New Australian government must seize, not squander, low carbon opportunities

10 September 2013

LONDON: The new center-right government elected in Australia over the weekend must seize, not squander, the enormous opportunities available from the transition to a low carbon, clean tech economy.

The Liberal-National Coalition, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, has stated that it will repeal much of the climate and energy legislation introduced by the previous Labour government. This includes removing Australia’s carbon tax, weakening the country’s renewable energy target and abolishing a number of climate and energy bodies, including the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

The new government intends to replace these measures with its own ‘Direct Action’ initiative that would use taxpayer money to directly purchase emission reductions from major emitters. Observers and a number of independent reports have criticized the government’s plan for its limited detail, likely inefficiency and lack of effectiveness.

The changes proposed by the Abbott government also fly in the face of policy and business developments in Australia’s key trading partners. China, for example, looks set to introduce a national carbon trading scheme once sufficient experience has been gained from current pilot schemes. And in the US, the Obama administration’s new climate action plan looks likely to accelerate the scale up of low carbon energy and the roll out of energy efficiency measures.

The retro steps being proposed by the new Australian government are driven by what appears to be a combination of factors. These include:

  • a rejection of climate science among sections of the Liberal and National parties (the PM himself famously described climate science as “crap”);
  • opposition to new renewable energy technologies from incumbent utilities (coal provides around 80% of Australia’s power);
  • and a belief that Australia’s future is best secured by relying on the energy intensive and fossil fuel industries that have provided it with two decades of unparalleled growth.

Whether the new administration will be able to fully implement its plan remains uncertain at this stage.

The now Labour opposition has signalled it will oppose any legislation to repeal the carbon tax. Domestic and international events may also influence government action. Exit polls for example,indicate that the majority of voters (less than 60%) still support action to address climate change, while the appetite for clean technologies, especially residential solar PV continues to grow, with over 1 million household systems now installed.

The upcoming release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report on climate change is also likely to place increased pressure on the government to up, rather than downgrade, its ambitions.

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, noted “Australia’s reputation as 'the lucky country' is at risk without a clear commitment to low carbon development. It’s current wealth and prosperity were built on the tremendous mineral and natural resources that it has. But commodity exports of coal and energy intensive minerals will not provide the country with a sustainable economy in the 21st century.

"The new government needs to seize the opportunities that new clean technologies can provide, utilizing its tremendous solar and wind resources and combining this with the country’s tremendous pool of human capital. The transformation of the South Australian energy industry in the last decade, which has seen renewables grow from zero to nearly 30% of total electricity production, demonstrates what can be done with vision and leadership.” 

Related news:

South Australia on target to reach 30% renewable energy

South Australia renewables continue to grow, led by wind and rooftop solar

Australia boasts record breaking year for clean energy: $4.2bn invested, 13% of electricity, 24k jobs

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