Poor households are locked out of green energy, unless governments help


Alan Pears, RMIT University

A report released this week by the Australian Council of Social Service has pointed out that many vulnerable households cannot access rooftop solar and efficient appliances, describing the issue as a serious problem.

It has provoked controversy. Some have interpreted the report as an attack on emerging energy solutions such as rooftop solar. Others see it as exposing a serious structural crisis for vulnerable households.

The underlying issue is the fundamental change in energy solutions. As I pointed out in my previous column, we are moving away from investment by governments and large businesses in big power stations and centralised supply, and towards a distributed, diversified and more complex energy system. As a result, there is a growing focus on “behind the meter” technologies that save, store or produce energy.

What this means is that anyone who does not have access to capital, or is uninformed, disempowered or passive risks being disadvantaged – unless governments act.

The reality is that energy-efficient appliances and buildings, rooftop solar, and increasingly energy storage, are cost-effective. They save households money through energy savings, improved health, and improved performance in comparison with buying grid electricity or gas. But if you can’t buy them, you can’t benefit.

In the past, financial institutions loaned money to governments or big businesses to build power stations and gas supply systems. Now we need mechanisms to give all households and businesses access to loans to fund the new energy system.

Households that cannot meet commercial borrowing criteria, or are disempowered – such as tenants, those under financial stress, or those who are disengaged for other reasons – need help.

Governments have plenty of options.

  • They can require landlords to upgrade buildings and fixed appliances, or make it attractive for them to do so. Or a bit of both.

  • They can help the supply chain that upgrades buildings and supplies appliances to do this better, and at lower cost.

  • They can facilitate the use of emerging technologies and apps to identify faulty and inefficient appliances, then fund their replacement. Repayments can potentially be made using the resulting savings.

  • They can ban the sale of inefficient appliances by making mandatory performance standards more stringent and widening their coverage.

  • They can help appliance manufacturers make their products more efficient, and ensure that everyone who buys them know how efficient they are.

To expand on the last suggestion, at present only major household white goods, televisions and computer monitors are required to carry energy labels. If you are buying a commercial fridge, pizza oven, cooker, or stereo system, you are flying blind.

The Finkel Review made it clear that the energy industry will not lead on this. It clearly recommends that energy efficiency is a job for governments, and that they need to accelerate action.

The ConversationIt’s time for governments to get serious about helping everyone to join the energy transition, not just the most affluent.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

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

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Critical backbenchers push back on Finkel clean energy target plan



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Josh Frydenberg’s task of garnering broad support for the Finkel scheme is proving to be more difficult than expected.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A sizeable slice of his backbench has sent Malcolm Turnbull a forceful message that his road to implementing the clean energy target (CET) proposed by the Finkel inquiry will be rocky even within his own ranks.

After Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg gave an extensive briefing on the Finkel plan to the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday morning, MPs later reconvened for nearly three hours of questions and debate.

About one-third of the 30-32 who spoke expressed misgivings, according to Coalition sources. There was broad support from another third. The rest didn’t express a firm view, asking questions and seeking more information.

The report from the panel led by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel says a CET “will encourage new low emissions generation [below a threshold level of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour] into the market in a technology neutral fashion”.

A key issue will be where the government, which is disposed to adopt the Finkel plan, sets the threshold. It is clear that to accommodate the Nationals and a section of the Liberal Party it will have to be at a level that allows for the inclusion of “clean” coal.

The meeting was to gauge backbench views ahead of cabinet considering the report. Ministers, apart from the minister with carriage of the issue, don’t speak on these occasions.

Tony Abbott, who had publicly flagged his belief that the Finkel scheme represents a tax on coal, spoke strongly at the meeting.

The degree of pushback against a CET was stronger than had been anticipated, given the intense lobbying of the backbench that Frydenberg had done ahead of the meeting.

Frydenberg said afterwards: “I want to emphasise that this meeting was not making any decisions about Dr Finkel’s proposal. Rather, it was an information-gathering session.”

A common theme from backbenchers was that it was vital to be able to be confident the Finkel plan would make energy more affordable. A number of MPs, especially from outer suburban and regional areas, said affordability was what mattered most to their electorates.

Some questioned the Finkel modelling showing that prices would fall. The chairman of the backbench environment committee, Craig Kelly, said: “If you believe that you can lower prices by replacing existing coal-fired generation with higher-cost renewables, then I have a harbour bridge to sell you.”

Concern was expressed about the place of coal, and there was criticism of Finkel’s projection of an effective renewable energy target of 42% by 2030. Some backbenchers believed it would take the Coalition too close to Labor, which has a 50% target. There were also queries about the status of the Paris targets.

But Frydenberg told the ABC: “There was an overwhelming feeling among those in the party room tonight that business-as-usual is not an option.”

Asked on 7.30 “are you going to be able to get your colleagues to agree to support a clean energy target?,” Frydenberg replied: “It is too early to say.”

Finkel met with the government’s backbench environment committee on Tuesday to explain his plan and answer questions.

Frydenberg conceded that backbenchers “are concerned about the future of coal”. But he flatly rejected the Abbott suggestion that the Finkel plan amounted to a tax on coal, saying it was “absolutely not”.

“Dr Finkel has made it very clear he is not putting in place any prohibitions on coal or any form of generation capacity. He is putting in place incentives for lower emission generation. It is not a price on carbon or a tax on coal.”

The CET had “similarities to what John Howard put forward back in 2007”, Frydenberg said – a point he made in his briefing to the party meeting.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce also slapped down Abbott’s proposition that the CET amounted to a tax on coal, telling Sky that “Mr Abbott’s entitled to his opinion” but “there is no penalty placed on coal.

The Conversation“There is an advantage that is placed on those that are below the line. An advantage, because they get a section of a permit, which is like a payment. Those above the lines don’t … I suppose ipso facto it could be seen as not having the same advantage.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/icjdu-6b9a25?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

The government is swimming against the tide on Westpac’s Adani decision


David Peetz, Griffith University and Georgina Murray, Griffith University

The Australian government’s strident criticism of Westpac for not financing the Adani Carmichael coal mine is out of step with the economics. As the cost of renewable energy falls and its adoption increases, fossil fuels are becoming a riskier investment. The Conversation

It’s not just Westpac. This shift is reflected right across the finance industry. The big four Australian banks have all declined to finance this mine, as have many large international financial institutions.

The Commonwealth Bank quit as the project’s financial adviser in August 2015. NAB ruled out financing the mine in September 2015. ANZ effectively ruled out financing in October 2015 and again, more firmly, in December 2016.

Big overseas financiers Standard Chartered, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Citi, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, Société Générale, Crédit Agricole, JP Morgan Chase, Deutche Bank and BNP Baripas have also already abandoned or made clear their lack of support for the mine.

Adani’s coal was to be used to generate electricity in India, recently seen as the future for the product given China’s shift away from coal. But Indian demand for coal is slipping. Its new National Electricity Plan has renewables rising from the current 15% to 56% of installed power capacity by 2027.

The Indian government itself now thinks it may not need any new coal power plants for at least a decade.

As mines require a huge initial investment that pays itself off over many years, this increases the risk that the Carmichael mine will become a “stranded asset”.

Shifting economics of coal

Sure, financial institutions are under pressure from customers and activists to avoid investments that damage the climate. But for these institutions, such pressures only make a difference at the margin. For them it is the poor economics of coal that is fundamental.

The long-term prospects of coal are weakened by the rapid changes in technology and the deterioration of the climate outlook.

Solar energy prices have fallen more rapidly than most expected, and battery technology and use is rapidly improving.

A recent study found that solar energy is on a trajectory to supply at least 3 terawatts (TW) of power globally by 2030, and potentially up to 10TW if certain barriers to installation can be overcome. For comparison, the world’s total electricity capacity from all sources as of 2014 was just 6TW.

Financiers’ minds may be focused still further by the fact that, if anything, scientists appear to have underestimated the effects of climate change on sea levels, polar ice caps, and methane emissions from thawing permafrost and lakes.

From short- to long-term thinking

The fact that the financial industry is reluctant to fund the Carmichael mine is just one example of the phenomenon described in a report by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP) as “a fundamental power shift … from short-termers to long-termers”.

There are several reasons for this, besides the changing economics of renewable technology, the worsening climate outlook, and the shifting policies in countries like China and India.

New tools are being developed to enable investors to quantify the impact of climate on their investments. In financial circles, the more things can be counted, the more they count.

Superannuation funds and overseas pension funds need to invest over long periods of time, and so are now forced to invest with climate change in mind. They can’t afford to have a stranded asset on their books.

Reinsurers – essentially large firms that provide insurance for insurance companies – face the same issue. They need to minimise exposure to extreme weather events, which are increasingly influenced by climate change.

Fund managers are creating financial products to enable investment in climate change adaptation. And some investors are taking more control over their investments, rather than leaving them in the hands of fund managers, so they can give appropriate priority to climate issues.

This is not to say that financiers around the world are uniformly reacting to climate issues. The AODP report shows that, on average, European and Australian asset owners and fund managers have done well in acting on climate risk, whereas American, Middle Eastern and (until now) Chinese ones have done poorly.

It’s also not true that finance has uniformly abandoned short-termism. “Climate-interested investors” currently account for just a third of the ownership of the world’s very large corporations.

But no one is going to make even short-term profits out of the Adani coal mine, with its huge upfront capital investment, unless they get a substantial subsidy from the taxpayer. And the long-term prospects look grim.

Those who argue that Westpac’s decision was “illogical” are swimming against both the financial and technological tides.

David Peetz, Professor of Employment Relations, Griffith University and Georgina Murray, Associate Professor in Humanities, Griffith University

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

Government needs to front up billions, not millions, to save Australia’s threatened species



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Orange-bellied parrots are one of the species included in the government’s Threatened Species Prospectus.
JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA

Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Bek Christensen, The University of Queensland, and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

Southern cassowaries, orange-bellied parrots, Leadbeater’s possums, and Australia’s only purple wattle are among the threatened species the government is seeking conservation investment for under its recently released threatened species prospectus. The prospectus seeks business and philanthropic support in partnership with the government and community groups to raise around A$14 million each year. The Conversation

The government has proposed 51 projects, costing from A$45,000 to A$6 million. At first glance the prospectus is a positive initiative.

But it also highlights that the current government is unwilling to invest what’s needed to assure the conservation of our threatened plants, animals and other organisms.

The good news

The government’s partial outsourcing of conservation investment and responsibility might have some benefit. Raising broader awareness about the plight of Australia’s threatened species, particularly among Australia’s leading companies and donors, could lead to valuable conservation gains. It could translate to pressure for greater financial investment in conservation and less damaging actions by big companies.

The prospectus includes an excellent range of critically important projects. These include seed banks for plants facing extinction, and projects to control feral animals and create safe havens for mammals and birds.

These projects could help to save species on the brink of extinction, such as the critically endangered Gilbert’s potoroo, the Christmas Island flying fox and the orange-bellied parrot.

The projects have a high chance of success. Community groups and government are already on board and ready to take action, if only the funds materialise.

Why do so many species need urgent help?

The State of the Environment Report released in early March shows that the major pressures on wildlife have not decreased since 2011 when the previous report was released. The prospects for most threatened species have not improved.

Habitat loss is still the biggest threat. The homes of many threatened species are continually under threat from developments. Coal mines threaten the black-throated finch, urban sprawl eats away at the last 1% of critically endangered Victorian grasslands, and clearing for agriculture has spiked in Queensland.

Grasslands, such as these in Melbourne, are being lost to development.
Takver/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Feral animals are widespread and control programs have been inadequate. New diseases are emerging, such as the chytrid fungus that has devastated frog populations worldwide.

The horticulture industry, for example, introduced myrtle rust to Australia. The disease was poorly managed when it was first detected. It now infects more than 350 species of the Myrtaceae family (including eucalypts).

We have so many threatened species because national and state governments don’t invest enough money in protecting our natural heritage, and environmental protections have been rolled back in favour of economic development.

Show us the money

Over the past three years the federal government has invested A$210 million in threatened species. This annual investment of A$70 million each year is minuscule compared with the government’s revenue (0.017% of A$416.9 billion).

It includes projects under the National Landcare Program, Green Army (much of which didn’t help threatened species) and the 20 Million Trees program.

The A$14 million that the prospectus hopes to raise is a near-negligible proportion of annual revenue (0.003%).

Globally, the amount of money needed to prevent extinctions and recover threatened species is at least ten times more than what is being spent.

In Australia, A$40 million each year would prevent the loss of 45 mammals, birds and reptiles from the Kimberley region.

Most species in the government’s threatened species strategy, like this northern quoll, are charismatic.
S J Bennett/Flickr, CC BY

The inescapable truth is that Australia’s conservation spend needs to be in the billions, not the current and grossly inadequate tens of millions, to reverse the disastrous state of the environment.

Can we afford it? The 2016 Defence White Paper outlines an expansion of Australia’s defence expenditure from A$32.4 billion in 2016-17 to A$58.7 billion by 2025, even though the appropriate level of investment is extremely uncertain.

We are more certain that our biodiversity will continue to decline with current funding levels. Every State of the Environment report shows ongoing biodiversity loss at relatively stable, low-level funding.

And what will happen if industry won’t open its wallets? Will the government close the funding gap, or shrug its shoulders, hoping the delay between committing a species to extinction and the actual event will be long enough to avoid accountability?

In the past few years we’ve seen the extinction of the Christmas Island forest skink, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Bramble Cay melomys with no public inquiry. Academics have been left to probe the causes, and there is no clear line of government responsibility or mechanism to provide enough funding to help prevent more extinctions.

Popularity poll

Another problem is the prospectus’s bias towards the cute and cuddly, reflecting the prejudice in the Commonwealth Threatened Species Strategy. The strategy and prospectus make the assumption that potential benefactors are inclined to fork out for a freckled duck, but not for a Fitzroy land snail.

The prospectus includes almost half of Australia’s threatened mammals (listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) and one-fifth of the threatened birds.

Other groups are woefully represented, ranging from 13% of threatened reptiles to just 1% of threatened plants and none of the listed threatened invertebrates. The prospectus does not even mention spectacular and uniquely Australian threatened crayfish, snails, velvet worms, beetles, butterflies, moths and other insects.

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The allocation of funds is equally problematic. We found that birds received the most money (A$209,000 per species on average), followed by mammals and plants.

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Raising new funds to help save iconic species is valuable, and can help other species. This focus on birds and mammals wouldn’t be a problem if the government were to pick up the tab for the less popular threatened species.

But it hasn’t. That means our threatened species program will continue to be exceptionally biased, while many more species vanish forever, with little acknowledgement.

We think that the prospectus, despite its biases, is a positive initiative. It is vital to engage society, including business and wealthy philanthropists, in the care of Australia’s natural heritage. But it also highlights how little the government is willing to invest in preserving our threatened wildlife and ecosystems.

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Bek Christensen, Vice-President, Ecological Society of Australia, The University of Queensland, and Euan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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

The NSW government is choosing to undermine native vegetation and biodiversity


Neil Perry, Western Sydney University

While everyone’s eyes were turned to the Federal budget last Tuesday, the NSW government released a very controversial piece of draft legislation that will remove restrictions on land clearance and, despite their claims, threaten biodiversity.

The new reforms implement the recommendations made in the NSW Biodiversity Legislation Review but the economic assumptions underlying both documents are not accurate or acceptable.

The reforms aim to “conserve biodiversity” and “facilitate ecologically sustainable development”. However, they will only do so in a perfect world where farmers have complete knowledge about the value of native vegetation, where there are no spillover effects from land clearance, and where landowners care about the long-run condition of the land as much as they care about current income. Outside of this world, the Baird government’s reforms will lead to large increases in land clearance, increased carbon emissions and more threats to endangered species.

While some aspects of the new legislation are informed by ecological science, the main approach derives from economic theory. Essentially, the government will repeal the Native Vegetation Act, 2003 (NVA), which restricted land clearance on farms, and replace it with a market-based approach that provides flexibility for farmers to clear land.

While the NVA had certain exemptions where land clearance was allowed, the new Biodiversity Conservation Act has many more and applies a risk-based approach. The risk is loosely framed around threats to endangered species or communities. For example, low-risk vegetation includes land that has been cleared at some point in the last 25 years, and grasslands assessed as being of low conservation value.

Based on a farmer’s self-assessment of risk, land clearance is allowed at the lower risk levels while it requires approval at higher risk levels from Local Land Services – administrative bodies that can include other farmers as members (itself a possible conflict of interest). A biodiversity market can be used to offset land clearance impacts at these high-risk levels. That is, landowners who clear land can either buy credits in the Biobanking scheme or pay money into a biodiversity trust fund.

In contrast, under the NVA, any approved land clearance had to be offset by improving the environmental condition of other areas on the property. This ensured protection for biodiversity at the local level.

Thus, the new approach will “broaden and deepen” the use of biodiversity markets and it will apply offsetting at the regional and State level rather than the local level, which means that local biodiversity will be lost.

The government’s argument for taking this approach is that the current system “doesn’t deliver”. This is simply not true. Since the NVA was implemented in 2004/5, land clearance for agriculture has reduced from an average of 21,500 hectares to 16,000 hectares per year. A 2009 review of the NVA stated that from 2006-2008 the legislation led directly to the conservation or rehabilitation of 250,000 hectares.

Thus, if the aim is to conserve biodiversity and deliver ecologically sustainable development, the NVA certainly has delivered. Of course, the NVA may not be delivering maximum short-term economic gains for some farmers and large agribusiness firms, but that is another matter.

The underlying economic assumptions don’t stack up to reality

The government claims that the new legislation will both facilitate economic development and protect the environment. By giving farmers more freedom, they say, native vegetation will be preserved and protected. The old legislation creates perverse outcomes, they argue, and limits the actions of responsible farmers. If we put trust in the farmers, they state, the environment will be conserved.

However, for these environmental benefits to be realised under the looser, market-based approach, the following three conditions need to apply. First, farmers would need to have perfect knowledge about the impact of native vegetation on their current and future incomes. For example, farmers would need to understand the value of native vegetation in halting erosion and salinity, providing wind breaks, harbouring bird diversity, restricting pest invasions and supporting current and future agricultural productivity. Only then can farmers accurately value the conservation of native vegetation.

The second condition that the draft legislation assumes to be true is that land clearance creates no spillover effects. However, native vegetation does not simply provide benefits on a farmer’s own property. It provides spillover benefits such as pest resistance, flood control, wind protection and pollination services to other properties in the local area. Native vegetation also provides regional benefits, such as climate and water regulatory functions, and it houses threatened and endangered species and biodiversity valued by other citizens.

Unless farmers are forced to consider these spillover effects, as they were forced to do under the NVA, they will make decisions on the basis of private benefits and costs only. Thus, they will clear too much relative to the desires and needs of society and other local land users. The legislation does require offsetting of high-risk land clearance which in some way internalises the spillover cost, but the market-based offset price is not equal to the social impact and spillover costs occur when low and medium-risk vegetation is cleared as well.

The third unrealistic assumption of the draft legislation is that the ‘discount rate’ of landowners is identical to society’s. That is, it is assumed that the rate at which farmers discount future income compared to current income is the same as society’s rate of discount. In contrast, if landowner’s rate of discount is greater than society’s, too much land will be cleared relative to the needs and desires of society and future generations.

The impact of high discount rates can be seen in the extreme in the clear cutting of tropical forests where farmers are poor and desperate. NSW farmers may not be as poor and desperate as landowners bordering the Amazon, but as they frequently tell us, they are highly indebted and being squeezed from all sides between multinational input suppliers and highly-concentrated domestic food wholesalers and retailers. Thus, according to their own evaluation, farmers have high discount rates and as such a focus on short-term economic interests rather than environmental sustainability will drive decisions under the proposed legislation.

The Baird government is undermining the long-run condition of the land

The theory underlying the government’s reforms assumes that farmers know best. That is, farmers know how to best manage their land (perfect knowledge), they will incorporate their neighbour’s needs and the broader public interest (zero or internalised spillover effects), and they will act in the long-run interest of the land (discount rate equal to society’s). Because these assumptions are untrue in reality, the new legislation will lead to a vast increase in land clearance and loss of biodiversity. This exact result occurred in Queensland when similar changes were made to land clearance laws.

Aware of the devastating effects of the Queensland legislation on land clearance, the government has claimed that NSW is “not Queensland” and that more checks and balances are in place. But these checks and balances are still designed for a world with perfect knowledge, no spillover effects and perfectly forward-thinking landowners. Thus, the checks and balances will not “deliver”.

Ultimately, the major impact of the reforms is to free up land clearance, to make it easier to clear and to reduce regulation. As all environmental problems stem from unrestrained economic activity, the removal of regulation can only be seen as a decision to accept a lower land condition – a land with more erosion and salinity, less species and biodiversity, and eventually less economic productivity as well.

The Baird government seems to believe that we exist within an unrealistic, textbook version of a free-market economy and is setting policy on the basis of free-market ideology and in response to the demands of large agribusiness firms and food retailers who want still lower farm-gate prices. In setting policy this way, the Baird government is promoting a less sustainable land condition and undermining the prosperity of future generations. This is no way to manage the commons.

The Conversation

Neil Perry, Research Lecturer, Western Sydney University

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

25 years ago the Australian government promised deep emissions cuts, and yet here we still are


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

A divided government firmly on the back foot ahead of a major climate conference, its green credentials shaky, and riven with bubbling tensions between those who want serious climate action and those resistant to it. Sound familiar? But the government I’m describing is not today’s version, but Bob Hawke’s federal government way back in October 1990.

October 11, 2015, marks a quarter-century to the day since the then environment minister, Ros Kelly, brought a proposed carbon emissions target to cabinet. At the time, Jon Bon Jovi was number one in Australia with “Blaze of Glory”, and some of the lyrics are apposite:

You ask about my conscience; And I offer you my soul; You ask if I’ll grow to be a wise man; Well I ask if I’ll grow old.

Of course, Australia is not the only nation to have dragged its feet on climate policy in the decades since the issue became a major concern, but its ups and downs have been perhaps steeper than most.

Climate change emerged on the world’s political agenda in 1988, following a three-year build-up from a scientific meeting in Villach, Austria. Australian politicians had already been bluntly warned about its impacts by CSIRO, at a 1986 briefing of the Australian Environment Council. In 1987 the Commission for the Future and CSIRO launched The Greenhouse Project, which briefed the business community, and held a scientific conference later that year.

In June 1988 Australian scientists were among those who attended an international summit in Toronto on the security implications of global warming. (It was shortly before this conference that NASA’s James Hansen gave his famous testimony to a US Senate hearing.) From it emerged the proposal that developed countries should commit to stabilising their emissions at 1988 levels by 2000, and reduce them by 20% by 2005. This, rightly or wrongly, became a litmus test for politicians’ sincerity on the climate issue.

Back home, Australia was going through one of its periods of favouring green policies. Labor’s “small-g green” approach was widely credited with helping Hawke to squeak home in the 1987 federal election, although the real wake-up call that voters cared about the environment came in May 1989, when the Tasmanian Greens polled 15% in the state election.

Despite this, when Labor’s Graham Richardson tried the following month to get cabinet to accept the Toronto target, his attempt was crushed by the treasurer, Paul Keating. The Liberals ended up fighting the March 1990 election with a stronger climate target than Labor (as hard as that might be to believe today).

Aiming for the target

Big green groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace were reluctant to engage with Hawke’s Ecologically Sustainable Development policy program, fearing a stitch-up that would destroy their credibility. They held out for a statement about definitive greenhouse gas targets.

This game of chicken, combined with the impending Second World Climate Conference in Geneva in November 1990 (seen at the time as the starting gun for negotiations for a climate treaty at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit), would have been a significant consideration for Ros Kelly when she became environment minister in April 1990.

Her initial cabinet proposal seems to have been for a commitment without caveats, but this was unacceptable to resources-minded ministers. As treasurer, Keating was reportedly instrumental in modifying the text to demand that:

…the Government will not proceed with measures which have net adverse economic impacts nationally or on Australia’s trade competitiveness in the absence of similar action by major greenhouse-gas-producing countries.

This seemed, in the short term, to satisfy both the green groups and the coal lobby – the ACF, Greenpeace and the Australian Coal Association all endorsed the new policy. Kelly flew to Geneva and was still in charge of her portfolio by the time of the Rio conference. There, the Toronto target was tweaked to call for stabilisation of emissions at 1990 levels (rather than 1988) by 2000.

But business knows better than to rest on its laurels. The Business Council of Australia got together with a raft of resource industry peak bodies, mining firms and consultants to produce a May 1991 report on Australia’s “realistic” energy prospects. This, to no one’s surprise, declared that the target was “totally unachievable”.

Switching to gas for electricity might find half the cuts, but as the Australian Financial Review reported at the time, in an obliging article about the “unrealistic” scope of the proposed cuts, Australia’s energy use would be pushed still higher by its rapid population growth and economic reliance on the resources sector.

Nine months later, during the heated negotiations of the Rio summit, many of the same organisations behind the May 1991 Energy Prospects report funded another report that further outlined what it saw as the unacceptable economic damage that climate action would wreak. This primary and effective tactic hasn’t really changed since.

Will history repeat itself?

This is largely forgotten history (and for a fuller summary, read Maria Taylor’s recent book on the subject). Crucially, the Liberals are not the “bad guys” of the story. Labor was in power until March 1996, and by then emissions and coal exports were climbing inexorably and the coal lobby had consolidated its power. John Howard was merely more honest about it all.

Australia’s vexed history also shows that setting a climate target is only the beginning of the effort required. Targets are clearly needed – how else will we know if we are “on target”? But they can also allow politicians to say, “Look, we are aware of the problem, we’ve set challenging goals. Yes, progress isn’t quite as quick as we’d like, but we all need to be patient…”

Then, a few years later, once everyone has forgotten, a new target is set. And the wheel goes around again, while the carbon dioxide accumulates in our atmosphere.

Despite recent government attempts to deride and smear environmental activists, more and more people are realising that our leaders, of whatever political hue, have failed to show leadership on this issue. In the run-up to this year’s Paris climate summit and beyond, citizens of Australia have to decide how to create sustained political and social pressure so that history doesn’t repeat itself yet again, whether as tragedy or farce.


Marc will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 4 and 5pm AEDT on Friday, October 9, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Marc Hudson, PhD candidate at Sustainable Consumption Institute , University of Manchester

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