With a climate agreement adopted “with legal force” in Paris over the weekend, questions surround the climate policy of several nations around the world — including Australia.
A Look Back at 2015
2015 has been a turbulent year for politics in Australia as a whole — not to mention its climate and energy policies.
In September, in a quirk of Australian politics of late, a new Prime Minister was appointed without the involvement of the country’s population. Malcolm Turnbull, a long-standing member of Australian politics for over a decade, challenged the sitting-Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, in a party leadership challenge that saw him subsequently oust Tony Abbott as Prime Minister.
The move had immediate effects throughout the country, and quickly saw Australia’s Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, let off his leash and allowed to pursue policies that would support and re-grow Australia’s renewable energy industry.
In late-September, Greg Hunt spent a week publicizing the fact that the new Turnbull government would support the renewables industry, and that investors should consider Australia’s renewable energy industry in “a very, very supportive environment.” Mr Hunt’s comments were reiterated by newly-appointed Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia, Josh Frydenberg, who said in a radio interview that “clearly renewable energy is a key part of our energy platform.”
Later in the month, Mr Hunt confirmed in a radio interview that the country’s renewable energy industry had a big job ahead of it “to double our large-scale renewables and our small-scale — or what’s often known as PV and solar hot water — renewables between now and 2020.”
Things began to look a little doubtful in the lead-up to the United Nations COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, with many calling into question Malcolm Turnbull’s desire and ability to distance himself from his predecessors antiquated and biased views. Tony Abbott had repeatedly praised Australia’s coal industry, and publicly considered it the future of energy for Australia and its local trading partners, and the long history of partnership between the coal industry and the Liberal Party meant many of Malcolm Turnbull’s own party-members were anti-any changes to the country’s energy policy.
Nevertheless, despite the mounting pressure on the Prime Minister to adhere to past-policy priorities, there were rumors floating around that the newly-appointed Prime Minister would repeal Tony Abbott’s ban on wind energy investment. Several policy modifications and a vocal campaign against anything closely resembling “clean energy” saw investment in wind drop significantly, and numerous companies pulled out of Australia as a result.
Tangentially, the lead-up to Paris also saw a couple of good-news items for Australia’s renewable energy industry.
In early October, energy insight company GlobalData revealed that solar PV had overtaken wind in Australia as the country’s number one source of renewable energy in 2014. According to the figures, Solar PV passed 4 GW of installed capacity, passing wind’s 3.8 GW.
Around the same time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) announced that Australia’s rooftop solar industry was among the cheapest in the world. According to the figures published in the IEA’s 20th Trends in Photovoltaic Applications report, Australia has some of the world’s cheapest installed solar PV system prices, for grid-connected residential and commercial solar PV systems.
To top it all off, the state of South Australia continued its walk towards becoming one of the world’s leading carbon-free cities. In November, South Australia committed to zero net emissions by 2050, and followed that up in early December with news that it would soon pass 50% renewable energy.
Australia Ranks Last
Any of the goodwill done at home was revealed for the rubbish that it is, when the Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch published their latest Climate Change Performance Index, which ranked Australia last in terms of industrialized nations and what they are doing and have done for the environment, and third last out of all 61 countries involved in the index.
“Even though the country managed to improve its policy score this year, experts criticize that a transition to a lower emission economy will require significant policy changes,” the authors wrote, citing “slightly improved” ranking and scores that “have not changed significantly compared to the last CCPI ranking.”
During the COP21 negotiations, Australia’s involvement swayed somewhere between non-existent through to barely relevant. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pledged $1 billion to help tackle climate change, and then promptly allowed his government and Greg Hunt to approve Adani’s controversial $16 billion Carmichael coal mine to be developed in Queensland, basing their decision in that Australia was not a “neo-colonialist” power — whatever that meant.
“This is not an Australian government project, it is a private sector firm from India and … I thought we were over neocolonial moment where the wealthy decide what happens to the poor,” Mr Hunt said in response to challenges. “I hope you would agree the poorest countries should be able to decide their own energy future. I am not a neo-colonialist. I think the poorest should be able to make their own decisions,” he added.
Greg Hunt would soon announce to the world that Australia was acting as a “broker” between competing country blocs at the talks, stepping between various groups on the issue of whether to keep the targeted warming to 2 degrees, or to modify it to aim to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.
Australia’s representatives would continue to find themselves in the proverbial hot-water on several issues — not the least its position on emission reduction “credits” and the Adani mine.
In another of his quickly-becoming-patented expert-rants, host of The Project Waleed Aly took Australia’s Government and Paris representatives to task for walking away from important talks in Paris.
Towards the end of proceedings, Australia reluctantly joined the “coalition of ambition” — a group of over 100 developed and developing nations, including the US, the European Union, Canada, and Brazil — in an attempt to counter China, India, and Saudi Arabia’s push to water down aspects of the negotiations pact. It was the last step in a fortnight of impractical steps that saw Australia situated as one of the most important countries relegated to seeming-oblivion.
And yet, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris negotiations, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that he would revoke the ban on wind investment by Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation before it was ever officially enacted. “The mandate puts the CEFC’s focus on new and emerging renewables technologies, rather than supporting well-established technologies that are financially viable without government support,” said a Government spokeswoman. The relevant mandate now reads:
“As part of its investment activities in clean energy technologies, the corporation must include a focus on supporting emerging and innovative renewable technologies and energy efficiency, such as large scale solar, storage associated with large and small scale solar, offshore wind technologies, and energy efficient technologies for cities and the built environment.”
However, Australia still has a long way to go.
The country’s policies are nowhere near what is needed to accomplish Australia’s role in the new climate accord. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is stuck between an opposition willing to throw around absurd promises that appeal to those who know next-to-nothing about the realities of Australia’s current energy and environmental situation — which sadly means that they are promises being heralded by many. Similarly, Malcolm Turnbull has his own party to consider, and the conservative members are unlikely to be supportive of anything that smells of investing or subsidizing renewable energy investment.
There is a tremendous amount of work to be done to foster the re-growth of Australia’s renewable energy industry, implement policies and targets that will set Australia on a course to actually contribute towards the newly-written climate accords, and curb — and eventually decrease — Australia’s production of coal.
And the Prime Minister also wants to win an election in the next 13 months.
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