Greens, independents pile pressure on Labor over climate, energy

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Greens leader Richard di Natale labels Coalition a disaster on climate and energy, and pushes Labor to go where it doesn’t want to go – at least not yet.

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Labor is coming under intense pressure from both Greens and independents to dig deeper on its climate and energy policies, but it it resisting pleas from Greens leader Richard di Natale to agree to work together should it win government in the May 18 poll.

A speech by di Natale to the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday included a predictable roasting of the Coalition’s climate and energy record over the last six years. They’ve been a disaster, di Natale said, adding that “these jokers” still don’t have a policy to speak of.

At the same time, di Natale highlighted the big policy unknown should Labor win the upcoming election: Will Labor try to frame its package of policies around an agreement with a divided Coalition, still in climate denial, or will it work with Greens to find a way to accelerate renewables and emission cuts, given the plunging cost of wind, solar and storage, not to mention the science.

Or, as di Natale put it, and most people wonder: Will Labor adopt the attitude of the Rudd government, and try to satisfy the likes of Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce, and refuse any compromise with the Greens, or will they “negotiate a comprehensive response based on science with the Greens”, as happened under Julia Gillard?

It’s a question that Labor doesn’t want to answer, at least in the middle of an election campaign where even its current package of 2030 targets (50 per cent renewables, 50 per cent EV share in new car sales, 45 per cent emissions reductions) is branded extreme and economy-wrecking by the conservatives and much of mainstream media.

Shorten tried to have it both ways on Wednesday.

First attacking the Coalition: “(People) are sick and tired of lazy, right-wing, anti-climate change governments coming up with every excuse in the world to say the future’s too hard.”

And then having a go at the Greens. “It’s not happening. We’re not for switching because some independent or Greens MP is suffering relevance deprivation and wants their name in the paper.”

Labor’s targets, while well short of the Greens policies of 100 per cent renewables and 100 per cent EVs in new car sales by 2030, are still so much stronger than anything proposed by the Coalition over the last six years. The ACF ranking (Coalition 4% out of 100, Labor 56% and Greens 99%) is a fair summary of how they stack up compared to the Paris climate targets.

But the Greens are suspicious that Labor may balk at even going this far. They were quick to jump on Shorten’s remarks on Perth radio this week when he appeared to back-pedal on the EV target. “That doesn’t mean that will happen,” Shorten told Nova Radio.

And the Greens have been damming of Labor’s new gas support policy for northern Australia, where it will commit $1.5 billion. Di Natale said the oil and gas industry “has its tentacles all over the Labor”, pointing to $2 million of declared donations from the fossil fuel industry, and the “network of relationships” and lobbying.

“Previous Labor Energy Minister, Martin Ferguson, left Parliament be the chair of the oil industry’s peak body. He was succeeded by Gary Gray (who worked at Woodside). Former climate change minister Greg Combet and (former) trade minister Craig Emerson worked as consultants to Santos.

“Both the Prime Minister and the opposition leader have had coal lobbyists as their Chief of Staff. The boards and peak bodies ofAustralia’s fossil fuel industry are littered alumni from both sides of politics. We have no hope of cleaning up our environment until we clean up our politics,” di Natale.

As for the future, Di Natale pointed to the Greens record in working with the Gillard government, which despite the carbon price that was killed by Abbott, delivered the Clean Energy Finance Corp, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and the renewable energy target, which have underpinned Australia’s emissions reduction efforts and the arrival of cheap wind and solar.

This latter development  is critical, because it the plunging cost of wind and solar, and the realisation that they – combined with storage – are clearly cheaper than investing in new coal or gas, that is helping to change the conversation about what is possible in the coming decade.

Most experts say that Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target actually represents a considerable slow-down for the industry, and it will be possible to go much faster.

Professor Ross Garnaut said last week that he had no doubt intermittent renewables could deliver 100 per cent of Australia’s electricity needs by the early 2030s, and deliver a stable and reliable grid, with cheaper power than we have now.

Even the big generators and main lobby have been urging the Australian Energy Market Operator to factor in a “step change” scenario that takes into account the 1.5°C component of the Paris climate treaty, which the Australia government has signed up to and ratified, but completely ignored.

That “step change” will likely contemplate a more rapid exit of coal fired generators, a renewable share of up to 70 per cent by 2030, and a pathway to a zero emissions grid before 2050 – as the Paris commitment requires.

If that sounds radical, the UK’s National Grid is preparing scenarios for periods of 100 per cent renewables by 2025, and the Democrats in the US are proposing a “Green New Deal” that seeks a large decarbonised grid by 2030. Numerous new studies have pointed to the ability to use renewables to clean up and deliver cheap power for the grid, for transport and manufacturing.

All this means that Australia can, and will need to, go a lot faster than the trajectory contemplated by Labor, and the end result might end up somewhere between Labor and the Greens. It’s just that Labor, given the harsh and toxic divisions of Australia’s politics and media, can’t say that right now, even if it where its intention.

It is not clear how far the independents, many of whom describe themselves as “soft L” Liberals and centrists, would push Labor on emissions and renewables, but they made clear on Wednesday that will stand their ground on the controversial Adani mine.

Seven prominent independents on Wednesday issued a combined statement vowing to work together to achieve “meaningful action on climate change”, and while many of their targets were similar to Labor’s, the key difference was blocking the Carmichael coal mine proposed by Adani.

The independents comprise sitting members Kerryn Phelps (Wentworth) and Andrew Wilkie (Denison), along with independent candidates Zali Steggall (Warringah), Oliver Yates (Kooyong), Helen Haines (Indi), Rob Oakeshott (Cowper) and Julia Banks (Flinders).

Steggal, Yates and Banks are seeking to unseat, respectively, former PM Abbott, and former environment ministers Josh Frydenberg and Greg Hunt, essentially three of the key architects of the Coalition’s non-existent climate and energy policy.

Yates is a former boss of the CEFC, and Oakeshott, considered a chance in the NSW seat, is a veteran of the Gillard deal with the Greens and independents (along with Tony Windsor) that created the Clean Energy Future package, along with the CEFC, ARENA and the Climate Change Authority that they wish to restore.

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