Murdoch’s climate denialists must bear heavy responsibility for national failure

Oct 20, 2021
News Corp Australia Holt St
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

The insistence of denialists at The Australian that the 2050 emissions targets are beyond the world’s reach is damaging and flies in the face of science and technological progress.

In last Saturday’s Weekend Australian newspaper we can see that its former climate denialists have turned only a very light shade of green and are energetically redrawing the rhetorical barricades.

Greg Sheridan leads the charge by proclaiming that the 2050 target is “a fraudulent concept that can never be realised”. He is followed by libertarian Chris Kenny, who gets two-thirds of a broadsheet page to inform us of our “disastrously expensive and destabilising interventions in our energy sector”.  This is accompanied by the bizarre claim that the trouble with the climate debate “is that there is so little science and economics involved”. Picking up on Sheridan’s view, he asserts that 2050 is unachievable because the International Energy Agency (IEA) says it depends on unproven technology.

The IEA’s message is, not surprisingly, very different. Its 2021 report Net Zero by 2050 says unequivocally that net zero emissions by 2050 is achievable, albeit a very big challenge. It does indeed refer to the need for new technology but in this context: current technologies will provide nearly all the emissions reductions needed for upped greenhouse gas reductions for 2030. Over the following two decades there will indeed be reliance on technologies still in development for almost half of carbon emission reductions.

So, technological seers Kenny and Sheridan are able to be certain (contrary to projections by relevant global industries and scientific experts consulted by the IEA) that over the next 30 years there will be a massive failure of technology to adequately evolve. This is hardly the track record for renewable energy over the past decade.

To be fair, Sheridan, who has been on record as being a “moderate sceptic”, says he no longer is and on Saturday admitted that reducing GHG is a laudable aim. No apology for the years of unrelenting hostility to any semblance of a climate change plan to transition the economy — the absence of which he and Kenny now so loudly bemoan.

And where indeed is an apology from the prime minister, his Cabinet and members of the National Party for the years of outrageous time-wasting during which Australia could have created a viable and consensual pathway to carbon neutrality — a pale imitation of which they are now rushing to cobble together.

So Sheridan and his fellow climate change capacity-to-change deniers now proclaim that the 2050 timetable deadline is way too short, too difficult, economically harmful and indeed just unachievable. This is not exactly how the IEA (which, after all, has been the handmaiden of the globe’s oil and gas industry for so long) puts it:

“To reach net zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion. This will create millions of new jobs, significantly lift global economic growth, and achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking worldwide by the end of the decade.”

Still, according to Sheridan, we need to continue to gently tease out a painless phase-out without end of our coal and gas assets. While we relax into this, it seems, we leave the heavy lifting to China and presumably other developing countries such as India.

It’s about time we put this furphy to bed. Developing countries, and particularly China, were never required by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to decarbonise at the same rate as industrialised countries for a simple reason. At the turn of the century the developing world “owned” two-thirds of the growth in carbon dioxide. We therefore have had the obligation to take a greater share of reducing GHG.

China has made commendable decarbonising strides — if we want it and other developing countries to accelerate decarbonisation we need to accept the equity imbalance, raise our own targets and help fund their GHG reduction efforts. Interestingly, The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd seems most concerned by the prospect that China might derive a far greater economic benefit from the 2050 target by capturing much of the electric car and hydrogen market. For this we can thank John Howard for slashing solar research funding and thinning out CSIRO resources.

The rise of capacity-to-change deniers also puts a spotlight on the basic questions on which all views on climate change should be based: What is the nature and size of the global threat, how does that translate in terms of economic and social harm to Australia and how urgently do we need to act? No one I know would deny that the net cost far outweighs the global cost of mitigating climate change. Indeed, the costs are clearly already with us and growing and need an urgent response. Once that is accepted, the lack of forward planning is sheer negligence. Leaving the planning to the 11th hour is costing and will cost us heaps.

A carbon tax implemented decades ago would have been by far the most cost-effective means of putting us on the path to 2050. A continuation of the national energy guarantee would have put us much further along in the greening of our power system. Forward-looking regional structural adjustment for affected coal, oil and gas regions should already be created. Reducing the multimillion-dollar subsidies to the oil, gas and coal industries and radically increasing resources for the necessary and ultimately cost-effective expansion of the renewable sector should also have been a no-brainer a long time ago.

Having studiously rejected the need for any long-term planning, our deniers now view these shortfalls as anyone’s fault but theirs. The government views the issue as an electoral threat, and for the carbon energy industry it’s a balance sheet threat to their share price.  None, it seems, want to admit to the huge economic rewards for Australia by being an early mover into new forms of energy exports — the makings of which, it so happens, Australia is blessed with.

Nor do our capacity-to-change deniers care to confront the fact that we have known for decades that, whether we liked it or not, the world’s energy industry would require radical transition. Their and our government’s longstanding support of extensive subsidies for the carbon industry hardly sits comfortably with this fact. Better surely to have transferred the subsidies and the accompanying employment to renewables.

As for the coal and gas industries, the financial crisis taught us that it’s corporate shareholders who need to bear commercial risks — they have had years to bail out. But according to Kenny, it is the Twiggy Forrests — who are promising to create employment by taking multibillion-dollar renewable energy investment risks — who are merely grabbing profit and somehow doing nothing for “the working family”.

No one is denying there needs to be a transition to phase out coal and gas. But there is clearly adequate time and resources to ensure those most directly employed — who, in terms of the whole economy, are small in number and are far fewer than the farmers who will be most affected by climate change — can be transitioned to other employment.

The real problem is that the gas and coal industries are buying political support from the Nationals for their rapid expansion of new projects. In doing so, they are inflicting real damage to the Australian economy by creating future stranded assets and causing the future stranding of workers. To be sure, as Sheridan points out, we may have some of the world’s lowest cost, highest quality coal and low-cost gas. But as the IEA has made clear, there should be no further expansion of output — we already have enough coal and gas in the global pipeline to meet the world’s needs until 2050.

Sheridan would have us believe that not only should other countries not expand production but also reduce it to make way for Australian coal and gas. That’s a big ask.

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