Zero interest in the climate

Late last month, the world’s fifth-largest economy pledged that no new petrol or diesel cars or trucks would be sold within its borders after 2035. An ambitious goal, experts say, but with unprecedented wildfires ravaging so much of California, the political tide was behind the governor’s decision to sign an executive order making it law.

Helsinki has set the same deadline to become completely carbon neutral. A crowdsourcing challenge launched by the Finnish capital to gather ideas for how it can transition away from relying on coal for heating closed in September, and received 252 proposals from teams in 35 countries. The prize for the winning idea is €1 million.

Across the world, countries are aiming to hit net zero emissions long before 2050. Ethiopia and Uruguay have pledged to reach it by 2030, with substantial policies in place to make good on the promise. Both Bhutan, in South Asia, and the South American nation of Suriname are already carbon neutral.

On climate policy, the evidence is clear: ambition isn’t dictated by size, density, population or wealth. It comes down to one factor – how willing a government is to accept that rapid action is needed to avert catastrophic climate change.

For nearly a decade, Australia’s government has been allergic to this fact. The 2020 budget proves that not even our own Black Summer could shake loose the calcified denial.

Instead, there is more funding for coal power – a sum not yet disclosed – with Energy Minister Angus Taylor offering to help maintain the Vales Point Power Station on the New South Wales Central Coast. This is not far from the Hunter Valley, where the Coalition pledged to build a new coal-fired power station, should the private sector not offer up a “dispatchable” successor to the Liddell coal-powered plant.

Elsewhere, the budget offered $50 million for an unproven technology – carbon capture and storage – which the government claims will “dramatically cut” emissions. And there was more than $52 million for gas.

Australia is a gas-rich nation, no doubt, but this strategy is exactly what the International Energy Agency has warned could lock in high emissions for decades to come. Countries need to be dramatically accelerating innovation in green technologies if the world is to reach net zero. There is no future in gas.

There are good ideas in this budget – $5 million for electric vehicles, $15 million to combat plastic litter in marine environments – but these are tiny, piecemeal and divorced from the scale of the problem. The ambition is lacking, as is the urgency. The government is holding Australia back, and the world is moving on without us.

Last week, the wind and solar producer NextEra overtook ExxonMobil to become the largest energy company in the United States by market value. There is no reason that couldn’t happen in Australia.

There is no reason some of the billions earmarked for “shovel-ready” projects couldn’t have been spent on the transmission investments for the electric grid that were called for by the Australian Energy Market Operator in July. No reason Australia couldn’t become the world’s leader in clean technology innovation.

There is no reason, other than our own government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2020 as "Zero interest in the climate".

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