The electorate is concerned about global warming and strongly backs the phase-out of coal-fired power stations, so why are we hearing so little about the difference between the two major parties?
The past few months have seen a string of extreme weather events across the country and a string of broken records around the world. The Liberal party has been consistently under pressure to deliver a credible policy on climate change, but have managed to keep the focus largely on their preferred issues in the closing days of the election campaign.
According to recent polling by Environment Victoria, covering the three Victorian marginal seats of Deakin, Dunkley and Corangamite, four out of five voters are concerned about global warming.
The poll also revealed that the ALP has a surprisingly small lead when asked whether the Labor or Liberal party is better at dealing with global warming – barely 53-47. On some issues this election, there is not an enormous amount of policy difference between the two major parties, but on climate the chasm is huge.
Labor entered the election campaign with quite a comprehensive plan on climate change: a baseline and credit scheme for the electricity sector, an emissions trading scheme for other parts of the economy, a 50% renewable energy target by 2030 and emissions targets within the range proposed by the Climate Change Authority. They also committed to developing a process to drive the retirement of the oldest and dirtiest coal-burning power stations.
While some details were left to be resolved post-election, and the timeframes and targets are not as ambitious as many would like, it remains a comprehensive piece of policy.
The Liberal party, on the other hand, has weak emissions reduction targets, no post-2020 target for renewable energy, and no plan for the electricity sector. The Emissions Reduction Fund wasn’t allocated any further money in the 2016/17 Federal Budget, and most of the announcements through the election campaign have simply been a diversion of existing Clean Energy Finance Corporation funds.
The Prime Minister Turnbull and Environment Minister Hunt are doing little more than saying “trust us, we’ll fix it after the election”. The 80% of voters who are concerned about climate change deserve more than vague platitudes.
Indeed, voters want clear and tangible action. Across the 3 electorates, 70% of voters support the phase-out of coal power stations as part of a plan to deal with global warming, starting within three years. When specifically asked whether Hazelwood, the dirtiest power station in Australia (if not the planet), should be retired in the next few years, a remarkable 77% of voters agreed.
Voters also back the idea that governments need to help communities and workers where power station will close.
It has been common knowledge that people strongly support renewable energy. It is now also clear that phasing out coal burning power stations has significant popular support. This should give politicians across all parties the courage to stop tip-toeing around the issue.
Whoever wins on Saturday will have to address the need to phase-out coal plants. The Australian Energy Market Operator has estimated that meeting even our weak Paris commitments will likely require the closure of 30-40% of Australia’s coal plants by 2030.
Minister Hunt points to the closure of a number of power stations in the past few years, arguing that the situation is resolving itself. In reality, though, the ad hoc closure of relatively cleaner (but more expensive to run) coal plants in NSW and Queensland makes the ongoing operation of the dirtiest more likely. The two dirtiest, Hazelwood and Yallourn in Victoria, are amongst the cheapest to run and will therefore be the first to generate more to fill any slack in the system. Perversely, this could lead to an increase in emissions.
Even the industry itself wants a government plan to manage this transition. Just last week, both AGL and EnergyAustralia called for a clear phase-out policy. Origin Energy has also called for government intervention to retire Victoria’s brown coal generators – the most polluting in the country.
The Greens have outlined a clear timeframe for the retirement of each coal plant. Labor has committed to kick-starting the phase-out. The Liberals are ignoring the problem. Insufficient awareness of these key differences could be a decisive factor in crucial electorates.
Without a plan, there will be even greater uncertainty for workers and communities: clear timeframes of when individual power stations will close give those affected the best opportunity to prepare. A plan would also give renewable energy investors the confidence that their projects will be needed and won’t be entering a massively over-supplied market.
The transition from coal to renewable energy is inevitable, but it must be accelerated if we want to avoid the worst of global warming. Central to this transition are government plans to phase out coal-burning power stations. There is a clear need for this, and our polling shows there is clear public support. It is time for action.