The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has just celebrated the first anniversary of his surprise election win in May, 2019. And he’s been getting some glowing reviews from some predictable quarters.
“A serious man for serious times,” headlined the Australian Financial Review in a piece written by the conservative commentator Tom Switzer. “Steady hand pays off as voters show approval,” headlined a piece by Simon Benson in The Australian.
And it seems that Morrison’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – surrounding himself with scientists and experts, and allowing the states to decide their own actions within an agreed broad bipartisan policy vision – has gone down well with the electorate, unlike his self-absorbed, tetchy and often tone-deaf response to the summer bushfires.
But those concerned about broader, longer-term and even more dangerous issues – climate change and fossil fuel pollution – have witnessed no road to Damascus, or even an acceptance of basic scientific engineering and economic facts. Denialism still runs deep.
Nearly seven years after the Coalition took government, and one year after “ScoMo”‘s surprise election win – and nearly two years after seizing office from Malcolm Turnbull – the Morrison government refuses to heed expert and science-based warnings that Australia, and the rest of the world, need to do so much more on climate change.
“What climate policy. I mean basically, it’s a mess,” says Martin Parkinson (no relation to the author), who served as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, including for Morrison, until August last year, in the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday night. “It’s incoherent and it has been for a decade.”
That latter comment is perhaps a little unfair on the Clean Energy Act put together by the Gillard Labor government, along with key independents and The Greens, and with the help of Parkinson himself, and whose benefits are still being felt in the form of the renewable energy target, the Clean Energy Finance Corp, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, three things that the Coalition tried to kill but couldn’t.
The Greens remain the favourite whipping group of both mainstream parties, mostly because by blaming them they seek to absolve themselves of their own desperate failures on this issue: A decade ago, when Labor refused to negotiate with The Greens after using the CPRS to sink Turnbull’s first term of leadership of the Liberal Party, and the Coalition for trying to destroy just about everything at every opportunity ever since.
The Four Corners program gave some fascinating new insight into the minds and frustrations of the key public service mandarins – Martin Parkinson, Ken Henry, and Peter Shergold – along with former chief scientists Penny Sackett and Ian Chubb, who sought to advise the sitting governments and negotiate with business and Opposition parties.
The program was nicely put together. But its weakness lay in a lack of focus on the dark forces – from the fossil fuel industry, big business and ultra-conservative commentators and lobby groups – who played the critical role in derailing anything to do with climate, clean energy and energy efficiency. This is about much more than just political ambition.
And this is important, because this is where Australia now finds itself.
In the words of Chubb:
“There’s no point in pretending we’re doing something when we aren’t, or pretending we’re doing enough, when we aren’t. The idea that you should do nothing, or pretend that woefully inadequate targets are an appropriate response because it might save a fraction off somebody’s electricity bill somewhere, is in my view dangerous and is totally unsupportable.”
Yet this is exactly what Morrison and his ministers are doing, and have done. The PM, the man who waved the lump of coal around in parliament – provided by the coal lobbyists who now form a key part of his inner circle of advisors – chooses not to stand with scientists and independent experts when it comes to climate and energy, as he has done with Covid-19.
Instead, his government has been taking all its cues from the fossil fuel lobby and other vested interests. And this is abundantly clear in the goervnment’s choice of people to lead the post Covid-19 economic review, which has become all about gas (because it is led by a gas executive); or its latest update of its climate policy figleaf, which is all about the greatest coal industry boondoggle of them all – carbon capture – and handouts to big polluters.
If the PM and his energy and emissions reductions minister Angus Taylor would choose to stand with scientists and experts, the message would be clear: The country needs to set a target of reaching zero emissions by 2050 (as all states and territories have done) and set a clear path for interim targets.
They would have a plan, and a vision.
They would accept the near unanimous advice from people who know best that the cheapest options to underpin this transition are already with us, wind and solar, supported by various forms of storage and dispatchable technologies, and this will likely lower costs, boost economic activity, create jobs, and revive the struggling manufacturing sector.
But this is a government that can barely bring itself to utter the words ‘wind’ and ‘solar’ and ‘big batteries.’ Taylor was and still is a relentless campaigner against wind energy, and Morrison’s most memorable contribution to the energy debate, apart from brandishing a lump of coal in parliament, is to dismiss the ground-breaking Tesla big battery as nothing more useful than the Big Banana.
It was ironic to read, last week, of Taylor’s enthusiasm for the carbon markets that the Coalition had vowed to crush. “Australia’s carbon market remains strong,” proclaimed a headline from the minister’s office. “I have asked the Clean Energy Regulator to continue to monitor developments in the carbon market closely and take action to support the carbon market further if the need arises,” Taylor was quoted as saying.
The what? Wasn’t the carbon market killed under the Abbott government to the applause of the Coalition party, a moment (pictured above) that Henry described as both grotesque and incredibly juvenile?
Well, yes and no. The Labor/Greens carbon scheme, expertly advised, well thought through, and with real economy-wide emissions reductions, and with key institutions from which we still benefit, was dumped in favour of “Direct Action”, the Abbott-era idea that Turnbull dismissed as a “fig-leaf” and which has been widely criticised as largely useless.
This policy black hole has morphed into a few new titles: there is an emissions reductions fund, now a climate solutions fund, using taxpayers dollars to fund chosen projects of sometimes questionable quality. There is also a “safeguards” mechanism that was supposed to set a baseline for companies to cap their emissions, but hasn’t, because the baselines keep on getting moved higher.
Now the government has unveiled a new scheme, proposed by Grant King – the former head of the gas-giant Origin Energy and former chair of the BCA, the lobby group almost implacably opposed to any concrete form of climate action – that proposes handing out money to boondoggles such as carbon capture, and using yet more taxpayer dollars to pay big polluters if they manage to cut emissions.
In short, this looks like a baseline and credit scheme. The sort of idea that the Coalition refused to touch because it resembles the carbon market they pretend they don’t have, albeit one that is badly flawed and inefficient, particularly in the form presented. And the government has done nothing to address its failures.
“The structural weaknesses in the Climate Solutions Package remain unaddressed,” says the IGCC, a group that represents investors with trillions of dollar under management, just busting to invest in Australia’s clean energy transition, if only the roadblocks and impediments were removed.
“If Australia is to meet its short and long-term obligations under the Paris Agreement, caps on industrial emissions under the safeguards will need to be tightened over time or significantly larger amounts of taxpayer’s money will need to be committed to purchase emissions reductions at higher prices.
“Tightening the safeguard baselines would accelerate private sector demand for abatement, removing the need for governments to purchase on budget significant emissions cuts.”
The Carbon Markets Institute, which as the name suggests really likes anything that looks like a carbon market, warns that the lack of proper constraints and declining Safeguard baselines, could jeopardise robust carbon markets as well as clean technology development and deployment.
It also warns against the proposed carryover of Kyoto credits, which will have a snowball effect on international action, and the proposal to support CCS, which could lead to perverse outcomes or prolong the due or scheduled closures of older, high emissions-generating facilities – i.e. coal generators.
But guess who’s happy? The carbon capture and storage lobby. And the coal industry. The government has not just embellished a bastardised carbon market, they have mapped out a path to push both the CEFC and ARENA into supporting CCS technologies, with the sole purpose of propping up the coal industry.
The chances are that the case for renewables and storage is so powerful they will win through regardless. But wouldn’t it be simpler, smarter, and cheaper to open the gate to these technologies rather than devise bizarre new programs to protect the incumbents?
Little wonder the senior public servants can hardly bear to watch: “We have failed, no doubt about that,” Henry told Four Corners. “We’ve all failed, I think. I look back on it now and I still feel gutted.”
And here we are looking at the present, and the immediate future, and feeling just as gutted. The wind and solar boom the Coalition sought desperately to stop, has been brought to heal. The Coalition’s sole motivation appears to find ways to protect the fossil fuel industry that supports it and its cheerleaders. Coal-Mo to the core.
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