The music has stopped but the record keeps playing

The PM’s choice of energy and resources ministers signifies a deep antipathy toward renewable energy and a deep scepticism about the role of man-made climate change

AGL’s ageing Liddell coal-fired power station, in the Hunter Valley, NSW, whose scheduled 2022 closure by its owners, AGL, is strongly opposed by the Morrison government. PHOTO Energy Source & Distribution

If Scott Morrison wants to see Australia’s steady shift to renewable energy come to a grinding halt, putting Angus Taylor and Matt Canavan in charge of energy and resources was a masterstroke.

The two ministers have put career and reputation on the line in their determination to see wind and solar power put in their place and the coal industry given a new lease on life.

Last week’s long-awaited declaration by energy minister Taylor that Australia is about to meet its 2020 large-scale renewable energy target (RET) was remarkable only for what it didn’t say.

It was somewhat premature given that the announcement referred to renewable capacity that is committed (including Tasmania’s Cattle Hill wind farm) but not yet operational. But that’s a minor quibble; no-one is contesting that the RET will be met ahead of time.

That target would have been surpassed long ago but for an attempt by the Abbott government to abolish it. That failed, but it did see our earlier goal of 41,000 gigawatt-hours for large-scale renewables cut back to 33,000 GWh, causing an investment hiatus.

Taylor didn’t mention this episode or his active role in it, nor the fact that before and after entering parliament in 2013 he was on the front line of the crusade against wind farms, which he declared were causing land values to plummet.

He has softened his opposition to renewable energy, but he continues to warn, as he did last week, that intermittent wind and solar cannot deliver “an affordable and reliable system” without “dispatchable” power from sources like pumped hydro, gas and coal.

Suggesting that wind and solar are unaffordable is wrong – they are now the cheapest energy sources – and Taylor ignores the role of an efficient network using generation distributed over a wide area. He also overlooks multiple technologies to stabilise and store intermittent energy, one being pumped hydro which relies on the wind power that he has so strongly opposed.

Taylor seeks to underwrite new gas and coal generation to achieve “a balance in the system” but rules out extending the RET beyond 2020, a stance that has led to a worrying pause in renewables investment.

For his part, last week resources minister Canavan attacked activists opposing new coal mines – he called them “pampered, privileged and petulant” – and the Queensland government, which was “cowardly” for taking too long to approve a coal mine at Muldu, west of Brisbane.

Canavan wants more thermal coal both for Australian use in new coal-fired power stations which he wants the government to underwrite, and for export to India, which he sees as a moral question in that the exported coal would help lift Indians out of poverty.

If India needs more thermal coal to lift it out of poverty, no-one seems to have told its government. It is building more generating capacity, but coal’s share of that is declining, from virtually all in 2015-16 to less than half this financial year. That doesn’t bode well for more coal from Australia.

Both Canavan and Taylor are ignoring the essential questions: Why are banks and investors, not just in Australia but all over the world, unmoved by the idea that coal is in high demand? Why are power companies closing coal-fired power plants and refusing to replace them?

The elephant in this particular room is energy policy – or rather, its absence. Quizzed on ABC radio last week, Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton stressed that the renewable energy industry does not need subsidies, but it does need a more secure investment climate.

Investors, said Thornton, don’t know the rules of the game. Potential investors worry about whether the government will intervene to keep ageing coal power plants open, which if it came about would create “massive uncertainty”.

Investors, said Thornton, don’t know the rules of the game. Potential investors worry about whether the government will intervene to keep ageing coal power plants open, which if it came about would create “massive uncertainty”.

Thornton seeks “an energy policy that will last for several decades, that can have bipartisan support, that can give investors the confidence to make those investments”. Is that too much to ask?

His fears are underlined by a long and so far fruitless effort by the Business Council of Australia to end party differences over energy, which its president, Grant King, has called the largest public policy failure of our time.

I am citing these sources because in times past they were the sorts of people a Coalition government would pay heed to. But no longer, and the reason isn’t exactly hard to find. It’s climate change.

Whatever they may say when forced to talk about climate change, Angus Taylor and Matt Canavan, with some others in the Coalition including, it would seem, their boss, simply won’t accept that it poses enough threat to warrant discarding those old, time-honoured, fossil-fuelled ways.

While others are moving on they remain stuck in the groove, like an old record that’s come to the end of the music but refuses to switch off. Round and round and round, producing nothing but static.

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Is mindless planet-trashing the way to go?

The Morrison government is engaging in the kind of international chicanery we used to associate with tinpot dictatorships.

How the Morrison government is using Kyoto credits to avoid any significant action to reduce emissions. IMAGE: Tim Baxter (2019), In a Canter? Demystifying Australia’s Emissions Budget for Paris

When the United Nations emerged out of World War II, Australia was widely recognised as a model international citizen, a light helping to guide the world in a new age of diplomacy.

Civilisation’s answer to the wreckage left by nationalism was the UN’s multilateral world order. Both Coalition and Labor leaders knew that it gave a leg up to a middle-sized power like Australia, and worked hard to build our country’s reputation as a good global citizen.

Many older northern nations struggled with the new order, but Australia punched above its weight, notably in environmental advocacy. We led the world in pressing for UN measures to protect natural values in our part of the world, including the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

Our efforts were noticed. We secured the first UN presidency. UNESCO’s World Heritage committee held its first southern hemisphere meeting in Sydney, and the first Antarctic Treaty meeting was held in Canberra. We hosted the headquarters, in Hobart, of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

At the UN’s Earth Summit in 1992 Australia lobbied hard for the proposed framework convention on climate change and quickly ratified its agreement. Everyone expected as much. We had the reputation of taking a holistic view, supporting best collective outcomes.

But then something changed. Australia demanded special treatment at the 1997 Kyoto climate conference. Most developed countries agreed to lower their carbon emissions, but Australia was allowed a significant increase over 1990 levels.

That wasn’t all. At the eleventh hour, when delegates thought they had consensus, Australia insisted on an addition to the Kyoto Protocol, later dubbed the “Australia clause”, which drew on highly-favourable land-clearing data from 1990 to 1997 to give us an even greater advantage over others.

The concessions won by our wealthy, developed nation allowed us to increase emissions by 28 per cent between 1997 and 2012. In the final Kyoto commitment period to 2020 they have risen yet further. All the while our government could rightly claim it was meeting targets.

Those exceptional terms weren’t enough for John Howard, who believed we didn’t need a Kyoto Protocol and refused to ratify it. (That was finally done by Kevin Rudd.) Now, even the most tunnel-visioned Australian nationalist knows that Kyoto is a magic pudding that keeps on giving.

The Coalition is now taking yet another slice of that pudding. Unlike New Zealand, Germany, France, the UK and others, it will continue to draw on unused emission “credits” from the Kyoto era, which expires next year, to meet the modest 2030 target it set for itself in Paris four years ago.

With the exception of two brief years when a carbon price was in operation, emissions have continued to rise. So the Morrison government, like its predecessors, doesn’t mention them. Instead it refers repeatedly to “our target”, which we are meeting “in a canter”.

European countries that have actually brought down their emissions are accused by their citizens of doing too little, but Australia hasn’t really had to lift a finger. Now, delegates of leading developed countries at each UN climate conference greet us with suspicion, even hostility.

Anyone over 50 should know all about this brand of chicanery. For decades we saw it exercised repeatedly in international forums to stymy attempts to achieve accord on this or that issue. But it was always others doing it, never us.

It was climate policy that saw us cross to the other side in 1997. Australia has now been playing its Kyoto card for over 20 years, and shows no sign of ending the deception.

It wouldn’t matter if Australia was a small player – a Soviet-era throwback, maybe, or a minor dictatorship from Africa, the Middle East or Latin America. But we’re not – especially not in climate terms, where the physical size of a country counts almost as much as its population.

Pacific island countries place great store in climate conferences and multilateral aid. In December Scott Morrison decried those conferences as “all that sort of nonsense” and stopped Australian payments to the UN’s Green Climate Fund for vulnerable countries.

No wonder his offer to his Pacific “family” last month to redirect Australian foreign aid to rebuild island infrastructure was greeted with stony silence.

Sadly, our government is not alone in devaluing global obligations. Nationalists everywhere have long had multilateralism in their sights, if only for a bit of excitement. Now Brexit and Trumpism have given them the illusion that their narrow, simple-minded notions have substance after all.

In darker moments I find myself wondering if that’s how things are meant to be. Maybe the Morrison government is on to something. Maybe that thing we called civilisation was just a temporary aberration, and we were always more inclined to mindless, self-serving planet-trashing.

But what a crying shame that would be, after all we’ve done. Together.

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We all have to wear the Amazon disaster

Brazil’s wildfires are an indicator of a much larger malaise.

In pursuing his own narrow political and economic agenda, President Bolsonaro has triggered a global calamity. But every consumer bears some responsibility. PHOTO The Independent

The apocalyptic vision of a burning Amazon forest, home to myriad species, hoarder of carbon, generator of rain and a fifth of Earth’s oxygen, has come as a shock to the world.

Instead of rain and oxygen, the forest is now delivering carbon pollution across the continent and the oceans beyond. Reviving an old national dream of turning the great forest into farms, Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro allowed forest clearing to be resumed. Now he’s copping it from all sides.

Like Donald Trump, whom he openly admires, Bolsonaro spurns any notion of learning from others’ past experience. That would have taught him that the long-term outcome of exposing the rainforest’s thin, infertile soils is barren land baked by an equatorial sun.

We’re rightly outraged at this new level of eco-vandalism in a world already badly damaged by human excesses. But we should also consider what drives it: global demand for beef and cash crops like oil palms, soybeans, rice, oranges and bananas. Food for the masses.

Food was central to this month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report titled Climate Change and Land, the first of a pair of monster reports on the impact of climate change on the planet. (The second, dealing with ocean and ice, is due out next month.)

Keep in mind what the “I” in IPCC stands for. Experts compiled these reports, but they’re official documents which must be ticked off by governments. So they tend to understatement.

For many years the IPCC told us that climate change would become dangerous when heating got beyond 2C. Clear evidence of current damage saw that threshold lowered to 1.5C in 2015. Now the panel has all but abandoned the idea of any “safe” threshold.

Synthesising conclusions from 7000 scientific papers, the land report says that around 1.5C “the risks from dryland water scarcity, wildfire damage, permafrost degradation and food supply instabilities are projected to be high.”

Deserts are expanding as more high-evaporation days and hotter, longer heat waves kick in. Since 1961 the area of land subjected to drought has increased by over 40 per cent, and a quarter of Earth’s ice-free land area has lost soil, nutrients and vegetation.

The report says that climate change is already damaging food security, affecting availability (yield and production), access (prices and ability to get food), utilisation (nutrition and cooking) and stability (disruptions to availability).

It reveals a higher-than-ever demand for both land and water to grow food, and not just because there are more mouths to feed. Over half a century, consumption per person of both food calories and vegetable and animal oil have risen markedly. We’re getting fatter.

Large-scale land clearing driven by food demand is pushing biodiversity into a global decline, in which Australia figures prominently with the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction.

IPCC findings were supported by a German study published last week in Nature Climate Change, anticipating longer periods of intense heat, drought and rain in Europe and North America in coming years, as well as in parts of Asia, further damaging both agriculture and human health.

In the wake of the IPCC’s cautious, carefully worded report, individual scientists lined up to explain that we are in a lot of trouble already, and food is at the top of things they’re worried about.

NASA climatologist Cynthia Rosenzweig warned of potential failure of “multiple bread-basket regions”, with very low yields this year of rice in Thailand and Indonesia, sugar and oilseed in India and soy and corn in the US. To which we can add food crops in our own Murray-Darling Basin.

Mark Howden, director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, warned of degraded soils, scarce water and an unstable food supply: “Exactly how these risks will evolve will depend on population growth, consumption patterns and also how the global community responds.”

Indeed, how will the global community respond?

We know this: The number of humans on the planet is still rising. Individual humans demand more calories. Discounting deforestation, food-growing land is diminishing. Demand for water, a finite resource, continues to rise. And a heating globe makes everything harder. Something has to break.

The complex, interwoven, unfolding issues around land, food production, biodiversity and water demand political leaders who look ahead and think holistically. But it seems the last thing these people want to do is stand up and declare this for what it is: a man-made disaster.

That may all change quickly. An old military maxim says we’re only ever four meals away from anarchy. The truth of this is clear from the history of civil strife and warfare, including the devastating, unfinished Syrian conflict, which began with a drought and food shortages.

We have every right to expect leaders at all levels – global down to local – to shield us from such calamity by pondering the IPCC report and getting their brains into gear before it’s all too late. Why on earth does this seem so unlikely?

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