It’s ironic that mainstream media should get so hot and bothered over the actions of the climate activists at Extinction Rebellion, who have developed a habit of parking a vehicle in the middle of a major thoroughfare, causing delays, frustration and a lot of bad language.
Australia’s federal Coalition government has been doing this for years. Since it took office in 2013, it started by grabbing a big truck and knocking down every climate and energy policy and institution within reach, and when it could do no more destruction it simply parked its bus in the middle of the electric highway and acted as a kind of giant political bollard against the energy transition.
It has been a tactic mastered by current energy (and emissions reduction) minister Angus Taylor. And while many people found a way around it, ducking down side streets, digging tunnels or just climbing over the political and regulatory obstacles, the frustration is so intense, and the language so foul, that Taylor has been voted by readers of the Australian Financial Review as the worst in the current government.
An AFR poll of its readers showed the result was not even close. Asked which ministers they thought had done the best or worst job in delivering positive outcomes in 2020, 55 per cent said Taylor did worst. In a government ministry featuring the likes of Michaelia Cash, Michael McCormack, Stuart Robert, Richard Colbeck and a whole list of others, that is some achievement. But it is also a clear sign of the changing debate and just how isolated Australia’s federal government has become on climate and energy.
Despite all the obstacles, the clean energy transition and emissions reductions in the electricity sector in Australia continue apace, faster than most would have contemplated. Ten years ago, the idea of 10 per cent renewables seemed outrageous. Now, a 100 per cent target seems to be selling the potential short.
The deployment of large-scale wind and solar continues to grow, supported directly by big business and urged on by state and territory governments of all political persuasions, while households and small business have driven uptake of rooftop solar and battery storage to record levels.
The country’s energy institutions, inspired by the appearance of a 20-year transition blueprint in the form of the Australian Energy Market Operator’s Integrated System Plan, and by CSIRO cost estimates, which show an ever more compelling case for renewables and storage, are now embracing the transition and looking for and finding ways to move forward rather than treading water.
State Liberal governments have leaped beyond the state Labor standard of a 50% renewables share by 2030: South Australia’s Liberal government is aiming for 100% by 2030, and will get there much earlier; Tasmania’s Liberal government aims to reach 200 per cent renewables by 2040; and South Australia has trumped this with a 500 per cent renewables target by 2050, reflecting its desire to be a clean energy exporter.
NSW – the country’s biggest electricity market – doesn’t have a renewables target because it doesn’t need one. It just needed a plan and – after several years of fine speeches and not much action – actually delivered one, admired by the energy industry not just for its attention to detail and focus, but its ability to unite Liberal, LNP, Labor and the Greens.
With one striking policy vision, based on the best science and the best economic and engineering advice, NSW energy minister Matt Kean demonstrated that energy and climate need not be a partisan issue: it can be embraced by both the left and right, even if not by the lunatic fringe of One Nation and Sky After Dark.
And that is the major development of 2020. The technology advances – in deployment, costs, hardware, software and systems design – have been terribly important, but the key is that the federal Coalition government now finds itself isolated on an island of ignorance and ideological bloody-mindedness from consumers, from business, from regulators and institutions, from financiers and investors, from research groups, from local and state governments, and from its international trading partners.
The Climate Council’s Tim Flannery said in a recent webinar session hosted by RenewEconomy and its EV-focused sister site The Driven, that the real problem is the federal government and the bollards scattered around climate and energy policy are the estimated 25 Coalition parliamentarians that stand in the way of progress.
Taylor presumably counts among them, but that list would likely include the likes of Matt Canavan, Barnaby Joyce, Craig Kelly, Michael McCormack, Sam McMahon, Keith Pitt and the rest of the Queensland LNP, as well as the mob who graduated from the Institute of Public Affairs, and the other new young turks of the hard right.
But the fracture lines between common sense and ideology are deepening. Last week, a newly formed “conservative” think tank backed by Coalition moderates delivered a detailed paper outlining why Australia should halve its coal emissions by 2030, and calling for an auction that would enable an ordered and accelerated exit of coal generation.
There is a growing sense that many on the Coalition benches are alarmed by the refusal of prime minister Scott Morrison, advised by the country’s senior and most trenchant coal lobbyists, and Taylor to accept this. They dare not speak out, for fear of party retribution and a shouting down from Murdoch media. Kean, however, has shown there is a path, you just need – as we wrote about Malcolm Turnbull when he was prime minister – the balls and the vision to see it through.
There can be no doubt that new technologies have won, and it’s no coincidence that those who argue against this are often the same who claim Donald Trump won last month’s US presidential election.
The energy market is now moving on to the next technologies: Battery storage is sweeping through the main grid like a Kardashian post on social media, five of the biggest proposed green hydrogen projects in the world are located in Australia, and grid managers and operators are embracing the cultural and technological shift from centralised fossil fuels to a distributed inverter-based system.
The die has been cast. Not even the worst energy minister and the worst government can stop this revolution from taking hold. And if those bollards can be removed, then this clean energy transition – as so many senior people tell RenewEconomy – is going to happen more quickly than anyone can predict. And it might just give us a fighting chance of arresting the worst ravages of climate change.