Conflicts over coal continue to throw spanners in Australia’s political machinery. The resignation of Malcolm Turnbull as chair of the NSW Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board exemplifies the challenges that Australian governments face in coping with climate change and the shift to clean energy. Nonetheless, the momentum in the transition to a cleaner economy will eventually overcome the negative politics.
The NSW government has done a great job implementing forward-thinking climate and energy policies, including an electricity plan that prioritizes renewable energy investment. It has a plan that sets out the first steps toward achieving a net-zero target, as well as a stocktake of decarbonization innovation opportunities. NSW has an Environment Minister in Matt Kean who understands the economic advantages of lowering pollution and who often takes the lead on national issues.
So how is it that the NSW government reverses its decision to name the former prime minister as chair of the current Net Zero board just a week after making the announcement? Clearly, it’s about the Upper Hunter byelection, where the future of coal is a major factor. The byelection represents a wider shift in Australia’s attitudes toward gender equality. On the topic of climate change, there is a similar groundswell. Political parties would be reckless to disregard such social shifts. Alternatively, welcome them to the good of many.
Coal mining, in fact, does not have a long-term future. Long-term coal use is incompatible with any climate change scenario that can be accepted. Even if there is no carbon policy, technology would eventually drive coal out of the picture. Wind and solar are already cheaper than new coal plants in many parts of the world, and much cheaper in Australia, where new power generation is needed.
That’s before accounting for the costs of carbon emissions or the financial risk of coal plants being forced to shut down prematurely due to emissions restrictions. Carbon capture and storage was once coal’s best chance for survival, but it’s no longer cost-effective as compared to zero-emission alternatives. The need for coal would dwindle.
Rather than burying our heads in the sand, we need to have open and honest discussions about this. How are we, as a nation, going to help the regions, societies, and workers in the few areas of the world where coal is still a significant source of income? What industries are likely to develop in Australia’s other coal-mining areas, and what can governments do to help them?
These are some of the issues Malcolm Turnbull answered before, during, and after his time as Prime Minister. Part of the approach was an emphasis on creativity. But ideology, sectional political agendas, and the micro-politics of “the way things have always been done around here” stymied much of his vision back then, as they do now. However, there are other choices.
There are several countries where the problems of environment and energy policy are not as thorny. The major political parties in Germany support the decision to phase out coal use. It is assisted by a consensus-building mechanism in which all major stakeholders came to an understanding. Despite oil and gas interests, there is bipartisan support in the United Kingdom for aggressive climate policies.
These and other examples make use of social, technical, and political creativity. Moving around the landmines of “how things have to be done.”
As a result, after changing direction to satisfy some tricky politics, the caravan will carry on. The NSW government will be freer to do what needs to be done now that the byelection is over, at least before the state election. And Malcolm Turnbull would have been a victim of the micro-politics that has stymied positive reform once again.
Frank Jotzo is the head of the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy’s Centre for Climate and Energy Policy. The ANU Institute for Environment, Electricity, and Disaster Solutions is directed by Mark Howden.
Source: The Age