Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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YMCA solar array a beacon for the rest of us

Solar power isn’t going to solve global warming, but it’s a great motivator [5 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Great news for YMCA Launceston’s bottom line: a big new rooftop solar array now on line at its Kings Meadows recreation centre will cut its big electricity bill by 80 per cent or more.

99 solar panels adorn the roof of YMCA Launceston Recreation Centre, Kings Meadows. PHOTO YMCA Launceston

99 solar panels adorn the roof of YMCA Launceston Recreation Centre, Kings Meadows. PHOTO YMCA Launceston

On a bright day its 25-kilowatt system will handle virtually all the heavy heating load imposed by the city’s cold winter weather and enable the organisation to redirect thousands of dollars annually into its core business of helping people enjoy a fit and healthy life.

The array resulted from a collaboration between YMCA and the Australian Conservation Foundation to deliver a program called Spark: Energy for Change. YMCA Launceston also got financial help from Tasmanian Trustees.

Spark, which seeks to improve knowledge and skills in energy efficiency, is funded out of the federal Energy Efficiency Information Grant. That’s a pat on the back for the Abbott government.

The solar panels, culmination of many years’ work by YMCA Launceston to improve its buildings’ energy efficiency, were “a big win for us and the environment”, as CEO Jodie Johnson put it.

Let me anticipate some criticism. Solar panels are made using fossil fuels. They can’t provide continuous base-load power. They’re only for rich people and depend on public subsidy.

There’s some truth in that, but there’s also a lot wrong with it. For example, the fossil fuels now used to make solar panels are steadily being replaced by renewable energy.

Solar panels won’t meet demand by themselves but they’re making inroads. Sooner than many of us think, using new battery technology being rolled out in the US and Germany will routinely provide 24-hour coverage.

They used to be expensive, but no more. The cost of solar power was more than US$75 per watt in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter had panels installed on the roof of the White House (removed in 1986 by Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan.)

By 1990 the price per watt was below $10. It was around $5 by the turn of the century and has now dropped below US$1 a watt. Driven by unprecedented demand, the cost of solar continues to drop.

Millions of people now pay market prices for solar panels, unsubsidised. YMCA Launceston did have government support for its large installation, but eventually that sort of help won’t be needed.

The journey to our energy future passed a tipping point in 2013. Since that year, energy analysts Bloomberg concluded recently, renewable energy capacity being added globally has been greater than the capacity of all new coal, natural gas and oil plants.

There’s no going back, says Bloomberg. The trend for new fossil-fuel capacity is heading steadily down while that for renewable energy is rising sharply, so that by 2030 the output from new renewable energy plants will be more than four times that of new fossil-fuel plants.

Odds in the near-term seem stacked against renewable energy in Australia. With our 2020 renewable energy target in limbo while political forces continue to debate the appropriate level, venture capital for renewable projects has all but vanished.

But as the Bloomberg report shows, the Australian domestic scene is definitely not the norm elsewhere. Australia will eventually fall into line with the global trend, and fossil fuels will lose out.

That’s a hopeful sign we can achieve a better future. But hope is one thing; blind optimism another altogether. I’m very conscious of the danger of slipping into what the English climate writer George Marshall calls “bright-siding”.

Borrowing from the movie Life of Brian, Marshall refers to something we’ve been brought up to do: always look on the bright side of life. But as he says, too much reliance on technology and growth hides the every more pressing need to act decisively to cut emissions, and that we don’t need.

Repairing the damage done by our use of fossil fuels has to come from within us. Individually and collectively we must acknowledge the danger ahead, accept our responsibility to mitigate that danger, and get on with the job, together.

Solar arrays and wind farms attract attention. They’re a powerful statement about our predicament, a reminder that something has to change, a point confirmed by the expressions of irritation about them coming from people who disbelieve the evidence for global warming.

But that’s a small minority’s view. As genuine contributors to lower emissions, the YMCA Launceston array and many others like it are visible symbols of a better future, something to lift spirits and motivate stronger mitigation efforts. That we do need.

Hunt’s sleight-of-hand needs calling out

Greg Hunt claims a “stunning” success for the ERF, but it’s far to early to tell [28 April 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Remember Tony Abbott’s 2013 line about carbon trading – “a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one”? Well, last week he put $660 million into exactly that.

Factsheet on the auction released by the Clean Energy Regulator

Factsheet on the auction released by the Clean Energy Regulator

He won’t ever admit it, but his government’s Emissions Reduction Fund is a market for greenhouse gas emissions and now it has its very own carbon price. Whether it will work is yet to be determined.

Environment minister Greg Hunt thinks it will. In fact he believes it’s the way for the future, “a plan for the next half century” as he told ABC Radio National last week.

Successful bids for the first ERF auction, announced last week, realised an average price of $13.95 a tonne. Most of the money will go to growing trees and dealing with gas from landfill. The big emitters, in mining, metallurgy and stationary and transport energy, are yet to join in.

The money will be paid as the 144 projects deliver their promised emissions reductions, totalling 47.3 million tonnes. Under most contracts, final payments won’t be made until 2025.

Just ahead of the ERF announcement Hunt said that he thought five million tonnes of purchased abatement would be an “outstanding” result. On cue, when the much higher figure came in a few hours later he described it as a “stunning” success that “will reverberate around the world”.

Australia’s first carbon price scheme, known as the carbon tax, was terminated long ago by the Abbott government, but you wouldn’t have thought so at Hunt’s post-auction media interviews, so prominently did it figure in his responses to questions.

There’s been persistent criticism from economists that the ERF is expensive and will get more so. Asked about funding the ERF beyond the forward estimates, Hunt made the astonishing claim that its cost per tonne of emissions saved was about a hundredth that of the carbon tax.

What Hunt chose not to mention or factor into his calculations is that the cost of Labor’s scheme was balanced by its own permanent revenue source, a specific levy on pollution. The ERF has no such income stream, which makes its long-term cost a big issue.

As major players including the US and Europe ramp up their commitments, pressure is coming on Australia to come up with a strong post-2020 target. If the ERF is to be the principal abatement instrument, the call on revenue is bound to rise, perhaps steeply.

That wouldn’t be good news for treasurer Joe Hockey, nor for Tony Abbott, who has firmly stated that the $2.55 billion allocated to the ERF is all it’s going to get, period. More than a quarter of that money, $660 million, has already gone with the first auction.

Hunt airily dismissed such concerns. He said the auction confirmed that “we’ll breeze past our target for 2020 and be in a position to make real and significant cuts beyond that”.

Hunt’s department released projections just last month putting the abatement required to meet the 2020 target at 236 million tonnes, but the minister thinks the real figure is much lower than that and “dropping all the time”. There’s evidence for this, but it warrants closer scrutiny.

Hunt nominated declining coal, manufacturing and agricultural production and electricity demand as causing the drop. He should also have mentioned a successful large-scale renewable energy target (which the government wants to cut) and rapid domestic take-up of rooftop solar.

Australia’s already-easy 2020 target – five per cent below 2000 emissions – is getting easier because of external forces and can’t be attributed to any Abbott government policy innovation.

Given that and the growing pressure to perform post-2020, the smart thing to do would be to set a strong longer-term target. The Climate Change Authority advises a 2025 target of 30 per cent below a 2000 base, but the government won’t listen to a body it wants to disappear.

Emissions in 2005 were nearly 7 per cent above those in 2000. Hunt exploits public ignorance of this by expressing the 2020 goal against 2005 emissions, thereby boosting our tiny target to a more respectable 13 per cent. I’m betting the government will do the same for its post-2020 target.

Hunt claimed instant success for the ERF last week, but just as it was for the carbon tax, it will be years before we can really know. We do know that the scheme won’t succeed without public confidence, and that can’t happen when truth is obscured by ministerial sleight-of-hand.

Hunt is getting away with it because climate remains unfamiliar territory to many journalists, lacking the detailed knowledge to ask the critical questions. Politicians and journalists alike will have to do better.

Emission policy undermined by contrarian funding

In the same week as its Emissions Reduction Fund gets its first workout, the Abbott government announced it would support a contrarian think-tank. [Peter Boyer | 21 April 2015]

Bjørn Lomborg makes a point.

Bjørn Lomborg makes a point.

In this Gallipoli week we can be forgiven if we miss an event of note on Thursday, when the federal government is to announce results of its first Emissions Reduction Fund auction.

The government, too, seems to have its attention elsewhere. Apart from scant publicity around the closing of applications for ERF funding last week and some muted comment from environment minister Greg Hunt, there’s been barely a peep about it from that quarter.

All that suggests there’s not a lot riding on the event, but in this year of the Paris climate summit nothing could be further from the truth. This first auction (“tendering process” is a more accurate term) will be an early test of an idea that’s been used in other countries for specific purposes, such as funding development of renewable energy, but never on such a scale or covering such a wide range of activities.

In his latest media statement Hunt referred to the “strong interest” of Australian business in the widening array of opportunities to cut emissions, but that was as enthusiastic as he got, in sharp contrast to his ebullient publicising of the ERF a year ago.

When they haven’t been openly critical, economists have stayed silent on the ERF’s prospects for success. The lack of positive support seems to have the government nervous.

The scheme drew initially on methodologies developed for a subset of the Gillard government’s carbon pricing scheme, the Carbon Farming Initiative. While ditching the parent scheme, the Abbott government kept its child.

Along with the rest of the world, the government must make deep, early emissions cuts if it is to have an impact on climate. Improving the level of carbon stored in soils and trees is commendable, but these measures are slow burners, having little impact on real emissions in the coming decade.

Because of this the government has formulated other ERF abatement methods that can have an immediate or near-term impact, like reduced or captured coal mine emissions and more energy-efficient buildings, trucks, aircraft, refrigerators and air conditioning plants.

Coal-fired power generation is the really big one. If ERF-approved methods applying to that source turn out to work we’ll see a measurable reduction in the overall figure. But the record reveals that the only sure way to get significant cuts at coal power stations is to shut them down, for good.

The industry seems to be coming to that view too. Last week the biggest player in Australian coal-fired electricity, AGL Energy, began preparing itself and its shareholders for very different future.

In recent years AGL and Macquarie Energy, the company AGL bought last September, have expanded their portfolio of coal plants in both Victoria and NSW. But last Friday AGL’s new CEO, Andy Vesey, announced an abrupt U-turn.

Vesey declared that the company will close down all its coal-fired plants by 2050, and in the meantime will not buy any new plants or increase the capacity of the ones it currently owns.

What’s really interesting about Vesey’s announcement is the reason he gave for the decision: a desire to support the international goal of keeping global warming below 2C. “To support the Commonwealth government’s commitment to work towards the two degree goal, companies such as AGL need to take the lead,” he said.

Whatever he may say publicly about the AGL decision, privately Tony Abbott won’t welcome it. His plans for coal in Australia’s economic future include not just selling the stuff abroad but also burning it at home, allegedly because it makes cheaper energy than renewables.

The government’s determination to re-shape the climate debate on its terms knows no bounds. Last week it found $4 million to help bring the “Copenhagen Consensus Center methodology” of the controversial Danish academic Bjørn Lomborg to the University of Western Australia.

Lomborg’s speciality is politics, not science, but he claims that scientists have exaggerated the need to cut rapidly and deeply into emissions and says money is better spent on adapting to a changing climate. Having lost Danish government support in 2012, Lomborg will be pleased to have a new home base.

Others won’t be so pleased, having watched in dismay as the government pursues big cuts to science and higher education spending. Against that backdrop, the decision to fund Lomborg is a disgrace.

It’s yet more evidence that the Abbott government cares little about lowering carbon emissions, and another blow to the credibility of its Emissions Reduction Fund.