Australia is experiencing a remarkable renewable energy transition – not that you would know if you listen to some federal politicians. The Coalition consistently tells us that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are “coming down” and that we’re on track to meet our Paris climate targets “at a canter”. In reality, neither of those statements is true.
First let’s look at the claim that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are coming down. Data released from the government itself shows Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been rising for the last four years, effectively ever since the carbon price was axed by Tony Abbott.
It’s important to remember that greenhouse gas emissions cross multiple sectors of the economy. Direct combustion, transport and fugitive emissions have all increased since 2005 and according to the Government’s own forecasts are projected to continue increasing emissions to 2030.
The only sector where emissions are falling significantly is the electricity sector, largely due to the rapid growth in the deployment of renewables, both large scale solar and wind projects – more than 1 GW of rooftop solar added in 2018 alone. We have the highest penetration of rooftop solar in the world, over 1.97 million households have a solar system.
The pipeline for new wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity systems is about 6.3 Gigawatts (GW) per year, which is significant given Australia’s total electricity generating capacity is approximately 55 GW. This equates to 250 Watts per person per year compared with about 50 Watts per person per year for the European Union, Japan, China and the USA. This renewable energy pipeline is sustainable and is occurring a speed that will see Australia reach 50% of its energy needs in renewables in 2024 and 100% by 2032.
So while it is truthful to say greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector are coming down, it is downright misleading to suggest this equates to overall emissions coming down.
The irony of course is that the Coalition has spent much of the last five years trash-talking renewables and talking up coal at every opportunity (who can forget our illustrious Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, bringing his pet rock into parliament, telling the opposition benches “don’t be afraid”).
But the economics tell a different story. There is no case for a new coal-fired generator on economic, engineering or environmental grounds. New coal generators are not, as their marketing term implies, “low emissions, high efficiency”. They are the opposite.
Renewable energy projects have zero fuel costs. They can be constructed and commissioned very quickly. There’s a reason that Australia hasn’t built a new coal fired generator since 2007. They are time consuming and too expensive compared with the alternatives. The CSIRO and AEMO agree – the cheapest form of new dispatchable electricity is renewables and storage.
But, in spite of tremendous Coalition efforts to the contrary, the electricity sector is the one success story they can point to in terms of action on climate change and reducing emissions.
So for the Coalition to be talking up their achievements on that front is breath-taking hypocrisy.
Transport emissions have been rising continuously. Stationary energy and industrial processes – still rising; fugitive emissions – still rising.
At best the claim that Australia’s emissions are going down is obfuscation, at worst it’s deliberately and completely misleading for purely political purposes.
Which brings us to the next claim, that Australia will beat its Paris emissions targets “at a canter”. In reality the way the Government plans to do that is to use carried over credits from the Kyoto Protocol.
Australia was one of only three countries allowed to increase emissions when the Kyoto targets were negotiated. We ended up exceeding our Kyoto commitments so the government is planning on carrying over these credits from the Kyoto crediting periods to Paris. There are still questions over whether this is allowable under the agreement but the use of these carried over credits would mean that technically, yes. we meet our targets. But with zero net benefit in terms of greenhouse gas reduction.
Again, at best it’s gaming of the system, at worst it’s cheating. Is that really the way a country like Australia, one of the most developed economies in the world, with one of the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, and one of the most abundant sources of renewable energy, wants to meet our international obligations to take action on climate change?
We may be small in terms of absolute emissions but we have a moral obligation, to the international community, and to generations to come, to act.
These claims from the government do more harm then just doing nothing – they allow people to sit on their hands and we don’t have the time to waste. Transitioning industries, developing new skills, changing behaviour takes time.
Now is the time for leadership, and action, not spin. Australia is not currently on track to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target. Greenhouse gas pollution in 2030 is projected to be higher than today.
If we’re not able to tackle this challenge, transition stops being an option.
This challenge comes with potential benefits as well though. A rapid shift to renewable energy wouldn’t just clean up electricity generation, it would create an employment boom with as many as 60,000 new jobs, according to a recent study from the Australia Institute. This is more than a match for the numbers employed in coal-fired electricity generation.
And some, like Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, believe we can go beyond 100% renewable energy, to 200% renewables, This would mean we can export Australia’s excess clean energy as alternative fuelstocks such as ammonia, or hydrogen as well as selling products manufactured using 100% renewables.
So what do we need to do? The most effective tool is putting a price on carbon. That one measure provides a clear signal to business and industry, and acts as both the carrot and the stick to decarbonise our economy. That carrot and stick would incentivise innovation, new jobs, new skills, and the new business models that we will need to successfully transition to a low-carbon future and create a new, sustainable and potentially extremely lucrative in industry in renewable energy terms of income and jobs. And at The Together Party we are pragmatists – we want to see strong action on climate change, but we understand that sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. We want action, and then we can ratchet that action up over time. We want an end to the toxicity in the debate over climate change, we want to see bi-partisan action, and adopting the Labor climate action package (which are basically recycled Coalition policies from Malcolm Turnbull’s stint as leader) seems like the best place to start. What we can not do is sit on our hands any longer.
Belinda is a sustainable energy and climate finance professional with more than 20 years’ experience and Australian Director of LO3 Energy, an energy and tech company that pioneered peer-to-peer energy trading using blockchain technology. She is standing for the NSW Senate for The Together Party.