Watching politics builds a high tolerance for hypocrisy and humbug, but even I am aghast at the Coalition’s antics this week – fondling a lump of coal in parliament while accusing the opposition of an “ideological approach to energy” and negligence in policy planning.
Seriously. There’s a long list of blame and shame for Australia’s threadbare climate and energy policy, and the failure to plan for an energy market crisis that experts have warned about for years. But Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition takes out first place.
Arguably all sides of politics have made mistakes or miscalculations to get us to this point of omni-failure – high prices, blackouts and an inability to reduce electricity sector emissions – and yes, ideology has played a part: mostly the climate-change denying, renewables-are-a-socialist-plot ideology espoused by sections of the Liberal and National parties that once upon a time, a long time ago, Turnbull also railed against.
Before we untether from reality entirely and drift off into a Trump-like universe where truth belongs to whoever delivers the best poll-driven lines or brings the dumbest prop to question time, let’s hammer down a few facts. Because we aren’t reviewing bad theatre here and when some commentators opine about whether Turnbull’s lines will “work”, or how funny the whole thing was, what they are really assessing is whether the prime minister can successfully, and in broad daylight, shift the blame for a monumental stuff-up, while apparently proposing solutions that will make it substantially worse in every regard.
Since it’s our job to point out things like that, here are a few facts that undermine the “coal comeback” PR strategy that started rolling out sometime last year:
- Renewable energy is not “causing” blackouts. They’re primarily due to the (incredibly complicated) energy market that wasn’t designed or isn’t being run to cope with a higher proportion of renewables, and is throwing up perverse incentives that mean South Australia can have a blackout while generators are sitting idle. It would seem obvious that the answer to this problem is not to abandon all incentives for renewable energy but rather to fix the market and the rules. Cars probably got bogged when they started driving on roads designed for horses and buggies too, but it wouldn’t have been wise to respond by trying to stop the roll-out of automobiles. And New South Wales – a state that gets a very small proportion of its energy from renewables, was also facing the prospect of blackouts on Friday, which sometimes happen during peak demand but also undermine the Coalition’s simplistic arguments.
- New coal-fired power stations are not going to be built. You don’t have to go to greenies for that assessment – it is also coming from the AI Group, which represents Australia’s manufacturers, and from the Australian Energy Council, which represents the big electricity and gas businesses that generate and supply most of our energy, as well as from the head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – who has expert knowledge of lending to the energy sector. Business knows climate change is a thing, and that locking in emissions from a new coal-fired power station for 50 years, no matter how efficient it is and how lovingly the current ministry can carry around lumps of coal, is incompatible with our long-term climate commitment and therefore an unacceptable investment risk. When really pressed, the only way experts can imagine the construction of a new coal-fired power station is if the government pays for it, or signs a contract indemnifying the company paying for it from the impact of future climate policy. And no sane government would do that. You’d only do that if you suspected the world was about to decide climate change was a hoax or at least not so much a problem, which might explain where some of the Coalition’s coal boosters are coming from.
- Even if they were built, power from new highly-efficient coal-fired power stations would not be cheaper. In fact, Bloomberg New Energy Finance has calculated that they would be the most expensive, and dirtiest, form of power available, costing more than solar, wind and gas-fired power.
- Governments could always reduce the strain on the system and help avoid blackouts by reducing energy demand but schemes to reduce demand at times of peak power usage (such as, say, heatwaves) were shelved after the Abbott government was elected, while programs for minimum energy performance standards seem to have been burned in Tony Abbott’s bonfire of red tape.
- And finally, as business and industry and environmentalists and pretty much everyone who looks at the evidence (including, a while back, Turnbull) have been saying for years, the very best thing governments could do to encourage investment and a sensible low-cost transition to cleaner generation is come up with a bipartisan policy, such as the energy-intensity carbon scheme that had bipartisan political support, the backing of industry and could have reduced power prices while also bringing emissions down. But the Turnbull government jettisoned any consideration of that in less than 24 hours, apparently fearing the response of right wingers such as Cory Bernardi. He’s now left the Coalition anyway, and it still has no climate policy.
We’ve been enduring this climate war nonsense for more than a decade and now we’re wearing the consequences – rising prices, unreliable power supply and increasing emissions. Responding with a parliamentary pantomime to try to shift the blame to a fictitious renewable industry bad guy is true ideological idiocy and also negligent, because it puts the shallowest, shortest-term and most opportunistic strategy for political survival ahead of households, investors and future generations.