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RPT-COLUMN-Australia to remain climate laggard amid policy vacuum: Russell
August 12, 2015 / 12:04 PM / 2 years ago

RPT-COLUMN-Australia to remain climate laggard amid policy vacuum: Russell

LAUNCESTON, Australia, Aug 12 (Reuters) - The only thing that’s completely predictable about carbon emissions policies is that nobody will be satisfied.

The latest case in point is Australia, where the conservative government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Tuesday announced a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent of 2005 by 2030.

The target will form the basis of Australia’s submission to global climate talks in Paris at the end of the year, and Abbott hailed the goal as meeting both the requirement of maintaining strong economic growth and strengthening action to mitigate climate change.

Environmental groups were quick to dismiss the target as lagging behind other developed nations, with the Australian Conservation Foundation calling it “defeatist” and showing “no faith in the ability of Australians to adapt”.

Energy companies and miners were more cautious, in keeping with their status as businesses with shareholders, but some also expressed disquiet.

The Minerals Council of Australia called the target an “ambitious goal” that will “impose strains on the Australian economy, especially export and import-competing industries.”

The Energy Supply Association, which represents generators and power retailers, called it a “credible starting point” that called for equally credible policy responses.

The need for a re-think on carbon policies goes to the heart of the issue, and it’s here the real problems lie.

Australians, similar to people in other developed nations, appear to prefer talking past each other when it comes to climate change, with all sides sticking to well-worn scripts with very little impetus toward genuine reform, consensus and compromise.

However, it’s consensus and compromise and a willingness to work with people you’ve traditionally viewed as enemies that present the only credible path to meaningful reform.

Australia is one of the largest per capita emitters in the developed world, given its reliance on coal for about 73 percent of its electricity generation and the preponderance of emission-intensive industries such as beef, mining and liquefaction of natural gas.

The recent history of Australia’s climate policies illustrate the lack of consensus and the generally muddled nature in which the issue has been tackled.

The Labor-led government of former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected in a landslide in 2007, tried to introduce a emissions trading scheme along the lines of similar systems in Europe.

This failed to attract the support of the then opposition Liberal Party, and also of the Greens, which felt the proposed scheme didn’t go far enough.

The Greens however settled on a far less ambitious scheme proposed by former prime minister Julia Gillard, who ousted Rudd in a Labor party room coup and barely held onto power in the 2010 election.

This carbon tax proved toxic among voters and helped Abbott’s Liberals storm to power in 2013 on the back of a pledge to axe the tax, which they duly did.

TRUST DEFICIT

The net effect of all these shenanigans over climate policy is that there is a severe trust deficit on all sides, making sensible, credible policy-making a challenge, if not an impossibility.

Even the modest target unveiled by Abbott will require the closure of several coal-fired stations and significant investment in renewable energy such as wind and solar.

The cuts to coal generation would have to be far more dramatic if the target was increased to closer to the 40 to 60 percent reduction from 2000 levels cited by the government’s independent expert body, the Climate Change Authority, as needed to meet an international agreement to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

While it’s entirely possible that Australia could switch more of its generation away from coal, the question of who pays is far from resolved.

While Australia has large reserves of natural gas, gas-fired generation has actually been decreasing and faces challenges from being more costly than coal and the target of environmentalists, who object to the extraction of the resource from coal seams or by hydraulic fracturing.

Wind power offers a solution, but Abbott is against the turbines calling them “visually awful” and proponents of such projects are finding it increasingly hard to overcome the issues of financing and objections from local residents.

Already, Hydro Tasmania, the country’s largest renewable energy producer, has scrapped a A$2 billion ($1.42 billion) wind project that would have been the largest in the southern hemisphere, and a similar-sized venture in Queensland state is under threat of not proceeding.

Solar panels have grown rapidly in popularity, mainly as response to massive increases in retail electricity prices, and this trend may be accelerated by the lowering of costs and the coming availability of improved battery storage, as evidenced by Telsa’s Powerwall.

But an increase in solar panels will have consequences for mainstream electricity generators, distributors and retailers as the more people who leave the grid, the higher the cost becomes for those who remain.

What is lacking in Australia is a process under which viable policies can be developed, and the problem is that there appears to be little momentum towards getting one going. (Editing by Michael Perry)

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