Josh Frydenberg has pointed to South Australia’s intermittent power issues as evidence that the rest of the country is not ready to transition out of fossil fuels, calling the state Australia’s “great experiment”.
The minister for the environment and energy appeared alongside Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the chief executive of Save the Children International and the former prime minister of Denmark, on the Q&A panel on Monday night.
Denmark derives 57% of its electricity from renewable sources – 43% from wind. Asked whether Australia could reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, Frydenberg said the transition was under way.
He said there was no shortage of wind or sun in Australia but its geographical remoteness meant it could not be connected to other countries in the way Denmark was. He said producing similar figures for wind for Australia was “probably not going to be when I’m the energy minister, but it will be in time very high levels of renewable penetration into the grid”.
Frydenberg pointed to South Australia as evidence of how far renewable sources had to go before they could be relied upon. “They’ve been the big experiment, not just in Australia, but for much of the world.
“One of the challenges they’ve faced is on one day wind has provided 100% of the power for SA and on another day 0%. That’s a level of intermittency which is very hard to deal with … so it’s an engineering challenge.”
Thorning-Schmidt agreed that a “good mix” of energies was crucial for easing the transition to renewables, but said it took a “big, conscious effort” for Denmark to get to that stage.
“If you think it through in a good way, it is possible. It does require investment. And often investment will require political will.”
Labor’s human services spokeswoman, Linda Burney, agreed political will was lacking. She was scathing about the treasurer Scott Morrison’s coal stunt in parliament, calling it “one of the most ridiculous things” she had seen since becoming an MP.
“It seems like it’s almost back to the future and coal is king again. And it was pure politics.”
Paul Kelly, the editor-at-large of the Australian, said investors would be put off the renewables sector while opposing parties had such different policies on the issue.
“We’ve got to make the transition in terms of emission reductions, according to our commitments under the Paris accords. We have to try and do it in a way that doesn’t do too much damage to the economy … and we’ve got to ensure the system doesn’t falter, that we don’t have the sort of blackouts which we’ve been having in South Australia.”
But politicking and investment aside, Thorning-Schmidt argued, the transition had to happen because of the threat of climate change.
“Climate change is actually real. It’s happening … We’re seeing unprecedented numbers of refugees as it is; we will have to add to that climate refugees. So I don’t think any of us can back out of this discussion.
“This is a real issue and no one can solve this alone. But every country can play its part.”
Asked by the host, Tony Jones, whether she was making an argument against coal, she replied: “Renewable energy is not coal.”
Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel peace laureate and micro-financing pioneer, echoed Thorning-Schmidt when he said Australia’s transition from fossil fuels depended on “the strength of the commitment” to renewables.
“That determines everything else. If you’re not quite sure how far we want to go, how quickly we want to go, then we’ll never get there. It has to be very clear this is what we’ll do: we’ll forget about fossil fuels and everything else.”
Once the objective was clear, he said, the necessary technology would follow, pointing to the uptake of solar energy in Bangladesh.
Yunus founded the grassroots Grameen Bank, which has 9 million borrowers, to combat poverty through micro-loans. He said growing inequality in wealth distribution was “a ticking time bomb”, linking it to Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US.
“One per cent of the population of the whole world own 99% of the wealth of the entire world … That’s not sustainable society. You can’t watch people get everything on the top and everyone else is not getting anything. The feeling passes on to politics, passes on to society, and now our politics is blaming each other.”
Thorning-Schmidt criticised Australia’s foreign aid contribution as inadequate in response to Frydenberg’s argument it was the 12th-highest of OECD countries.
“I’m a foreigner and I shouldn’t be telling Australia what Australia should be doing,” she said. “I know how annoying it is when someone comes in and raises their finger.
“The only thing I can say is when your development budget is at an all-time low, which it is right now, it feels like Australia is not taking its place in the world.”
In response, Frydenberg accused the former foreign minister Kevin Rudd of acting with “ulterior motives” in directing Australia’s foreign aid towards Africa. He said the budget had not been reduced but “refocused” towards the Pacific.
The foreign minister, Julie Bishop, was committed to exploring partnerships with the private sector, he said.
Frydenberg was invited to be a panellist at the last minute, after the cancellation of the anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s lecture tour of Australia. She cited a number of reasons, among them “organisational failures” by the Australian company behind the tour and “security concerns”.
The energy minister said it was “very regrettable” that people had sought to prevent her from speaking in Australia, and linked her views to the debate about the 18C legislation:
“I see her as the enemy of intolerance … I think we must protect and promote freedom of speech.”