Australia’s climate policies are a shambles — will our children forgive us? Part 2

Oct 22, 2021
school climate change protest canberra
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

It is too late for an orderly transition to a low-carbon future. It’s now imperative that we have scientifically literate, competent leaders acting for the common good. 

Read the first part of this article here.

Instead of a price on carbon, Australia pays subsidies — a massive and increasing subsidy which the fossil fuel industry has enjoyed for decades, because it should incorporate the cost of the escalating damage created by fossil fuel use.

The International Monetary Fund recently updated its estimate of this subsidy, which for Australia in 2020 amounted to about A$60 billion or 3.2 per cent of GDP, up from $39 billion in 2015, far more than we spend on defence.

Yet the industry demands even more subsidies for carbon capture and storage (CCS), with ministers Angus Taylor and Keith Pitt rapidly obliging. The Business Council of Australia (BCA) plan sees CCS as an important part of the offset process. But the community pays twice for this sleight of hand; first because it carries the cost of the increasing damage caused by climate change rather than the industry which created it; second because the community now has to subsidise the industry further to implement supposed solutions which will only perpetuate fossil fuel use when alternatives are available.

We are assured by industry leaders such as Santos managing director Kevin Gallagher that massive amounts of carbon could be stored in the Cooper Basin, for example. While CCS may well work in a limited sense for his Moomba gas project, extrapolating that for the wider Cooper Basin is stretching credibility to the limit, given the massive failure of such ambition to date. And if Moomba is an enhanced oil recovery (EOR) project, it does not need a subsidy.

For decades, concern has been expressed over the “moral hazard” of such arguments – allowing expansion or continuation of fossil fuel use now on the grounds that yet-to-be proven technology will magically appear some time in the future to solve its emissions problem, the danger being that catastrophic climate impacts will get locked in long before that technology eventuates. The concern was real two decades ago. It is even more so today given the obvious accelerating impact of climate change and the fact that dramatic emission reductions have to be achieved in less than a decade.

The emphasis on offsets in the BCA plan highlights the absurdity and dangers that are emerging as government and the fossil fuel industry collaborate to avoid genuine emission reductions by the use of subterfuges such as CCS “avoided emissions” which would enable the industry to keep expanding.

Both the IPCC and the International Energy Agency (IEA) say that CCS will be essential to mitigating climate change. True, but that is to reduce emissions from existing operations, not as a means to increase the use of fossil fuels, which is the likely effect of recent Australian government policy changes. As the IEA states, for its Net Zero 2050 pathway:

There is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply. Beyond projects already committed in 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved – and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required.

This leads to the most egregious disconnect in the BCA plan, namely the export transition. The brochure implies, referring to IEA and RBA analysis, that Australian fossil fuel exports will fall dramatically if global warming is to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. Yet the BCA knows full well that members such as Woodside, Origin and Shell are pushing hard to expand gas exports, further undermining climate action and increasing risk – presumably on the basis that exported emissions are not Australia’s responsibility under UN emission protocols, being accounted for in the consuming country.

But climate impact is global, irrespective of the point of emission; given the climate risk we now face, this justification is no longer valid. We can no longer base the development of Australia on exported emissions, for example from the 45 coal and 19 gas projects currently being contemplated. Likewise, arguments that Australian gas and coal should be used in preference to poorer quality alternatives in export markets are not credible when there is no carbon budget left to meet the Paris climate targets

In its policy architecture, the BCA plan emphasises the need for a “trusted, independent climate advisory body responsible for advising government on a co-ordinated and integrated national climate policy framework in pursuit of the net zero emission policy goal”. It proposes the Climate Change Authority be “empowered and resourced” to undertake this role. In principle it’s a good idea, but any notion of “trusted independence” of the CCA, and many other government climate policy institutions, long since disappeared as Taylor assiduously stacked them with fossil fuel protagonists, adding to those already installed in the Prime Minister’s office and elsewhere.

Taylor and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce now seize on the energy crises in the UK, Europe and China as reasons why Australia must slow its climate action and expand the use of gas and coal. Each of these events has very different causes, most of which are not relevant to Australia. However, the common thread is that no country is adequately prepared to manage climate risk, and peaks in resource availability are again becoming real.

The sad reality is that the world has left it too late to make an orderly transition to a low-carbon future; we are now entering an era of disruption which requires scientifically literate, competent leadership prepared to act for the common good, in stark contrast to our current self-serving ideologues.

As for the world, the solution for Australia is not to slow the transition further but to discard the current dysfunctional policy shambles, which has been set up primarily to protect the fossil fuel industry. The transition must be accelerated with a commitment to nationwide, integrated action, built around consistent, self-reinforcing policies. Policy objectives must be set by a comprehensive climate risk assessment, carried out by genuinely independent experts, that becomes the basis for realistic targets and plans, rather than the nonsense of NZE2050.

To summarise, nothing has changed, the stars are not in alignment for real climate action, and the fossil fuel industry, along with Rupert Murdoch, continues to dictate government policy, aided and abetted by a largely unquestioning mainstream media happy to absorb and parrot the official hype. ––If the bulk of Australian businesses want a sustainable future, it is time they cut loose from fossil fuel industry dominance.

And behind the hype is the sad reality that even in 2021, after all the climate impacts that the Australian community has had to endure, many in our political and corporate leadership still cannot bring themselves to accept that climate change is real – a failure of leadership which their children will never forgive.

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