Peter Garrett gives Labor a free pass on climate action

Feb 15, 2021

Peter Garrett’s essay in ‘Upturn: A better normal’, edited by Tanya Plibersek, rightly castigates the federal government’s continuing support for fossil fuels and its failure to implement effective climate mitigation policies. But he doesn’t address Labor’s reluctance to take the strong action demanded by climate science or identify the policies needed.

Peter Garrett begins his chapter by discussing the implications of the catastrophic bushfires that seared us from Winter 2019 to Summer 2020/21: “For many of us, it is unthinkable that parts of the country could be unliveable in the future.” Then he refutes the notion, disseminated by deniers of climate science and renewable energy, that there is necessarily a trade-off between the environment and the economy.

Garrett rightly associates the federal Coalition government’s inaction on climate change with political donations from big business and the resources sector in particular and the revolving doors of jobs flowing back and forth between the government and the resource industries. However, he omits to acknowledge that Labor receives donations of similar magnitudes from vested interests and also participates in revolving door appointments.

Garrett reminds us that former ALP governments introduced effective (but, in my view, far from adequate) climate mitigation policies, in particular, the carbon price, which reduced electricity emissions from mid-2012 until the incoming Liberal-National Coalition (LNC) government terminated it in mid-2014. This plaudit should be qualified by acknowledging that it was actually a joint ALP-Greens initiative and the Gillard government failed to defend it against Abbott’s mantra of ‘big new tax’. Labor’s riposte should have been that wage earners were compensated by an increase in the income tax threshold. This thrust would have been even sharper if pensions and the unemployment benefit had been raised significantly as well.

As I see it, one of the previous Labor government’s best policies was its belated expansion and extension of the Renewable Energy Target (RET) — belated, because it was only implemented properly three years after Labor gained office in 2007. Garrett incorrectly describes the Coalition as ‘tacitly accepting Labor’s Renewable Energy Target’, although the Coalition tried unsuccessfully to remove it and eventually succeeded in shrinking it. The target expired in 2020 and neither major political party at the federal level has shown any interest in extending it or providing a substitute to accelerate the growth of renewable energy.

The other important previous Labor policies were the creation of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). Together with the RET, these institutions built up the markets and supply chains for solar and wind, created jobs and drove down prices. Although ARENA and CEFC have survived until now, the Coalition government is attempting to pass legislation to extend the CEFC’s scope to finance fossil fuels.

What needs to be done by the federal government? Garrett’s response is “setting ambitious short- and long-term targets and reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately and at scale”. He also points to Ross Garnaut’s chapter, ‘Superpowered Jobs’, which outlines how “abundant solar, wind and precious rare mineral resources [could be] deployed to meet current energy needs at lower cost while exporting surplus energy”.

But what has to happen between setting targets and creating an export industry for renewable energy? The Coalition government says it won’t agree to the distant 2050 target until it knows how to get there. Here I’ll outline the roadmap to 100% renewable energy developed independently by overseas and Australian research groups (e.g. herehere and here).

The foundation upon which the energy strategy is based is that electricity from solar and wind is nowadays much cheaper (also see here and here) than from fossil fuels and its costs are still declining. Even after we add storage, renewable electricity scenarios are less expensive than clinging to polluting fossil-fuelled electricity. Therefore, after setting targets for every five-year period until 2040, the key strategy for achieving those targets must be to transition rapidly to renewable electricity, to electrify transport and non-electrical heating, to greatly improve the efficiency with which we use energy and to offer new jobs to workers who are disadvantaged by the transition.

Technologies are commercially available for transforming electricity, transport and heating to renewable electricity, and for improving the efficiency of energy use. Reducing energy waste through efficiency (technical improvements) and conservation (behavioural changes) can save money as well as energy. Australia is rated only as middle-level in global comparisons of energy efficiency despite our large potential for further demand reduction.

Most of these technologies for cleaning up energy supply and reducing wasteful energy demand are economically competitive with new fossil-fuelled energy. Electric vehicles (EVs), are expected to become generally competitive with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles within the next five years or so—they are already competitive for some fleets.

Together the above technologies could rapidly eliminate about three-quarters of Australia’s (and the world’s) greenhouse gas emissions. Given the political will, the policies outlined below could achieve the transformation of the vast majority of the Australian energy system around 2035. However, many other countries have not yet commenced the transition resulting in a prolonged global transition. To reduce the risk of crossing climate tipping points, consumption by the rich must also be reduced, but that’s another story.

The more difficult energy uses to transition are transport by air, sea and, in remote areas, long-distance road. In most cases, these cannot be powered directly by renewable electricity. To be free of carbon emissions, they require a hydrogen-based fuel produced by using renewable electricity to split water. As Ross Garnaut proposes in his chapter of Upturn, ‘green’ hydrogen could also substitute for the non-energy (i.e. chemical) use of coal in steel-making and other industries. The technologies for producing ‘green’ hydrogen exist but are still expensive—research and development to improve them is continuing.

The key federal and state government policies needed right now for accelerating the transition to renewable energy and improved energy efficiency are:

  • Create renewable energy zones for clean electricity generation and build or upgrade transmission lines to serve them.
  • Hold reverse auctions with contract-for difference for new solar and wind farms in states that don’t already have them.
  • Temporarily subsidise the installation of batteries for short-term storage (a few hours) in the electricity grid and pumped hydro for medium-term storage (a few days). As Garrett says, many small off-river pumped hydro stations would be better for the environment than Snowy 2.0.
  • Reform the National Electricity Market objective, structure and rules to make the system compatible with distributed sources of zero-carbon electricity.
  • Set stronger minimum energy performance standards and mandatory energy labelling for all buildings and energy-using appliances and equipment; mandate that all new homes be net-zero carbon.
  • Tighten emission standards for ICE vehicles to bring them into line with European standards.
  • Incentivise the roll-out of fast-charging stations for EVs.
  • Invest in improved infrastructure to better integrate urban and transport planning—in particular, fund better public transport and facilities for cycling and walking.
  • Introduce a steadily increasing carbon price, with revenue shared equally between all adult Australians.

These policies don’t need rocket science and all except public transport and new transmission lines are inexpensive. However, to counter the political drivers of fossil fuel fixation identified by Garrett, which have the potential for corruption, the following additional policies are recommended:

  • Limit individual donations to a political party by any person or organisation to (say) $1000 per year, publish them promptly, and introduce federal and state government funding of elections.
  • Introduce measures to address the revolving door in jobs between politicians/political advisors and industry, including banning retiring Ministers from employment by, or contract work for, industries for which they had responsibilities, for two years after retirement; publishing the present and former industry affiliations of political advisors employed by, or contracted to, Ministers.
  • Require a list of all Ministers’ meetings with representatives of business, industry, trade unions and other non-government organisations to be published weekly.
  • Create a federal ICAC with teeth.
  • Set up a commission to review the powers of corporations and their impacts on political decision-making, social equity and the economy.
  • Place stricter constraints on the mining industry’s legal right to access land against wishes of owners and traditional custodians

The benefits of these anti-corruption policies are not limited to assisting the energy transition. They would strengthen our democratic system and help address several of the other social and environmental issues discussed in Upturn.

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