The contradiction that bedevils energy policy

The Turnbull government’s continuing support for fossil fuels imperils us all.

Entering the Adani Carmichael mining lease, inland from Mackay, Queensland. PHOTO Tom Jefferson/Greenpeace

Entering the Adani Carmichael mining lease, inland from Mackay, Queensland. PHOTO Tom Jefferson/Greenpeace

Everything that’s wrong with the government’s vision for Australia’s energy future emerged in this single utterance by Malcolm Turnbull last week:

“We have a commitment in Australia which is part of a global agreement that was signed in Paris, and coal is going to be an important part of our energy mix, there’s no question about that, for many, many, many decades to come, on any view.”

Not a decade or two, but “many, many, many decades”. That many would surely take us to the end of this century and beyond.

The contradiction at the heart of that statement is starkly exposed in The Sky’s Limit, an analysis of what last year’s Paris Agreement means for fossil fuel extraction, published in September by the Washington think-tank Oil Change International.

Using the most conservative estimate of what it would take to raise the global average temperature beyond the 1.5C and 2C limits specified in Paris, the analysis makes clear that the world cannot keep that commitment without phasing out fossil fuel production.

More specifically, burning the coal, oil and gas from currently-worked deposits or those in development would make it impossible to avoid the 2C danger threshold, while to keep below the much safer limit of 1.5C we would have to phase out mining of coal, starting now.

The Sky’s Limit lays bare the danger in continuing to mine coal and the sheer madness of opening new mines. Yet Turnbull wants to limit environmental groups’ rights of appeal against new mines because they hold up the approval process.

Australia’s biennial State of the Climate report, published last week by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, described the kind of world we face with ever-rising emissions.

Steve Rintoul, interim head of CSIRO’s Hobart-based Climate Science Centre, found little to be positive about when summarising the report’s findings in media briefings last week.

He told ABC radio that declining rainfall and increased evaporation has seen water inflow into Western Australian dams drop by more than half since the 1970s, and the overwhelming majority of Australian heat waves – days over 35C – have occurred since 1980.

Implications for bushfires are clear: “The projections are that as Australia continues to warm and as rainfall declines continue… the fire season will continue to become more extreme.”

The implications of rapidly-changing climate for our future well-being are out there for all to see. The government knows that the single biggest cause is emissions from burning coal, but persists in trying to close down avenues of objection against new coal mines. This is absurd.

The employment potential of the Adani-Carmichael project has been said to be 10,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, but the Productivity Commission favours an alternative, much lower estimate of just 1464, and Adani has admitted that’s about right.

Even the higher figure seems tiny against an estimate of renewable energy new jobs released last week by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

The International Energy Agency says that renewable energy installation is increasing by 15 per cent a year and now makes up more than half of new power capacity globally, which is a pretty good basis for the claims of the ACF-ACTU study, called Jobs in a Clean Energy Future.

The study used modelling by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research which found that policies needed to meet Paris commitments would generate half a million more jobs by 2030 than would be lost, and over a million more by 2040.

We have a choice. The world can continue to support a fossil-fuel energy future, which will necessarily mean abandoning any hope of containing warming to relatively safe levels.

Or government can act swiftly to cut the umbilical cord that keeps these industries alive and create job opportunities not just for currently displaced workers but for their children, while also giving us the best possible chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

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