GEORGE BROWNING. Democratise Energy: Reform Taxation: Save the Planet.

Jun 7, 2019

Stuck in a traffic jam every day on the way to work do you imagine this is the way it is always going to be – only a little worse? If your livelihood is agriculture, like your father and his father before him, you face challenges they did not have to face. Weather patterns are changing, droughts are more frequent and intense and the rains, when they come, are more torrential. Do you imagine this is now your lot and that as your children prepare to inherit the property, their experience will be the Murray Darling Basin 2018/19 on steroids? If you live in one of the mega cities of the world do you imagine that wearing a face mask to mitigate air pollution will be the norm if you dare to venture outside?

I have just come home from the cinema having watched the documentary 2040 Sadly Margaret and I were the only two in the theatre. This should be compulsory watching for everyone, especially politicians, for no, there is no reason to believe that this must be the future and that there is nothing we can do about it. There is a huge amount we can do about it that will improve the lot of everyone in all aspects of our lives, but it means a different attitude, a different mindset and willingness to change. But it will be the future if we stay with current policies. 

Since the Australian federal election in May returned a Conservative government, claims are being made by the energy minister Angus Taylor and the resources minister Matt Canavan that they now have a mandate to do the irresponsible thing, to stay with current energy and climate policies. They have no such mandate. Science does not give them this mandate. The younger generation absolutely has not given them this mandate. The 60+% of the Australian population that has made it clear they want more to be done to protect the environment and mitigate global warming have not given this mandate. Our neighbours in the Pacific have clearly not given us this mandate. And equally important, hopes for a stable and growing economy into the future with huge growth in new jobs around new technologies has not given this mandate.

Angus Taylor, the energy minister claims that current policies have us on track to meet our international responsibilities and the 2030 promises we have made, as pathetic as they are. What on earth has possessed him to make this claim when clearly all the figures, including the government’s own figures, show we are not on track and that our emissions continue to grow not decline? This was demonstrated with stark clarity on the ABC’s the drumduring the past week.

Senator Matt Canavan has attacked electricity generators for supporting a NEG or similar system which would continue a reliable supply of electricity while investing in new and renewable technologies. This extraordinary outburst demonstrates, if demonstration is required, that the federal government has absolutely no commitment to meeting our international obligations and will use every slight of hand at its disposal to mislead the Australian population into thinking that it does. One can only assume that governments, state and federal, are so addicted to mining royalties etc that they cannot conceive of other ways of managing the economy. This is not about jobs this is about political laziness and inability to take Australia into the family of the worlds most advanced countries.

Of course there are risks and difficulties in the transition. The 7.30 Report this week highlighted the reality that there have been unscrupulous players in the solar energy industry, as there are in every industry which takes advantage of private and public largess. (NDIS, vocational training, childcare, insulation etc). This does not mean that the industry should be questioned, but that care should be taken over those who seek to take, quick, cheap and unfair advantage.

Let me illustrate the title of this blog from one example. The producer of2040 travelled to Bangladesh to witness the extraordinary achievement of the solar micro energy networks (solar panels and batteries) through which households produce their own energy and through networking with their neighbours buy and sell from one another. The network of one neighbourhood can be connected to the network of another neighbourhood and so on. The democratisation of the energy industry is the way of the future. The grid will not disappear altogether, but it will gradually become a far less significant player in the provision of energy to most families and households, including the fueling of their own electric vehicles. There is absolutely no reason why government policy could not encourage and incentivise the development of such networks throughout Australia now. Unfortunately we should not expect the present government to move in this direction any time soon. They are stuck on an out of date mode of taxation, in desperate need of reform, which is threatened by a major human need being resourced at home and available to all regardless of their wealth. As the advantages become clear and the profits are shared locally this will happen anyway, but more slowly than it should.

In poorer neighbourhoods throughout the world, especially India, this is the solution people need to lift them out of poverty. They do not need our coal, or anyone else’s coal, and they need to breath fresh air. The poor of the world need to be empowered to resource and profit from their own generation of energy. Poverty is not simply a lack of wealth, it is lack of choice. Self-generated energy gives such people hitherto unimaginable choice in business, education, employment, nutrition and health.

Coal is an old technology, big multinationals make the money, taxes and royalties are minimised, environmental agreements are kept by ignoring them, employment opportunities are minimised through automation, while dealing with Adani is dealing with a company with a track record of ignoring the law.

We have the technology to prevent the continuing increase in greenhouse gas density. We can implement this technology without severely impacting the global economy. Indeed the figures show that in the medium to long term the economy demands that we do, for the cost of not acting will be too crippling. In the lead up to the last election those with jobs invested in the mining industry were rightly concerned that they might face the dole queue if a party took government that wished to phase out this industry. There was an abject failure by those leading the political debate to commit significant sums into ensuring those affected would be trained into new technologies which promise local and regional employment on a grand-scale rather than a relatively small number of fly-in fly-out opportunities known to an industry which is becoming increasingly mechanised.

Democratising the energy industry out of the hands of multi-nationals and large companies does not only have a huge environmental impact, it also takes a major step towards breaking the wealth divide between those with wages and those with assets. Currently those with assets garner most of the world’s wealth at the expense of those dependent upon wages. Enabling ordinary citizens to resource one of their most fundamental needs – energy, is going to be strenuously resisted by those who benefit from a centralised grid system. That is why so much money is being expended by the energy and mining industry into maintaining the status quo at the expense of all our futures, and why politicians who benefit from them, protect them and argue their case at the expense of ordinary citizens.

George Browning: Retired Anglican Bishop Canberra

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