Published on December 31st, 2014 | by Joshua S Hill16
When 2014 Saw Australia Become An International Climate Pariah
December 31st, 2014 by Joshua S Hill
As an Australian, 2014 was not a good year for me as a clean technology reporter. My country’s new conservative leadership seemed to be going out of their way to make bad policy decision after bad policy decision. Here’s a brief look back at the year that was for Australia and its climate and energy politics.
The Carbon Tax
In September of 2013, Tony Abbott came to power as Australia’s new Prime Minister. Leader of the Liberal Party — a party so far from Liberal it is somewhat hilarious — one of Tony Abbott’s first decisions was to direct his department to draft legislation that would repeal the country’s carbon tax.
Fast forward to July of 2014, and Mr Abbott finally managed to scrap the carbon tax — a tax that the Liberal Party mindlessly deemed caused “real economic damage to our economy”. The country’s treasurer, Mr Joe Hockey, showed his true colours though when he claimed that the wind turbines he drove past on his way to work were “utterly offensive” — at the time of writing, I wrote that “hopefully there are few — if any — budget decisions based on whether or not Joe Hockey’s view is obstructed.”
Unsurprisingly to all who had bothered to actually take the time to read legitimate research on the matter (OK, yes, I’m bitter), new investment into renewable energy projects dropped by 70% by November, according to figures released by Australia’s Climate Council.
“We’ve had a loss of 70 per cent of new investment in renewable energy in this country, and when you compare that with the US and China, which are powering ahead – China particularly at record levels – it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs,” said the Climate Council’s Professor Tim Flannery.
However, despite the impact of scrapping the carbon tax, things only got worse.
The Renewable Energy Target
In May, Bloomberg New Energy Finance released research showing that scrapping the Renewable Energy Target would have catastrophic ramifications for the renewable energy industry in the country — ramifications such as the above-mentioned 70% drop in investment.
Tony Abbott had already initiated a review of the country’s Renewable Energy Target less than six month’s into office, handing the task over to known climate sceptic and former Reserve Bank board member, Dick Warburton. What followed was a comedy of errors that Prime Minister Tony Abbott failed to realise he was at the centre of.
In the interim period, it was thought Mr Warburton’s review would advise scaling back the Renewable Energy Target, or even cutting it altogether. Australia was the first country in the world to repeal a carbon tax, so scrapping a Renewable Energy Target altogether didn’t seem overly implausible.
By August, before the review was even handed in, The Australian Financial Review reported that “sources” had informed them that Mr Abbott had already asked the head of the review “to do more work on the option of terminating the target altogether.” This, after Mr Warburton’s review was found to be leaning towards simply scaling it back.
Earlier in the month, Tony Abbott had spoken to the Australian Industry Group, and made it quite clear where his preferences for energy generation lay:
“But right now, we have massive reserves of coal, massive reserves of gas; let’s make the most of them.”
Late August, Bloomberg reported that the following:
“Australia should weaken or phase out its renewable-energy target in favor of a lower-cost approach to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, a panel appointed to review the plan recommended.”
Friend of the network and fellow countryman Giles Parkinson has been doing a stellar job covering the fallout over at RenewEconomy, and I recommend you go and check out his immediate response and subsequent articles. Bloomberg also wrote a pair of interesting articles investigating the issue that are worth a read.
The simplest way to describe the recommendations presented in the Renewable Energy Target Review is to quote an unnamed analyst:
“I’m amazed at how flawed this document is. It is internally inconsistent, it is intellectually flawed … and it doesn’t even try to cover up its bias. It is 160 pages of self-serving logic.”
This, maybe more than the carbon tax repeal, sent the country’s renewable energy investment levels plummeting.
What followed, and continues, was months and months of dancing around energy talks. The Opposition government refuse to allow the Liberals the opportunity to cut the RET.
“The existing policy is for 41,000 gigawatt hours by 2020. And the idea of a precise generation target, rather than a floating percentage, has been a central part of renewable energy policy, going back to John Howard’s first target,” said opposition’s Environmental spokesman Mark Butler, in an interview with ABC Radio’s Naomi Woodley in Canberra.
When the two sides finally came to the side, Labor wanted to keep the RET at 41,000 GWh — or a sensible and appropriate figure — while the Liberals were sticking to their desire to drop it to 26,000 GWh. What did the country’s Opposition Leader, Mr Bill Shorten, have to say about this?
“The government say they want a real 20 per cent, I call it a fraud 20 per cent, a fake 20 per cent. The truth of the matter is that renewable energy is part of our energy mix. It’s had a great benefit for a whole lot of consumers. We’ve seen thousands of jobs created…and we’ve seen billions of dollars of investment. The real damage that this government’s doing in renewable energy cannot be overstated.”
The reality was simple: The Liberal Party wanted to cut the RET in any way possible, and by working with percentages, they hoped to hide the reality of their policies. The Labor Party haven’t been playing that game.
Australia, Lima, and the World
2014 finished off with several major events that continued to show Australia as the ever-increasing pariah.
In early November, the UN International Panel on Climate Change released their latest synthesis report. Again, Giles Parkinson of RenewEconomy summed up its importance on Australia:
The IPCC’s latest synthesis report – described as the most important yet made – says the world needs to act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically; it needs to decarbonise its energy systems; it needs to stop burning coal, and it needs to shift investment from fossil fuels to clean energy.
Despite the obvious connotations of such a report, the Australian Government didn’t seem to understand. Australia’s Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, immediately claimed that the report backed up their policies, and even claimed that Australia was “one of the world’s leading” reduction targets.
This sort of thinking is representative of the ignorant naiveté displayed by the current government. In August, Australia was lambasted by former White House advisor Heather Zichal for its reversal on climate change politics. Later in the year, one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s advisors similarly attacked Australia’s policies.
US President Obama’s visit to Australia saw him give Australia a little more to chew on, which resulted in an interesting negotiation at the G20 summit hosted in Brisbane. Tony Abbott had apparently started discussions saying that he would stand up for coal, but by the end of negotiations there was no mention of coal.
As if on cue, the UN’s climate talks held in Lima, Peru, solidified the world’s views on Australia. Think-tank Germanwatch released their Climate Change Performance Index, which ranked Australia 60th, last of all industrialised nations involved in their analysis.
If that wasn’t enough, not only does Australia have atrociously poor rankings in global energy and climate analysis, but we’re also flip-flopping on everything. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, announced at the United Nations Climate Change Conference that the country would be contributing $200 million to the UN Green Climate Fund, after months of Prime Minister Tony Abbott previously dismissing the Fund and promising Australia would not contribute.
As I did a few weeks ago, I’ll let The Sydney Morning Herald writer Julian Cribb close.
Put bluntly, there is a global boom in renewable energy coming down, and sun-drenched, wind-rich, tide-girt, hot-rocking, algae-pulsing Australia is doing all it can to miss it.