jeffrey Sachs, and Australia’s Climateworks have pointed out – investment in new technologies, and a recognition that economic opportunities lie in the new, rather than the old.
And that money is starting to flow and it is looking for a home. Fund managers want a carbon price, and are looking to develop a huge green bond market. Even the Rockefellers are dumping fossil fuels in favour of renewables. As Frank Pegan, the CEO of Catholic Super, a $5 billion fund, told a media conference in New York: “Investors are looking for opportunities. Carbon pricing will open up a completely new market for investors. It could be trillions of dollars.”
Not, it would seem, in Australia just now.