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Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to grant a stay of execution to two government green energy agencies hinges more on cooling the heat on him than the environment. By Mike Seccombe.

Malcolm Turnbull’s climate change thimble trick

A trigger for a double dissolution of parliament is like a trigger on a gun. Pull it injudiciously and you can blow your foot off.

A prime minister needs to be very careful about selecting the piece of legislation he or she will use as a trigger. You don’t force the issue unless you think you can win the issue.

To underline the point, consider this fact: the bureaucrats who compile statistical information for the senate currently list no fewer than 12 potential triggers for a double dissolution, but the government has shown no interest in forcing the issue in relation to 11 of them. The twelfth one, the bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, is Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s choice.

The complication is that it is only halfway to being a double-dissolution trigger. It has yet to be rejected a second time by the senate, which is why Turnbull is bringing the parliament back for three weeks of extra sittings in April, at vast expense, in the face of what opinion polls tell us is a great lack of interest from the public.

Yet Turnbull already had another, fully formed double-dissolution trigger, left to him by his predecessor, Tony Abbott. It was the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill 2013.

Almost two years ago, in June 2014, the senate voted for the second time to reject the proposed legislation.

Turnbull could have saved a great deal of cost and bother if he had just pulled the trigger that he had. But he would have blown off his foot: the CEFC – set up by Labor in 2012 with a budget of $10 billion over five years to provide financing for renewable energy and energy efficiency schemes – is an extremely successful government initiative.

It has both driven investment in alternatives to fossil fuels and earned money for the taxpayer. As of June 30 last year, it had invested $1.4 billion in projects valued at $3.5 billion and was making a 6.1 per cent rate of return on those investments. It was, to borrow a couple of Turnbull’s favourite words, both nimble and innovative.

And yet the policy of Turnbull’s government remained the same as that of its predecessor: to abolish the CEFC, along with its sister body, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, known as ARENA. As recently as Monday, the environment minister, Greg Hunt, told The Saturday Paper it remained the government’s intent to scrap them.

That changed suddenly on Wednesday morning, when Turnbull and Hunt held a joint press conference. The prime minister began by saying they were there “to talk about innovation”.

He said, the key thing was to be more innovative in all areas, including the environment and climate change.

“What we’re announcing today is that we are retaining the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and ARENA, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency,” he said. “And we are establishing a new $1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund, and what that is going to do is every year invest $100 million in the smartest, most cutting-edge Australian clean-energy technologies and businesses…”

Pea-and-thimble trick

The details of the announcement suggest Turnbull and Hunt were playing a pea-and-thimble trick, so as to give the impression they were promising more resources to address climate change, even though they were not.

But first, let’s go to the likely reasons the prime minister considered it necessary to clear the decks on the issue, ahead of the election.

The first is that Turnbull was emphasising a point of difference between him and his predecessor. The second obvious reason is poll related.

A survey by Essential Media last August found 38 per cent of Australians thought climate change was either the greatest or second greatest threat to the world. Another Essential poll, from just last week, found 63 per cent of voters accepted climate change was caused by human activity. This was hugely up from 2012, when Tony Abbott’s scare campaign against carbon pricing was at its height, when just 48 per cent believed.

Other surveys show voters strongly support greater investment in renewables and less in fossil fuels. Many more people believe renewables are not only better for the environment than fossil fuels, but better for electricity costs, jobs and the economy than think the reverse.

Turnbull’s decision to grant a reprieve to the CEFC and ARENA may be seen in significant part as a recognition that the views of voters are shifting. Fast.

As well they might. The evidence is overwhelming, and people increasingly relate it not only to the models of scientists but to their lived experience.

Hottest month on record

Like the rest of the world, Australia has just experienced its hottest month on record. “The February global temperature anomaly,” says Dr David Jones, manager of climate monitoring and prediction at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, “was the largest on record.” 

It was 1.35 degrees above the long-term average between 1951 and 1980, and between 0.3 and 0.4 degrees above the previous record, he says.

“And 2015 was the warmest year on record, by 0.76 degrees, and that beat the record set just one year earlier.”

These records were in part due to natural climate variability – the world tends to set more heat records in El Niño periods – but they were exacerbated by the ineluctable warming of the planet.

“The background trend in the data is that climate is warming globally by about 0.15 degrees per decade,” Jones says.

The effects of climate change are many and varied. In Australia, Bureau of Meteorology data shows the north-west of the continent has seen rainfall increase by almost 50 per cent since the 1950s as the monsoons become more intense.

But over the south of the continent, from Perth to South Australia, Victoria and particularly Tasmania, rainfall has declined 15 or 20 per cent.

Devastating bushfires

Thus we saw devastating bushfires in the north-west of Tasmania this summer, raging through normally wet areas where the ecology is not adapted to fire. The blazes have likely changed the ecology of parts of the state’s ancient forests, including in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, forever.

“These areas that burned are like the old people’s home, full of Gondwanan remnants, that hardly ever burned,” says David Bowman, professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania. “The areas will regenerate, but not with the same species.”

About 70 separate fires started on January 13, sparked by a dry lightning storm, says Bowman. More were started in mid-January by a second such storm.

“In all, about 120,000 hectares burned, 22,000 in the World Heritage Area,” he says.

There had been another big fire in 2013, which burnt about 45,000 hectares.

Bowman acknowledges the usual caveats about attributing individual events to climate change, but notes there has been a steady drying of the region and a steady increase in the number of dry storms, since about 1990.

His fear is that such events are not anomalous, but are becoming “the new normal”.

Coral bleaching

At the same time as Tasmania was burning, the coral reefs off Far North Queensland were bleaching under relentless sunshine.

Dr Russell Reichelt, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, says that until 1998, when the first mass bleaching of the reef happened, “such a thing was not on our radar at all”.

“In that year nearly 50 per cent of surface corals from Bundaberg to Cooktown were bleached.”

Bleaching occurs when corals become stressed due to abnormally high water temperatures, expelling the tiny marine algae that live inside their tissue and that provide up to 90 per cent of the energy corals require to grow and reproduce. The corals lose their colour and begin to starve. 

In 1998, says Reichelt, “about 3 or 4 per cent of those corals died. But it was within a month or so of having 50 per cent of its surface corals die, had the weather not changed.”

Since that first event, there have been multiple other instances of mass bleaching.

“But this one is different,” says Reichelt. “It’s less widespread than others, affecting only the reefs from about Lizard Island north. But the weather in the far north hasn’t changed in months.”

Corals are very temperature sensitive. If the water is more than one degree warmer than the long-term average for a significant period, bleaching can begin.

In the far north of the reef, water temperatures have been up to three degrees hotter than average for months.

“We’ve already recorded very significant coral mortality up there,” Reichelt says. “The pool of hot water is now so deep we expect bleaching down to 25 or 30 metres.”

It is continuing to be the most damaging coral bleaching event. But the greater worry, says Reichelt, is that “such severe disturbances are becoming more frequent and the recovery time becoming less”.

The evidence of climate change is mounting wherever you look. And the evidence that our current global goals for limiting the effects of climate change are inadequate also is mounting.

Less room to move

Will Steffen, councillor with the Climate Council and emeritus professor at the ANU in Earth systems, notes that each successive scientific assessment shows the world has less room to move in limiting human-induced climate change.

Just 15 years ago, he says, the peak scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, thought the worst effects might be avoided if warming was limited to two degrees Celsius.

“The 2001 assessment by the IPCC showed that with a rise of up to two degrees, things still looked pretty good,” Steffen says.

“We saw some effects on endangered species, some influence on extreme weather events, but the really nasty things like tipping points were seen as happening at well above two degrees.”

Successive iterations of the IPCC report, though, have moved the thresholds down.

“The latest one, published in 2013, showed that even at one degree we were experiencing significant influence in extreme weather events, a lot of stress on species and ecosystems,” Steffen says. “And for the first time we saw some concern about tipping points happening down towards one degree.”

Some positive signs

There are some positive signs, though. Much of Europe has been reducing its emissions for a decade or more. In the United States, emissions from electricity generation have fallen sharply. China has committed to reducing its emissions from 2030, and, Steffen says, it will probably exceed expectations and peak by 2020 or 2025.

And Australia? “The best that can be said is that we are flatlining,” Steffen says.

He’s being polite. His fellow climate commissioner, Tim Flannery, is much more blunt.

He dismisses Greg Hunt’s claims that Australia has passed peak emissions thus: “You’ve got real problems when you start believing your own illusions.”

Under Labor, Australia had a carbon pricing mechanism that was working to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning. The Abbott government axed that, and in the process deprived itself of billions of dollars in revenue that might have been spent on health or schools.

Ever since, the carbon emissions from fossil fuel power generation have been going up.

The only way the government can claim to be reducing emissions is through the inclusion of sources other than fossil fuel burning, such as land clearing. And those figures are rubbery to say the least, Flannery says.

“The only thing that matters in abatement terms,” he says, “is reducing those fossil fuel emissions.”

Which brings us back to Malcolm Turnbull’s Wednesday policy announcement, that the CEFC was no longer facing the axe. Right across the scientific and environmental community, the decision to retain the CEFC and ARENA was welcomed.

“The CEFC,” Flannery says, “is one of the best tools we have for encouraging the switch to renewables.” 

But there was concern at the weasel words around the creation of the new $1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund.

A rebadging exercise

Analysis of the detail shows it is actually a rebadging exercise, attached to an overall funding cut, says John Grimes, chief executive of the peak renewables industry body, the Australian Solar Council.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has a total of $10 billion in funding. The government is now going to take one billion of those dollars and hypothecate $100 million for 10 years into this new organisation, called the Clean Energy Innovation Fund, that it will then invest in projects.

“At the same time $1.3 billion is to be slashed from renewables funding by ARENA,” Grimes says. “So the net position is $1.3 billion lost, and another billion repurposed. For the government to say this is a ‘new’ funding is rank hypocrisy.” 

Worse, said Grimes: “In the past we had a grants program through ARENA that funded early stage research and development and commercialisation. By its very nature, early stage research is speculative.

“The new mechanism will be through equity funding. They will only invest in projects that will pay them back with interest. It will kill off innovation.”

The reaction elsewhere in the renewables sector was generally sceptical, if not as frankly critical as Grimes’s.

Most expressed some gratitude for small mercy: at least the government no longer wants to abolish the CEFC and ARENA entirely. But nor were they in any doubt that Turnbull’s announcement was intended more to address a political problem than an environmental one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Turnbull’s climate thimble trick". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.