Turnbull’s energy plan: lifeline or deadweight?

The NEG is a dog of an idea, but it’s all we’ve got.

Assembling a wind turbine. PHOTO Ararat Wind Farm, Victoria

Assembling a wind turbine. PHOTO Ararat Wind Farm, Victoria

Politics is winning hands down over policy in the endless battle for good government in Canberra.

Already damaged by the chronic Turnbull-Abbott divide, last week the government was reeling from the furore over police raids on unions. Then came the High Court citizenship decision.

The Nationals are devastated. Having lost both leader Barnaby Joyce and deputy leader Fiona Nash, they now face having Nash replaced in the Senate by a Liberal – the candidate immediately below her on the Coalition’s 2016 NSW Senate ticket.

To top it off, the present acting PM is foreign minister Julie Bishop, breaking with the internal understanding that the stand-in will always be the Nationals leader. The punishment is complete.

But shed no tears for the Nationals. They have been instrumental in wrecking Australia’s response to the climate crisis and ensuring that Malcolm Turnbull’s “solution”, his National Electricity Guarantee (NEG), is a dog of an idea.

This is said with a heavy heart. Since the abolition of a carbon price in 2014 we have endured a virtual absence of energy and climate policy of any sort in Canberra.

Fading hopes that the dumping of Tony Abbott would see progress were revived when Turnbull combined climate and energy under Josh Frydenberg’s ministry – something both Liberal and Labor administrations had failed to do. But since then, nothing.

In the past year the Coalition has rejected two schemes to put a price on carbon emissions, the latest resulting from their own commissioned inquiry by chief scientist Alan Finkel. The NEG and its “powering forward” promise is its last-gasp attempt to retrieve something of value from the mess.

As it stands, the NEG is barely a band-aid over the festering wound of Coalition climate politics. To even begin to “power forward” it needs agreement from the Council of Australian Governments, which will be a challenge with key states already expressing disapproval.

The Australian Energy Market Commission has been charged with making NEG work, but it represents big generators and is ill-equipped to have the running on our central climate measure. We won’t know how successful it has until well after the next election, whenever that may be.

Investors need targets locked in at least 25 years ahead, but the government still has no long-term emissions target. That severely constrains the roll-out of electricity infrastructure of any kind – including Turnbull’s favoured “clean” option, pumped Snowy Mountains hydro.

Snowy Hydro chief executive Paul Broad told a Senate inquiry last week that building a pumped hydro scheme would involve removing 10 million cubic metres of rock from “challenging” rock formations, and Fairfax media reported that the scheme’s $2 billion price-tag did not include new transmission lines, costing about the same again, required to deliver the extra electricity into Sydney and Melbourne.

Since the government announced NEG a fortnight ago – it seems an eternity – it has failed to explain how different sectors of the energy market might fare under the scheme. Without modelling it’s not possible to define, let alone promise, affordability and reliability.

Questions abound. Why is coal power, which takes hours to switch on, listed as “dispatchable” – able to be made available quickly to meet demands? And how will that conveniently loose definition affect investment in wind and solar?

If past statements are any guide, the AEMC will continue to favour what it knows: current synchronous (coal, gas) technology. A key question is, what will be its attitude to asynchronous sources such as solar and wind using batteries and smart-grid technology?

Contrary to what Coalition politicians have been saying about “reliable baseload” energy and “unreliable, intermittent” wind and solar, proven asynchronous technology makes wind and solar as reliable as synchronous generation while responding much more rapidly to changing demands.

Don’t expect to hear that from the government. To the contrary, Senator Matt Canavan, fresh from High Court vindication over his citizenship and back in his old job as resources minister, is pushing hard for a new coal-fired power station in North Queensland.

After being sworn in he said he saw “no reason” why such a development could not be funded by the government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund, adding for good measure that NAIF could also fund a railway line for Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine.

That would be the only way for either of these ideas to see the light of day. “There is no current investment appetite to develop new coal-fired power in Australia,” Matthew Warren, chief executive of the Australian Energy Council, said in February, and that remains the AEC’s position.

Only flat-earthers and rusted-on coal devotees could believe that mining and burning more coal for energy is a good idea. It would demand unrealistic levels of abatement in other sectors, notably transport and land management, if we were to meet even our weak Paris target.

As it stands the NEG is no solution to anything, but it’s all that’s on offer. We’re running out of time, and there seems a reasonable prospect that it can be tweaked and augmented to have an impact on emissions. On that basis, and only on that basis, it should go ahead.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, batteries, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, climate politics, coal-fired, economic activity, economic restructuring, electricity networks, energy, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, gas-fired, hydro, land use, renewable energy, solar, wind | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We have to talk about road transport

Our car production lines are all silent, but there is a future for Australian manufacturing and it should include transportation.

Gridlock in New York. PHOTO Equipment World

Gridlock in New York. PHOTO Equipment World


Cars don’t mean a lot to me, and we all knew years ago that car production was ending in Australia. But when the final Holden rolled off the line last week it was impossible not to feel a sense of loss.

Less than a decade ago, four separate carmakers were employing tens of thousands of Australians to build cars. Now there are none.

Australia no longer makes cars because it couldn’t sell them. Foreign trade barriers and a chronically overpriced Australian dollar killed exports, while at home a rising abundance of imported brands, many backed by their own governments, steadily swamped the local offering.

The death blow was the Abbott government’s 2014 decision to terminate public subsidies. With the last vestige of government protection gone, market obstacles became insurmountable.

Manufacturing – making things – is an important marker of success for every country, every society. So should we have kept some sort of car-making industry going here? I think so, but certainly not in the form we got used to.

Petrol and diesel motor vehicles have dominated the lives of everyone born in the 20th century. Now we are having to face consequences. Hobart-based economist Rana Roy has been looking at these consequences, and has found a steadily mounting global crisis in the making.

A public policy economist, born in India and educated in Australia and the UK, Roy is a champion of civil society everywhere. He is a generalist in an increasingly specialised world, a builder of bridges between silos of learning and government and business.

In recent years, supported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organisation, he has been examining the causes and economic cost of air pollution, and with Norwegian Nils Axel Braathen has recently completed a report for the OECD.

Roy and Braathen have found strong evidence that road transport is now the leading cause of deaths related to air pollution in both Europe and the US, and heading in the same direction in emerging economies in Asia, Africa and South America.

In the 41 major economies included in the study, the annual toll of ambient air pollution – currently a rising trend – amounts to around 3.2 million deaths at a cost burden of over A$6.5 trillion. That’s around 6 per cent of the global economy.

Reducing road transport pollution from petrol and (especially) diesel is critical, says the report, which cites a rapid increase in the market share of diesel-powered vehicles as the main reason for sustained levels of air pollution in Europe.

Australia is better placed than more densely-populated places, but road transport is still a big contributor to urban air pollution. It is also Tasmania’s main source of greenhouse emissions.

Besides contributing to climate change, tailpipe emissions make urban dwellers everywhere less healthy than they should be, from spending too much time in and around fossil-fuelled vehicles. As long as such vehicles are occupying our streets we must find ways to limit their use.

Some cities, including Singapore, London and some other European cities, have tackled this problem head-on by making it more expensive to bring your diesel or petrol vehicle into the centre of the city. They call it congestion pricing.

Roy, once a member of the Board of Transport for London, is currently advising a New York team backed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo: politicians, engineers, planners and economists who are putting together a plan for a similar congestion prevention mechanism for their city

MoveNY is a response to rising and inequitable New York transit costs, poorly maintained roads, private vehicle congestion and outdated, inadequate public transport systems. It seeks to fix this with a sustainable, dedicated transportation revenue stream.

Referring to “years of neglect and maladministration” of the city’s subway system, the New York Times backs the plan, urging lawmakers to step up and get it through the state legislature.

All our cities, large and small, demand our attention to reduce congestion and lower air pollution. We need to improve traffic flows, invest in public transport and facilitate walking and cycling, but ultimately we need to find a way to eliminate fossil fuel altogether from road transport.

The logical alternative is transport powered completely by clean electricity. Tasmania is ideally placed to lead this transformation. Given greatly expanded wind and solar power generation, its predominantly hydro system would be an ideal fit with electric cars.

Which brings us back to Australia’s car industry. We’ve lost the assembly lines, but now we must quickly find ways of keeping our large network of remaining component manufacturers in business.

There are non-automotive options for this manufacturing sector, but with the world now turning to clean transport there has to be a big future in designing and manufacturing for a rapidly growing electric vehicle fleet – motors, regenerative brakes, batteries, charging stations and the like.

Three years ago Rana Roy said government should be reserving gas for domestic use and reining in excessive prices charged by monopoly power providers. He also warned that government neglect of manufacturing came at a cost, calling for heavy public investment in research and development.

Three years later, it’s way past time our leaders acted on that sage advice.

Posted in Australian politics, business interests, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, cars, climate politics, cycling, disruption, economic activity, economic restructuring, fossil fuels, international politics, investment, road - cycle, road - public transport, road freight, Tasmanian politics, transport, walking | Leave a comment

Political correctness: Tony Abbott’s weapon of choice

The former PM is trying to dumb down the debates over same-sex marriage and climate, but the electorate may be ahead of him.

Tony Abbott addressing the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London. PHOTO ABC/GWPF

Tony Abbott addressing the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London. PHOTO ABC/GWPF

If you don’t like political correctness, advised Tony Abbott two months ago, vote against legalising same-sex marriage “because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.”

It was the former PM doing what he does best, artfully setting out an agenda for a negative, divisive campaign. Abbott’s mentor and fellow “no” campaigner John Howard is renowned for his political skills, but when it comes to campaign slogans he’s no match for his protégé.

Abbott’s most cunning trick was to drag political correctness into this already crowded debate. We regular heterosexual guys and gals, he’s saying with a sly nudge, are being railroaded by trendy progressives into allowing people who are not like us to desecrate the sanctity of marriage.

Fast forward to last week. During one of his frequent visits to Mother England Abbott delivered the 2017 Global Warming Policy Foundation lecture to a cosy gathering of fellow climate-deniers.

The GWPF website was down when I tried to access it last week, but Abbott was thoughtful enough to release the text of his address for everyone to see. It makes fascinating, disturbing reading.

The man who as prime minister said he supported climate measures now says he no longer believes human-induced climate change is a settled issue, and those who say it is are acting in “the spirit of the Inquisition, the thought-police down the ages”.

The man who as prime minister had access to the best scientific advice in Australia declared that “more than 100 years of photography at Manly Beach in my electorate does not suggest that sea levels have risen” and that those say they have are “alarmists”.

And for good measure, here’s his final word: “It’s climate change policy that’s doing harm; climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than harm.”

It’s clear that as prime minister Abbott avoided chats with his chief scientist or any government climate scientist. Despite his strong preconceptions, just half an hour with a professional discussing those sentiments would surely have lifted the fog and revealed how utterly wrong they are.

He’s telling us that the word of a former prime minister with no tertiary science education, who cites no authorities to support his argument, trumps that of thousands of scientists who have spent their lives learning about how climate works.

I’ve observed climate science in action for 30 years. I’ve listened for countless hours to people who do it and got to know many of them personally. I value their personal integrity and collective wisdom, and I’ve learned to trust their word. It follows that I don’t trust Tony Abbott’s.

I have to pause here. Getting hot under the collar about Abbott’s climate ruminations is to risk being branded one of those “thought-police”, those guardians of political correctness, or PC.

A long time ago when I was young, PC was a joke from the far left of politics, usually directed at some party hack who waved the rule-book. It was the left satirising itself.

The joke spread to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, where traditional heroes and villains of a certain gender, type, class, race or nationality were re-drawn in a form that would offend no-one. The inevitable result was a sanitised version stripped of everything that was interesting.

The joke did not go unnoticed on the right side of politics, where US President Ronald Reagan made good use of it. In the 1990s a new breed of conservatives, many of them re-invented ex-Marxists, turned PC into a powerful campaign tool. It’s never looked back.

Both in office and since, John Howard has used the PC line to insinuate that people speaking out on refugee policies, or on racist, sexist or homophobic language, are browbeating us ordinary folk and dictating how we should behave.

Political correctness is a supreme propaganda tool. You may be prime minister or a top-gun CEO or a mining magnate or just a wealthy bigot, or all of the above, but through the magic of PC you can be instantly transformed into a champion of the downtrodden.

Free of both thought and responsibility, it is politics for the lazy, demanding only that its users know how to talk nonsense with conviction. Donald Trump put it best in his 2016 race: “I’m not politically correct, because to be politically correct just takes too much time… too much effort.”

Stumped for campaign ideas? No problem – just bang on about political correctness. You can attack anyone else’s policy on a complex issue – immigration or education or law and order, or anything – simply by branding it as PC. Works every time.

The full power of the political correctness line was unleashed in Britain and the US in 2016, taking Britain out of the European Union and putting Donald Trump into the White House.

That’s what happens when politics is dumbed down and political correctness given elbow-room. We would be foolish if, after all this warning, we allowed the same process to take its course here.

Now Tony Abbott is repeating the trick. Getting us to vote down same-sex marriage and abandon carbon mitigation, he says, would be to save us all from political correctness.

I believe that on these two issues at least, most voters are informed enough not to be sucked in, and that the passage of time will see his views become quaint historical relics. Let’s hope so.

Posted in Australian politics, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, contrarians | Tagged , , | Leave a comment