Turnbull’s energy policy vision: heavy on direction, light on action

Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Malcolm Turnbull has set a high bar for his government’s national energy policy. But in his speech to the National Press Club on Wednesday, the prime minister provided little by way of the clear policy direction that is so desperately needed if the bar is to be cleared.

Turnbull devoted almost a quarter of the speech to Australia’s energy challenge: delivering secure and affordable power while meeting our emission reduction targets.

His political opponents and environmentalists will reject as too low Australia’s current target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Yet few can credibly reject his framing of the challenge.

Security concerns

Given the events of the last half of 2016, including the state-wide blackout in South Australia in September, it was appropriate that Turnbull began with the issue of security of supply.

Subsidised wind power in South Australia provided more than 40% of supply, and the market responded by driving down prices. The closure of existing coal plants and the mothballing of some gas plants followed. The state’s consumers were left exposed to power outages and high prices due to a high dependence on transmission from Victoria and a few gas generators with considerable market power.

Yet it was the Renewable Energy Target, a policy supported by both Coalition and Labor governments since 2002, that provided the subsidy. This policy had scant regard for the security consequences of high levels of intermittent supply.

Turnbull was justified in his criticism of uncoordinated state-based renewable energy targets and their potential for adverse price and security consequences. Yet he chose to ignore the argument that a key driver for the states’ action is the failure of the federal government to deliver a credible, scalable climate change policy.

Storage solution

The critical need to manage high levels of intermittent supply was a major theme of Turnbull’s speech and he identified several technology approaches that could address this need.

Storing energy in a form that is available as electricity to match supply and demand has enormous attraction. However, large scale, flexible energy storage as heat, electricity in batteries or as pumped water in dams, is very expensive today.

Applying the resources of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to develop projects, as energy minister Josh Frydenberg announced following the speech, makes a lot of sense. This could drive down the costs in Australia.

Gas supply is a major issue on the Australian east coast, and one where federal/state differences have led to a real mess.

Inconsistencies between states on project development regulations and few levers of influence in the hands of Canberra. Turnbull suggested he is willing to explore incentives in an effort to break the impasse. Let’s hope the states take up his offer.

Coal in the mix?

Over the past few weeks, Frydenberg and resources minister Matthew Canavan have raised the question of a future for coal power in our energy mix. It was therefore not surprising that Turnbull proposed that new coal power technologies could offer both reliability and low emissions. However, on this front, there are big challenges.

The current cost of these technologies is considerably higher than that of existing plants. And the scale of the required investment, combined with climate change policy uncertainty, makes it highly unlikely that such plants could be financed without government backing. There were no hints from Turnbull as to how this might be provided.

In summary, the prime minister‘s vision of an integrated energy and climate change policy is, at a high level, coherent and convincing. His suggestion that the next incarnation of national energy policy should be technology agnostic should be applauded.

Yet, there remain three areas for criticism. First, he sought to draw “battlelines” on energy policy. In a policy area where long-term investments are so critical, it is hugely disappointing that Turnbull appears unwilling to seek bipartisan support.

Second, while arguing that his government’s policies could deliver emissions reduction more cheaply than Labor and without threatening security, he chose to let pass an opportunity to explain to the Australian people the economic cost of the energy transition he has embraced.

Finally, he has left for others the hard task of framing the energy policy framework that will clear his high bar. Let us hope his colleagues, specifically minister Frydenberg, are up to the task.

The Conversation

Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


More than half the world’s most important natural sites are under threat: it’s time to protect them

James Watson, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, The University of Queensland

Would we knock down the pyramids or flatten the Acropolis to make way for housing estates, roads or farms? You would hope not. Such an indictment would deprive future generations of the joy and marvel we all experience when visiting or learning about such historic places.

Yet right now, across our planet, many of the United Nations’ World Heritage sites that have been designated for natural reasons are being rapidly destroyed in the pursuit of short-term economic goals.

In our paper published in Biological Conservation, we found that expanding human activity has damaged more than 50 of the 203 natural sites, and 120 have lost parts of their forests over the past 20 years. Up to 20 sites risk being damaged beyond repair.

So how can we better look after these precious sites?

Jewels in the crown

Globally recognised areas that contain the Earth’s most beautiful and important natural places are granted natural World Heritage status by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Each natural World Heritage site is unique and therefore irreplaceable.

Current sites include iconic landscapes such as Yosemite National Park in the United States, and important biodiversity conservation areas such as Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Wildebeest gather at the river’s edge on migration in Serengeti National Park.
Wildebeest image from http://www.shutterstock.com

The World Heritage Convention strives to protect natural World Heritage sites and keep their condition as close to pristine as possible. As with those hundreds of cultural World Heritage sites such as Petra and Masada, no human modification or damage is acceptable. These sites are the natural world’s crown jewels.

We examined the degree of human pressure (including roads, agriculture, urbanisation and industrial infrastructure) and direct forest loss across areas with natural World Heritage status.

These changes are not compatible with maintaining the natural heritage of these places. And should sites be damaged beyond repair, we will have lost some of the common heritage of humankind forever.

Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
Rhino image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Which sites fared worst?

We found that human pressure within sites has increased in every continent except Europe over the last two decades. Asia is home to the worst-affected sites, including Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in India, Komodo National Park in Indonesia, and Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Development has also badly affected Simien National Park in Ethiopia and it has been listed as World Heritage “in danger”. European sites, such as St Kilda, were already highly modified 20 years ago and have largely remained as such since then.

Change in human footprint between 1993 and 2009 across natural World Heritage sites inscribed prior to 1993. Sites that experienced an increase (which may threaten their unique values) are shown in red, while sites that experienced a decrease are shown in green. Site boundaries are not to scale and have been enlarged for clarity.
Allan et al. 2017

A majority of the sites have lost areas of forest. Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada lost 2,581 square kilometres (11.7%) and Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras lost 365 square km (8.5%) of forest since 2000.

The processes behind why the sites lost forest cover are diverse. In the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, also “in danger”, illegal drug trafficking created insecurity and instability in the region, which allowed widespread illegal deforestation and illegal settlement to occur.

Deforestation in Patuca National Park in Honduras.

In North America, even celebrated places like Yellowstone have been affected, losing some 6% of forest cover. This, and the losses in Wood Buffalo National Park, is almost certainly due to the largest pine beetle outbreaks on record. These are stripping trees of foliage and making them more susceptible to fire.

Although pine beetle damage is a semi-natural phenomenon, it is being assisted by human-caused climate change, as winters are no longer cold enough to kill off the beetles. This is notoriously hard to manage on the ground, but instead requires the United States and Canada to strengthen their efforts to fight climate change nationally and on the global stage.

Time to stop paving paradise

The 192 signatories to the World Heritage Convention need to respond to these findings. The World Heritage Committee must use information like this to immediately assess these highly threatened sites and work with nations to try to halt the erosion.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets again this July in Poland. It is not too late; with urgent intervention most sites can still be retained.

A mining site in Kahuzi Biega Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A K Plumptre WCS

The method we have used makes it much easier to identify natural World Heritage sites that may need to be added to the “in danger” list so extra attention and resources are channelled towards saving them.

Sites such as Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, which have lost so much forest in such a short time, need to be identified and those nations supported in averting further decline. Ultimately, World Heritage status can be retracted if the values a site is listed for are undermined. This would be an international embarrassment for the host nation.

The global community can play a role by holding governments to account so that they take the conservation of natural World Heritage sites seriously. We already do this for many of our cultural sites, and it is time to give natural sites the equal recognition and support they deserve.

Just as we would defend the Colosseum in Rome, Petra in Jordan, or Mont St Michel in France, we must fight against the planned highway across the Serengeti in Tanzania, uranium mining in Kakadu and logging of the Styx Valley in Australia, and forests being cleared for agriculture in Sumatra, Indonesia. This work is a call to action to save our natural world heritage.

The Conversation

James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, and Sean Maxwell, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.