The government’s sudden passion for climate technology is newfound and insincere | Simon Holmes a Court

If you’re committed to the Paris agreement – to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees – then at a minimum, logically, scientifically, you’re committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

So far, at least 77 countries have committed to the target, as has every state and territory in Australia. The fact that prime minister Scott Morrison is pushing back hard against the calls for such a target sends yet another strong signal that his government still denies the need to tackle climate change.

Sensing it must be seen to do something, but committed to doing nothing substantive, the government is arguing that investing in technology is the superior pathway to… to… to what? Are billions of dollars of public funds about to be allocated to a strategy that delivers on an unspoken goal?

This passion for technology is newfound and insincere. In truth, our government has a long history of undermining climate technologies.

In the three years to 2016, the government ripped just shy of $1bn from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Arena), the body charged with helping early stage technologies through to commercial launch.

The funding of a feasibility study for a coal power station in Collinsville and the foreshadowed gift of $11m to extend the life of the 42 years old Vales Point coal power station in the Hunter, demonstrate just how reluctant the Coalition is to let go of last century’s energy technologies.

One of the most promising and critical new technologies is the rapid maturation of the electric vehicle, but who can forget the government’s pushback against EVs during last year’s election?

Angus Taylor MP (@AngusTaylorMP)

April 6, 2019

Last November I visited the Leilac zero carbon cement project Belgium – an exciting project given that cement is responsible for 7% of global emissions, more than twice as much as aviation. The new process captures most of the carbon dioxide that’s ordinarily released to the atmosphere during cement manufacture. The technology, which can be powered by renewable energy, was developed in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria and was lured to Europe on the back of a €12 million grant and a price on carbon.

In the alternate universe where Arena and our carbon price weren’t smashed by ideological attacks, that world-changing technology would be proudly Australian made.

While there’s plenty of valuable research and development in our future, especially for the difficult to decarbonise sectors of cement, steel and aviation, the truth is that we already have the technology to deal with around 70% of global emissions.

The pathway is simple – electrify everything and swap fossil fuels for renewables. These technologies have come down in cost not because of boffins in laboratory coats, but because of innovation born of sustained deployment and ruthless competition.

Mike and Annie Cannon-Brooke’s Resilient Energy Collective is a case study for how far we’ve come. In just a handful of weeks the group has put together an emergency power product for restoring power to bushfire affected communities. The solar-powered, battery-backed system can be installed in a single day, and will be rolled out to 100 communities in as many days. The energy supply companies partnering in the project are stunned that the infrastructure is being rolled out in hours not months. Community members are amazed that they’re using solar power at night.

Likewise, Aemo, our grid operator, has just released a blueprint for reducing electricity sector emissions by 85%, using existing technologies and without compromising reliability. Industry is champing at the bit to implement such a plan — they just need a minister who believes in the end goal and is committed to resolving the roadblocks.

In reality, the call for technology before action is a specious distraction designed to paper over the plan to take no action. The greatest proponent of the frame is Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, one of a small cadre of almost respectable climate obfuscationists.

In the lead up to the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, Lomborg handpicked a panel of ancient Nobel laureates to rank 16 climate solutions. The four proposed carbon tax schemes were ranked dead last, and the top three projects deemed worthy of consideration were “marine cloud whitening”, energy research and development and “stratospheric aerosol insertion”.

The top-ranked solution would involve a global fleet of “1,900 unmanned ships spraying sea water mist into the air to thicken clouds” and reflect the sun’s rays back into space. The third solution involves fleets of planes spraying sulphur dioxide into the sky. The chemical would mimic the effects of volcanoes “reacting with water to form a hazy layer … spread around the globe … scattering and absorbing incoming sunlight”.

Ranking of proposals

The first three years of the Coalition government focussed on tearing down climate policy. The next three used endless reviews that came to nothing – as intended.

In July 2014, Tony Abbott finally made good on his promise to dismantle Australia’s carbon price mechanism, our most effective and efficient climate policy. In doing so, not only did he throw away the best tool we had, he cheated Australian farmers out of earning billions from exporting carbon credits to Europe.

In 2015, Abbott managed to slash the renewable energy target – assisted in the background by Angus Taylor, the man now charged with reducing emissions – cutting future activity under the target by 40%.

The only half decent action has been the emissions reduction fund, called a fig leaf of a policy by the party’s once and future leader Malcolm Turnbull in 2009, whereby taxpayers, not polluters, buy carbon offsets. To date, the ERF has bought just 50m offsets, which doesn’t even cover the increase in emissions from just the LNG sector during the last 5 years.

Now the government is talking about a “technology investment target”, whatever that means. Will we be subjected to another barrage of lies that some magical technology exists to cut coal emissions? Remember CCS and HELE? Hopefully by now we all now know that “clean coal” is as real as healthy cigarettes.

If Scott Morrison is genuine about climate action, then sure, he should start by restoring the billion dollars ripped out of Arena. In fact, let’s give them a few hundred million a year to help Australian ideas reach their potential and give us a whole new export sector to replace the inevitable decline in coal exports. We have the resources, people and smarts to position Australia for great success in a carbon-constrained global economy.

At this point, the roadblocks to effective and affordable action are social and political, not technological.

So here we are again. Another strategy to kick the can down the road. The Finkel review bought the government a year of doing nothing in 2017, as did the national energy guarantee in 2018. The hollow climate solutions package helped the government escape scrutiny in 2019, however the “Black Summer” and the approaching November’s COP26 conference in Glasgow – where countries are expected to lift their commitments in the direction of the Paris agreement’s goals – leave the government with nowhere to hide.

  • Simon Holmes à Court is senior advisor to the Climate and Energy College at Melbourne University and sits on the board of the Smart Energy Council