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With Scott Morrison refusing to budge on reducing emissions, state governments and the private sector are leading the way on going carbon neutral. By Mike Seccombe.

States defy Commonwealth on emissions

Counterintuitive though it may be, Scott Morrison does the least damage to the global environment when he is in Canberra, at least in a personal capacity.

The same holds for those who sit behind him, on the crossbench and across the aisle.

That’s because while they are in Parliament House, or anywhere in the nation’s capital, they are living in a Canberra bubble – a low-carbon Canberra bubble.

The ACT gets its electricity from 100 per cent renewable sources: wind and solar.

And now the electricity supply is zero-carbon, the ACT government has turned its attention to other sources of emissions – some 22 per cent of which come from the use of gas for heating and cooking and 60 per cent from transport.

In an effort to reduce the former, the ACT government has rescinded the requirement that new developments be connected to gas, and is aiming to have all premises disconnected from gas within 25 years. It is paying to install electric appliances in government housing.

Moreover, it charges no stamp duty on zero-emissions vehicles, gives a 20 per cent discount on their registration fees and allows them to drive in transit lanes. There is a network of electric vehicle charging stations across the territory – about 30 so far, with more to come – and the government will require all new multi-unit and mixed-use developments to install vehicle charging infrastructure.

It is also moving to electrify its own vehicle fleet – ranging from buses to scooters to a new all-electric, zero-emissions light rail development, connecting the national capital’s northern suburbs with its central business district.

Unlike Sydney’s new light rail, Canberra’s has proved reliable, efficient and popular with the travelling public – so popular that overall public transport use along its route has jumped by more than 30 per cent, compared with the previous bus regime.

“The ACT should be totally carbon neutral by 2045,” says Dr Will Steffen, pointing to the capital’s legislated 100 per cent renewable energy target.

Now an emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Steffen was previously a member of the federal government’s Climate Commission – until the Abbott government dissolved it in 2013 – and served until last year as a member of the ACT Climate Change Council.

He says the territory will be one of the few jurisdictions in the world to achieve the carbon reductions necessary to avoid runaway global heating.

“I did the sums on what that actually means in terms of cumulative emissions,” Steffen says, “and that will bring the ACT in at a number consistent with the Paris target range of between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius.”

The above goes to two points. First, it puts the lie to the repeated warnings from the government that taking steps to address climate change will cost jobs and result in higher power prices. The ACT has by far the lowest unemployment rate in the country – just 3.1 per cent in December – and some of the nation’s cheapest electricity.

While some will chalk up the ACT’s success to its idiosyncrasies – it has a very small area and its population has a high median income – electricity prices right across the National Electricity Market have begun to fall, and according to the 2019 annual report of the government’s own Energy Market Commission, they will continue to do so for at least the next three years. The reason is increasing amounts of power from renewables.

The second, more important point that the ACT example illustrates is that big things can be achieved on the climate front despite the recalcitrance of the Morrison government. Across the country, others are just getting on with the job.

So, says Richard Denniss, chief economist with The Australia Institute, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot that the prime minister – under the renewables-powered lights at Canberra’s National Press Club this week – once again refused to commit to anything beyond his government’s current emissions reduction target.

“Every state and territory in Australia now has a net zero [emissions] target by 2050,” says Denniss, “which effectively means Australia has a net zero target by 2050. So, it’s meaningless, when every state and territory says it has a net zero target, to have a federal government saying, ‘No, we don’t.’

“If the states all meet their stated goals, then Australia meets it, and what Scott Morrison thinks about that is precisely irrelevant.”

In the past week alone, there have been significant examples of quiet progress across the country.

In the small Queensland town of Wandoan, yet another big battery is to be built, at a cost of $120 million, to store renewable power and provide frequency control to the grid. South Australia’s own big battery has been so successful in driving down prices, and stabilising the grid, that its capacity is being expanded by 50 per cent. When the battery was first installed in 2017, Scott Morrison, then treasurer, ridiculed the project, comparing it to tourist attractions such as the Big Banana and the Big Prawn.

Even bigger than this week’s battery announcement, though, was the largely unreported news last Friday that the Australian Energy Regulator had approved a proposal to build a new $1.5 billion, 900-kilometre interconnector between SA and New South Wales.

The SA government described the new infrastructure as the “foundation piece” of its plans to have 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

“In fact, there’s every prospect they will get there sooner,” says Professor Andrew Stock, a 40-year veteran of the energy industry, previously a general manager with Origin and a foundation director of the government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation. He now sits with Professor Steffen on the Climate Council, which was founded in response to Tony Abbott’s abolition of the Climate Commission.

Already, says Stock, there are many days during which renewables in SA generate more power than the state can use.

The interconnector, he says, “is not just about the current government’s policies and just to extend renewable investment within the state to provide for its own needs, but to effectively create an export industry”.

Stock further notes the SA government’s moves to establish a “virtual power plant”, under which as many as 40,000 houses will be fitted with batteries – free in state housing and subsidised as much as $6000 elsewhere – to further improve the system’s resilience. So far, about 6000 homes have been fitted.

“The interesting thing is that this is happening under a Liberal government,” says Stock.

“And survey after survey shows that South Australians not only support renewable electricity but are very proud of the fact that the state’s a leader in that regard, and that that’s from every side of politics, regardless of voting intentions.

“I haven’t seen any numbers yet for the December quarter, but for the two quarters before that, South Australia had the lowest [wholesale] electricity prices in the nation.”

But Stock has his concerns. The national renewable energy target, set at 41,000 gigawatt hours by the former federal Labor government and reduced to 33,000 gigawatt hours by the Abbott government in 2015, now has been met. New investment in renewables has fallen sharply.

It is not an immediate problem, because there is more than adequate supply in the grid, thanks to more renewables coming online. Hence the declining prices.

But Australia’s coal-fired generators are getting old. Should one of the big ones close, Stock says, “prices go very high”.

“If you take a large lick of existing coal capacity out of the system without pre-building the renewables to replace it, you’ll end up with a very tight situation for a few years,” he says. “This is a big issue.”

Already, Stock says, the greatest concern for the Australian Energy Market Operator is not the one cited by Morrison and his colleagues – the intermittency of renewables when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow.

“It is that the old fossil plants are more likely to fall over when they are most needed,” he says. “Increasingly, that’s where the risk is – it’s old generators falling over, not the variability of renewables.”

It’s a concern recognised not only by the experts but increasingly by the more progressive elements on Morrison’s side of politics, who are pushing for the government to lift its renewable aspirations.

To date, Morrison has sided with the climate reactionaries in his party. As to why the prime minister is so resistant to transition to renewables, says Richard Denniss, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s linked to Australia’s dependence on fossil fuel exports – that the government is consciously setting out not to be a good international example, lest other nations follow it and expedite the transition to renewables.

“The historical context is that when Australia and the rest of the [developed] world agreed to take rapid climate action 20 years ago, it was so that we could prove up how to do it quickly and cheaply … as an example to other countries like China and India,” Denniss says.

That is not what the current government wants at all, though. Instead, it has become a belligerent presence at international climate conferences, and domestically propagates the myth that Australia is doing its share on climate.

“The notion promoted by the Morrison government and its media backers that no one else is doing anything much about climate change is a uniquely Australian bubble phenomenon,” Denniss says. “In fact, lots of people around the world are doing lots. In Europe, for example. And China and India.”

A couple of months ago, Australian tech billionaire and climate campaigner Mike Cannon-Brookes convened a gathering of 125-odd business leaders to make his case for them to join RE 100, a collection of large companies promising to go carbon neutral.

The assembled group heard from Cannon-Brookes himself, as well as representatives of companies already committed to being 100 per cent renewable, including Unilever and Ikea, along with Jon Dee, who is the Australian head of RE 100.

“The good news,” Dee tells The Saturday Paper, “is that we’ve now got 10 major starting companies who have all agreed to go 100 per cent within a short period of time. In our first year, we’ve managed to get the big five banks – Westpac, Commonwealth, ANZ, NAB, Macquarie – on board. And we’ve also got Bank Australia, which has already gone 100 per cent renewable.

“And we’re talking to 20 others about joining RE 100.”

The RE 100 pitch isn’t focused on doing the right thing by the global environment – instead it’s about doing the right thing by their bottom lines.

“At the end of last year with Mike and [environmental consultants] Energetics, I looked at the existing power purchase agreements for renewables,” Dee says. “It shows that people who do a well-negotiated power purchase green with renewable energy can reduce the electricity component of their energy bill by 15 to 47 per cent.

“We’ve heard this narrative that, you know, going renewable is a wrecking ball for the economy that is bad for the business bottom line. But the reality is, if you look at the major companies that have made a move towards renewables in a big way, they’re actually saving money on their energy bills.”

Dee has written a couple of books on the subject – one, Energy Cut, was funded by the Abbott government and launched by then Environment minister Greg Hunt. He’s also produced 116 episodes of the program Smart Money, on Sky News of all places.

How did he manage that? By not mentioning what he calls “the core words” –  climate, environment and emissions. “Not once in my whole 430-page book,” Dee says.

“It was all about the bottom line.”

It’s a message business has started to take on board. So are the millions of Australians with solar panels on their roofs and LED bulbs in their lights. And the global investors who have, according to environmental organisation 350.org, divested $US11 trillion from fossil fuels, as of late last year.

As for our prime minister? Well, at least he’s carbon neutral in Parliament House.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "Emissions statements".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.