John Hewson
The obstacles to Australia becoming a green superpower

The concept of Australia becoming a renewable energy superpower should be a no-brainer.

A clean-energy revolution is under way that will drive societies around the globe to a low-carbon existence. This will rival in significance the Industrial Revolution, which was driven by fossil fuels – coal-fired power, and petrol and diesel engines. Unfortunately, this advance was characterised by governments and businesses pursuing growth, ignoring the economic and social consequences of the pollution they created, and ignoring the related demands on the Earth’s capacity. The most significant consequence has been human-driven climate change. The revolution has proved to be unsustainable.

The world now finds itself in the unenviable situation of having to deal with these consequences as a matter of urgency, of dramatically reducing dependence on fossil fuels in the hope of containing global warming to manageable levels – 1.5-2 degrees Celsius by mid-century – to ensure things don’t get any worse. Most governments are still well off the pace of what is required to achieve this. The shift of the focus from Paris objectives to “net zero by 2050” has made it look as though the response can be delayed. However, as the United States climate envoy, John Kerry, revealed recently in his European discussions, even if all 195 signatory countries met their Paris commitments to emissions reductions, the world would still warm by 3.7 degrees. Climate change has become an existential risk.

The challenge is to move on from dependence on fossil fuels to renewables, especially clean energy and fuels, resetting the base of most industries and reducing emissions from current industrial practices. The growth and employment benefits of such a shift are potentially enormous. It is a management challenge to transition key sectors of the economy fairly, with a focus on consequences for workers and communities, investors, governments and institutions that have become dependent, if not addicted, to the unsustainable exploitation of fossil fuels.   

Australia has been a leader in the fossil-fuelled industrial revolution, having become one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and natural gas. Australia is also among the most exposed to climate impacts, especially in the form of extreme weather events and the health consequences. Consequently, our governments carry significant domestic and international responsibilities.

Australia is uniquely placed to show true global leadership in the transition to renewables and clean energy, transport and agriculture. We have ample sun and wind power and the technologies to effectively store and transmit them. We are also enviably endowed with key minerals such as graphite, lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and rare earths of importance to the battery industries, solar panels and so on. We have highly trained scientists and engineers, strong research capabilities and standing, as well as investors and the capacity to marshal the necessary private-sector finance.

It should be a national embarrassment that our country failed to recognise the significance of the commercial opportunity to develop the solar panel technology developed at the University of New South Wales decades ago, which went on to make a billionaire of the student who found better opportunities in his native China.

The political climate debate over the past several decades has been surreal. The challenge was not always accepted as real, or it was one for the future. The Coalition acted as if the necessary adjustment could be made in 2049 to get to net zero by 2050, yet climate change is affecting us significantly now, and has done for some years. The costs of inaction have been alarming.

Nicki Hutley, of the Climate Council, has said that “the cost of extreme weather disasters in Australia has more than doubled since the ’70s, reaching some $35 billion in the decade to 2019, and economic damages per person are around 7 times the global average”.

The recent Black Summer bushfires are estimated to have cost about $100 billion, roughly 14 times the economic and social costs of the 2009 Black Saturday fires. The full cost of the recent floods is still being finalised but runs into billions. Health costs are just starting to be recognised and counted. Hutley has reported that “the 2011 heatwave saw a 14% rise in ambulance callouts and a 13% increase in excess deaths”. Particulate emissions from dirty petrol have been reported to kill multiples of the road toll annually.

For some inexplicable reason the Morrison government locked us into nearly the dirtiest petrol of countries in the OECD until 2028 and refused to embrace global vehicle emissions standards. Even if we could buy a Euro 6 emissions-compliant car in Australia, it probably wouldn’t make it out of the showroom on our petrol. The Morrison government also committed billions to the foreign oil refiners operating in Australia to keep the refineries open, only to see several close.

The response to the recent floods in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales has been alarmingly inadequate, with persistent doubts about whether committed government assistance will actually go to those in need, and regarding the adequacy of insurance payouts. I have just visited Lismore again and saw the consequences first hand. The town was devastated and many businesses lost, with owners still unsure whether or how to rebuild. Housing for the most affected is still not available, and there are stories of some with damaged homes being unable to fund a rebuild and reduced to squatting in their homes without power or water. These are Third World conditions.

Recent research suggests that the economic losses from climate change in just a few decades could be like a Covid-sized economic shock every year. A similar prognosis is suggested by modelling for the NSW government. As a global climate-change policy laggard, Australia is also exposed on the trade front, running the genuine risk that significant trading partners that are further advanced in their climate policies will levy carbon border taxes on our exports, costing potentially billions in lost revenue and thousands of jobs.

The media’s role in the climate debate has been appalling, especially when we recognise the significance of the issue at the recent election. Those deniers on Sky News and their peers are now pretending that they are not really deniers, but simply asking the “difficult questions” in a “search for the truth”. They reveal no genuine interest in a constructive discussion of the emergency and the most effective responses. Rather, they seem more concerned with feeble, transparent attempts at undermining Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who, distressingly for them, has hit the ground running and appears to be a most effective leader. These sheep claim he is obsessed by climate and mock his and others’ efforts, ignoring the facts and opportunities and hoping to somehow enhance their marginal careers.

The Coalition under Morrison and Angus Taylor adopted a bizarre attitude to climate once they finally accepted the challenge as real, claiming to focus on “technology not taxes”. This soon became a meaningless slogan, losing any claim to be a realistic conservative response, and much of the financial assistance they gave was wasted and misdirected, sometimes for perceived political advantage.

To a true conservative – one who claims to be committed to small government, spare regulation and a desire to rely on market forces wherever possible – the most cost-effective response to the climate challenge would be to put a price on carbon, as was demonstrated in a fairly cumbersome way by Julia Gillard’s government. Morrison and Taylor simply didn’t understand this, as they poured millions into technologies such as carbon capture and storage, which I understand would need a carbon price of about $100 a tonne to be commercially viable.

Against this background, Albanese is to be congratulated for committing to a more realistic 2030 target – though it probably falls short of what will be required – and for recognising the need for climate responses to be “front-end loaded”. Also laudable is his commitment to Australia becoming a renewable energy superpower, with the broader possibility that we could lead on climate responses in other key sectors such as transport, agriculture, heavy industry and “green” buildings and materials. This would shift Australia to be a global climate leader, from its current position as the most conspicuous laggard, reaping potentially enormous benefits in terms of growth and jobs.

Albanese is right to emphasise that climate is a challenge necessitating global co-ordination of individual country responses, but Australia has a sizeable responsibility as a major exporter and subsidiser of fossil fuels.   

As for searching for truth, it would be instructive for these media meddlers and Coalition climate deniers to read a recent report from the International Energy Agency, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector”. The IEA, initially formed as a mouthpiece for the fossil-fuel industries, warned that some existing gas and coal infrastructure will become redundant if the world meets net zero – “stranded assets”, in financial terms. It’s a significant road-to-Damascus conversion for the IEA, though apparently the report was passed across some of the big polluters. The plan proposes specific quantitative actions across multiple sectors that are dramatically different from current actions, including a recommendation of no new oil, gas or coalmines from this year.

The IEA report argues that the energy transformation will be based on solar, wind, bioenergy and hydrogen. About 85 per cent of the required transition through 2030 will be based on proven technologies, and then about 50 per cent to reach net zero by 2050.

How well placed in all these areas is Australia? Surely we should go for it.

The US Energy secretary recently told a Sydney conference that a global transition to cleaner energy sources could be the world’s best opportunity to minimise the chance of global conflicts. No country could be “held hostage” over its access to the sun and wind. This is another important point in the recognition that climate is probably our most important national security issue. There is more to be achieved than can be done with more traditional Defence spending. Our enormous potential to export renewable energy, especially to our region, could be our most effective peace plan.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Super-powering Australia".

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