What will it really take to become a Renewable Energy Superpower?

Mar 13, 2024
Eco friendly law, politics and eco balance concept. 3d rendering of scale icon on fresh spring meadow with blue sky in background.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese makes great play of his ambition to establish Australia as a Renewable Energy Superpower, a laudable ambition if it can be pulled off. But if ambition is to become more than platitudes, the Prime Minister needs to fundamentally reset current climate policy. Rather than sticking to the government’s inadequate 2022 election promises, rapid bold steps are required now.

Image: Supplied

Global temperatures – even further “Off the scale

The dramatic acceleration of climate change in 2023 means that humanity has entered a new, extremely dangerous, climate era. We have now passed the 1.5oC lower Paris temperature increase limit, and will probably hit the 2oC upper limit before 2040. Global carbon emissions, on current commitments, will be at the same level in 2050 as today, leading to a 3-4oC world, with large parts of the planet uninhabitable, including much of Australia. February 2024 was the hottest ever recorded, 1.77oC above pre-industrial levels.

The impacts of these changes include the worst ever fires in Canada, Hawaii and Europe; record temperatures and highest rainfall levels in many countries including Australia; record billion dollar climate disasters particularly in the USA; increasing public health danger as heat and humidity combine to create unliveable conditions; record low sea ice and ice sheet melt at both Poles, with major potential impacts on ocean circulation currents; de-stabilisation of the Arctic jet-stream leading simultaneously to extreme heat and cold in the Northern hemisphere, the destruction of coral reefs globally, including the Australian Great Barrier Reef, and much more. The fundamentals for human survival, inter alia water and food security, stable agricultural production, sustainable ecosystems and biodiversity, are under mounting threat.

Yet leaders remain supremely indifferent to the climate catastrophe they have created, pre-occupied with short-term geopolitics, empire building or domestic minutiae which are making matters far worse. Oblivious to the fact that their conventional worldview is now destroying the security of the people they supposedly represent; highlighted in Australia by the government’s hypocritical support for increasing emissions by expanding the fossil fuel industry while disaster victims continue to sleep in cars and tents years after the events.

Fortunately, there are still level heads prepared to talk truth to power and honestly articulate the changes Australia must make if a Superpower future is to become a reality.

The core initiative of the eminently sensible proposals launched by the Superpower Institute’s Ross Garnaut and Rod Sims at the National Press Club recently, is to rebuild Australia’s manufacturing base around our enormous renewable energy potential. They also propose a broad-based carbon price, to accelerate the fossil fuel industry phase out. In effect, this would remove the massive subsidy the industry has enjoyed for decades by not having to pay for the climate and other damage they have created.

The authors acknowledged that their proposals would be instantly dismissed as “impossible” by the two main political parties. But the “impossibility” of such a common-sense approach to climate change needs revisiting.

Last January, the release of Cabinet papers confirmed that, in 2003, John Howard overturned a proposal from key Ministers and Departments for the introduction of an emissions trading scheme, effectively a carbon price, by deferring to opposition from “important” fossil fuel industry leaders. Despite minimal mainstream media interest, Roger Beale, then Secretary of the Department of Environment and Heritage and centrally involved in developing that proposal, set out the sad history in detail. This was the second time an emissions trading system had been rejected at industry insistence. I chaired the group that developed the first proposal in 1998/99, and even then industry capture of government on climate change was well advanced, driven by US fossil fuel interests via Australian proxies such as Western Mining’s Hugh Morgan. Australia was regarded by the US industry as a keystone in the climate denial wall which, at all costs must not crumble in the face of pressure for climate action.

Howard had set the scene in 1997 by insisting on the insertion of the infamous Australia Clause into the Kyoto Protocol. This allowed Australia’s emission from 1990 -2012, from all sources other than land-clearing, to increase by 28% whereas other countries had to reduce emissions. This had disastrous consequences.

By delaying the need for Australian companies to take serious climate action, it created the complacency which remains today, gave strength to the denialist lobby and threw away Australia’s first opportunity to become a world leader in renewable and other emerging technologies. The leading edge technologies developed by institutions such as the UNSW photovoltaic centre would have created far greater value to Australia with more enlightened political and business leadership.

The Australia Clause along with John Howard’s other climate “captain’s calls” and his servile submission to US climate interests, will eventually be seen as some of the greatest strategic mistakes Australia ever made. They allowed the climate wars to continue to this day, resulting in an impoverished society, complacently unprepared for the damaging climate impacts which are hitting us.

Perhaps most importantly, they created a political and business class most of whom, even today, clearly remain in climate denial and lack the imagination to think of Australia as anything other than a dig-it-up and ship-it-out quarry, beholden to overseas mining companies and investors.

The cost of climate inaction has been massive. The Superpower proposals provide a way forward which has enormous economic and societal potential, but achieving that potential will require a total, whole-of-nation, commitment, particularly as the available implementation time is rapidly diminishing as climate change accelerates.

Already the government is incapable of responding adequately to current climate disasters, let alone the inevitable, escalating impacts. The danger now is that short-term, panic, responses to cascading disasters begin to take precedence over sound climate policy implementation, leading to societal collapse.

Government encouragement of fossil fuel expansion, from projects such as Woodside’s Scarborough, Santos’s Barossa or the NT Beetaloo gas fields, along with subsidies for unworkable carbon capture and storage, is supposedly “strategic”. But you do not solve climate change by increasing emissions, and it is not “strategic” to kill your citizens or destroy their livelihoods, which is now happening as climate change accelerates.

As for the Opposition, their current mantra of nuclear as the climate change solution confirms that they remain in total climate denial, ignoring the realities of energy technology, economics and climate science. Nuclear is just another form of predatory delay to extend the life of fossil fuels.

So breaking the fossil fuel state capture created by Howard is a pre-requisite for a Superpower future to work .

Not promising grounds on which to gain urgent, national commitment to realising the Superpower vision.

The game-changer, which should always be the driver of climate policy, but which nobody in officialdom or the mainstream media ever want to talk about, are the risks of climate change. The government has in its possession a report on climate risk completed by the Office of National Intelligence in November 2022, astonishingly the first-ever official climate risk analysis carried out in Australia. It’s conclusions have been keep secret on spurious national security grounds, but undoubtedly paint a stark picture of the threats ahead.

Unfortunately that analysis has now been overtaken by the staggering climate acceleration of the last year and must be updated urgently. It must then be shared openly with the community, otherwise we will remain totally unprepared for the climate impacts ahead, posing a grave threat to our social cohesion.

If the government fulfils its first priority, to ensure the security of the people, this will lead to a fundamental reframing of our national strategic priorities overall, with climate change top of the list.

Becoming a Renewable Energy Superpower is an essential part of that solution. But do you have the vision and courage to honestly inform the community about climate risk and make the “impossible” inevitable, Prime Minister?

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!