Lomborg legacy: Why Turnbull Coalition still doesn’t get it

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Turnbull Coalition needs to move beyond the “delay” mantra of its favourite advisors. The overwhelming impression at these talks – amongst observers, environmental groups, and even among the heavily represented business lobby, is that the Australian government still does not “get it.”

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In the final, frantic, virtually sleepless hours in Paris before the global climate deal was finalised on Saturday, Australia found itself on the outer of a powerful international movement.

Canada, once joined at the hip with Australia as one of the developed world’s two “climate dunces”, signed up to the Coalition for High Ambition – a 100-strong grouping of countries pushing for an ambitious climate treaty that sought to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Then came Brazil, breaking away from its traditional allies India and China to declare that “if you want to tackle climate change, you need ambition and political will.”

It was not a formal voting block, but its influence in the final days of the talks was critical. This was acknowledged by the cheers in the plenary session on the final day of the Paris talks when Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum walked in at the head of his coalition colleagues.

Australia was not among them. It had found itself marginalised as we explained on Friday, by the lingering impact of Tony Abbott’s war on climate policies and renewable energy.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop then made a last minute bid to sign Australia up. But it wasn’t until the Coalition had arrived on the floor of the plenary session where France announced – to general acclimation – that the finalised text would be soon released, that Bishop managed to secure her “pin”. By then, it was all but over.

bishop de brum

To some, this has been a proxy for the extraordinary disconnect between Australia’s progressive role at these talks, and the state of its climate change and renewable energy policies, and its attachment to fossil fuels.

The overwhelming impression at these talks – amongst observers, environmental groups, and even among the heavily represented business lobby – is that the Australian government still does not understand the enormity of what has been proposed, and agreed to, at these talks.

Even when it was handed membership of the Coalition, it seemed only to be doing so to tick boxes. While Brazil, Canada, and Europe talked passionately of the need to rapidly decarbonise the world’s energy systems, and hailed the transition being pushed by the new deal, Australia downplayed the new coalition as just a minor player.

“This is not a negotiating coalition, this is a group of people who say we all share a view about an ambitious agreement – of course we do, we’ve said that from the outset,” Bishop said. She added that she hoped for a quick resolution “so we can all go home.”

The optimistic view of the Coalition government holds that Malcolm Turnbull understands the forces of change, and is waiting for a strong Paris outcome to re-direct his party on the basis that Australia cannot resist a global shift to a clean economy.

The pessimistic view – to borrow a delicious headline from Fairfax Media – is that “Malcolm is an Abbott in Turnbull clothing”. Which is to say that he remains beholden to the conservative rump of his party, and can’t see that current technologies offer a path to a decarbonised energy system.

Certainly, the rhetoric in Paris these past two weeks support the latter view. Australia has pulled out of a deal to remove fossil fuel subsidies while at the same time denying it has any; ignored calls to cancel its surplus of Kyoto credits; and has talked up the benefits of coal as a cure for poverty and hunger, as it continues to insist that innovation is needed because the technological tools needed are not at hand.

This is the talk of the Coalition’s favourite climate advisor, Bjorn Lomborg, a man admired by both Bishop and environment minister Greg Hunt. It is the attitude of delay – as it has been since Lomborg argued firstly that climate change was not really man-made, then that the impacts wouldn’t be so bad, and then that there is no point investing in wind and solar because they can’t do the job.

There is a whole industry emerging from the spokespeople for conventional power – both fossil fuels and nuclear – who pedal the view that renewables are a pathway to social and economic disaster. It is a view that is perpetuated in the media, despite the fact that many of the biggest utilities in the world, and even some grid operators, conceded that conventional, centralised power systems will soon be replaced by decentralised renewable energy-based grids.

Immediately after the conference, Bishop told waiting media: “It will take a great deal of effort to achieve those targets. We don’t want to damage our economy without having an environmental impact … we have to get balance right between environmental and economic outcomes.”

The Coalition also needs to get its head around the technology revolution. Asked about the likely demise of fossil fuels, Bishop responded: “Nobody expects countries to destroy their own economies. That would be self defeating.” But that’s exactly what Australia risks doing if it retains its attachment to coal.

The contrast between Bishop’s words, and those of the international community, US secretary of state John Kerry and the EU leaders, was striking. While Australia speaks in the narrow confines of protecting its economy, others are taking the bigger picture, and looking at the bigger opportunities.

The overwhelming view of the business community in Paris, and there were thousands of them, is that this clean energy transition is happening anyway. Already, investments in renewable energy outrank fossil fuels.

Their argument is that the negotiators and the politicians are simply playing catch-up, emboldened and comforted by the stunning fall in the cost of wind and solar. The strength of this deal simply means that the transition should be accelerated, and sends a clear signal to investors.

Sean Kidney, an Australian who heads the Climate Bonds initiative, says there could be $1 trillion of such financing a year by 2020.

“The international community has opened the way for institutional investors, regions and cities to now take the lead on climate finance solutions with confidence that governments have set the low-carbon direction,” he says.

Clive Hamilton, a board member of the Climate Change Authority who has been at these talks for the full two weeks, wrote before the final deal:

“The most surprising revelation here at the Paris climate conference has been the astonishing shift in the world of investors over the past 12 months.

“There is now unprecedented momentum towards participating in the transition to a low-carbon economy, and the view at the “big end” of the conference is that a strong agreement will provide an extra shove. It’s unstoppable now.”

Still, there is a view held within the Coalition government – promoted by the likes of Lomborg and repeated through the mainstream media, that it is eminently stoppable, and that new technologies are needed. This theme runs through to Turnbull’s innovation statement.

But that is to miss what is in front of them.

Even Andrew Vesey, the head of AGL Energy, says the impact of rooftop solar, battery storage and smart meters will be so great that he doesn’t know what his business model will turn out to be – apart from the fact that it will be very different.

Utilities like AGL and others will benefit from their powers of incumbency, and the almost complete capture of regulatory authorities and policy setters. That should protect their short-term earnings, but it won’t stop change.

An updated study by the CSIRO and energy networks still suggests that one-half of all demand could be provided by locally produced energy, and one-third of users could still quit the grid.

On a broader scale, the official forecasts now confirm what has been obvious to most outside incumbent generation and conservatives for the last few years – that wind and solar offer the cheapest paths to decarbonisation.

Local councils and state and regional governments get this. The common refrain from the likes of Adelaide Lord Mayor Martin Haese, ACT environment minister Simon Corbell and South Australian premier Jay Weatherill, is that the rapid transition to renewable energy based energy systems is not just an environmental issue, it is an economic one.



South Australia sees it as crucially important because their long standing industries are packing up. The manufacturing of internal combustion engines is to close in 2017, its last coal generator will shut down a year before that.

Weatherill, and Haese, are willing to take risks to ensure that South Australia can capture a share of the new technologies – electric vehicle manufacturing, renewable energy integration, and the host of technologies and know-how that will accompany that.

Soon enough, Australia will find itself in a similar situation. The thermal coal export industry will dry up, the LNG export market will suffer. Many of the fossil fuel resources the country depends on will not be developed because the prices are not strong enough.

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30 Comments
  1. Cooma Doug 4 years ago

    The Bishops of the world need to graduate from kinda in the science of this issue before they are let out of Canberra.

    • Mike Flanagan 4 years ago

      You might include a cardinal or two there!

      • Con Mastoropoulos 4 years ago

        And perhaps an Abbott.

        • John McKeon 4 years ago

          Oh! Very Clever, All of You!! : )

      • david_fta 4 years ago

        A cardinal or two? Would a lesson in climate science induce apoplexy in George Pell?

        If so, he’d face his Maker without ever fronting the Royal Commission. (May you be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead).

  2. Ray Miller 4 years ago

    A historic global moment!
    Pity Australia has just found itself on the wrong side of history and with our pants down.

    Removing a price on carbon. Guilty
    Attacking and reducing renewable generation targets. Guilty
    Stalling investment in renewable energy projects. Guilty
    Approving new coal mines. Guilty
    Not closing down old very inefficient brown coal generators. Guilty
    Keeping the diesel fuel rebate. Guilty
    Subsidizing fossil fuels. Guilty
    Letting the greenhouse mafia take control of our energy policy. Guilty
    Letting the foxes of the electricity generation industry make the rules. Guilty
    Letting non science inform and direct government policy. Guilty
    Doing little to improve our energy productivity. Guilty

    Julie Bishop has been out classed and out played, only reacts not leads has only opinions based in self interest and what the LP financial backers script her to say. Her performance in Parliament last week was a disgrace, using a transcript error showing that she neither cared nor knew anything about our Island neighbour’s feelings or situation. Her utterances on coal being good for humanity. Maybe she should stop in on Kiribati on her way home to experience the local ambiance and while she is on site prepare the immigration papers for the locals and ‘send the boats’.

  3. Ron Horgan 4 years ago

    I had hoped from the moment of Turnbulls take over, that he would use participation at Paris as sufficient reason to demolish Abbotts the pro coal policy.
    Watch this space for a dramatic shift towards renewables in Australia..
    For the world, decarbonize for survival.
    For the Liberals, decarbonize for survival.
    The planets of self interest have aligned

    • Cooma Doug 4 years ago

      If you drive your car with a blindfold on and kill someone you would go to gaol. This is a criminal act.
      Is there a difference if you are driving Australia with the blinkers on.

      These people are criminally negligent and we haven”t got the means to stop them as far as I can see.

      • Steve159 4 years ago

        We will (have the means to stop them) in about a year. Not that long to go.

        That said, it seems the rest of the populace (based on recent polling) will let them continue.

        I agree, we should be able to hold Abbott and his lot criminally liable for the deliberate damage they’ve wrought renewables, the NBN, and just about every sector of society their negative divisive policies have impacted.

      • david_fta 4 years ago

        Is there a difference if you are driving Australia with the blinkers on.</blockquote.

        At least they took the steering wheel off Clownshoes.

  4. ben 4 years ago

    “Weatherill, and Haese, are willing to take risks to ensure that South Australia can capture a share of the new technologies – electric vehicle manufacturing, renewable energy integration, and the host of technologies and know-how that will accompany that.”

    Coming from Adelaide, I can only hope this happens. We need it for our kids, both in jobs and in a cleaner environment

  5. greenmail 4 years ago

    So how do we frame a taxation reform that drives solar, wind and storage? It seems to me that now is really vital to inform the ‘taxation conversation’ (as the LNP call it) with a comprehensive carbon elimination framework that drives innovation, industry development, and energy consumption.

    Vehicle assembly tax concessions are only accessible where electric vehicles are a substantial part of the vehicle mix.
    Negative gearing concessions tied to thresholds including installation of solar HWS and PV systems.
    Emerging technology in solar panels can be supported with investment incentives.

    Is there any research in this area that can inform us and how do we propagate this strategy.

  6. Rob G 4 years ago

    I just hope most Australians can see through the LNP BS come next election. If ‘we’ the voters get it right, the LNP could be changed forever with an election loss because of poor climate policy. They would be forced to accept the science for their own political survival.

    • david_fta 4 years ago

      Dennis Jensen, Warren Truss, Ian Macfarlane …

      • brickbob 4 years ago

        Tossers the lot of them.

      • Rob G 4 years ago

        Dutton, Abertz, Corman, Abbott, Joyce on and on the list goes…

  7. John McKeon 4 years ago

    Delay.Is.Cost. …… there, surely they will understand that …

    • david_fta 4 years ago

      Delay.Is.Contributions to Party coffers.

      I’m pretty sure they already know that.

      • John McKeon 4 years ago

        Yes, I’ll pay that one …

        Remarkable, isn’t it, that the party – that so likes to be associated with the rhetoric of the invisible hand operating in the market place – gets on a completely different broken record when it comes to defending the Greenhouse Mafia, who – we all know – has Them by the Balls.

        • John McKeon 4 years ago

          … and while we are discussing basic principles of (a) economics and (b) organised crime, I might add that the COALition should understand the basic principle of Economic Externalities. That is where the hidden costs are coming from that Will Bite Us On The Bum!!!

        • david_fta 4 years ago

          Coincidentally, there’s John Mathews’s This changes everything: The rise of renewables in industrial growth – also out today.

          Mathews makes the point that costs of renewables have come down so far now that coal is now longer the lowest-cost development trajectory; wouldn’t be the first time that Lomborg’s views have been superseded by reality.

          • John McKeon 4 years ago

            Thank you for the reference.

            I do not like letting anyone off the hook, so I should add that seeing Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk defending coal today – after Paris – made me sick, but we shouldn’t be surprised because Big Coal has the Labor party by the balls as well.

          • david_fta 4 years ago

            Perhaps Ms Palaczszuk would rather everyone stop buying coal than giving Michael Roche excuse to blame her for industry’s demise?

          • John McKeon 4 years ago

            … I like it …

            … I’m certainly sick of seeing his face … another broken record defending the indefensible …

  8. Leigh Ryan 4 years ago

    Let’s not point the finger at the LNP alone, point it firmly at the ALP as well, for they talk a lot but we have seen no policy that is guaranteed to be enacted and no talk of closing brown coal generators asap, nor do we hear how they will encourage investment in renewables nor what that will look like and they like the LNP are very quiet in regard to Nuclear, a product no sane Australian wants to see in power generation.

  9. BsrKr11 4 years ago

    it’s utterly embarrassing how in the pocket of the fossil fuel lobby the LNP truly are… maybe it will take a generational change like we’ve seen recently in Canada for fresh ideas and values to emerge….

  10. Sean Williams 4 years ago

    While agreeing wholeheartedly with much of the thrust of this article, I think that it displays a level of naivety about the politics of climate change. If one can abandon cynicism about what the Chinese or Saudis signed up for in Paris, why not be a bit more forgiving of our government, and allowing Julie and Malcolm time to turn their ship around? Now that the global debate has been won, being partisan domestically does not help the cause

  11. Humanitarian Solar 4 years ago

    What does Lomborg have to say about the Kurnell incident and Adelaide never before having 4 x 40 degree days in a row in a December? I’m disappointed Bishop conceives of an environment and economy polarity. It appears the old generation polarity between big business and tree huggers. After just having been educated by our top scientists, Bishop’s lack of progressive understanding is a flag to the Liberal Coalition, their old school colleagues need to step down for younger generations to carry the banner of their party. These comments are not able to be retracted and are damaging the party. Cognitive psychologists regard “polarised thinking” as a lower level of intelligence and in extremes, a mental health condition. Although we need take a compassionate position, people evidencing this style of thinking really are not suitable to lead a country.

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