I am proud to live in Australia, “the lucky country”. A country which, in the words of our National Anthem, “abounds with nature’s gifts”. But with these gifts comes a problem: Australia is one of the highest emitters of carbon per capita.
So how is Australia’s transition to a low carbon economy going?
Confused and not so well, would be my summary. Take a look at a selection of climate-related news from the last three months:
16th February 2017
Australia relying on ‘ambitious’ State Govt emissions targets to meet Paris commitments: Expert
It seems that the Federal Government, having repealed a carbon tax, is relying on state governments to do the heavy lifting needed to meet the commitments made by the Government in Paris. At the same time, it is criticising the states for putting ideology ahead of the stability of the national grid with unrealistic renewables targets.
26th February 2017
Hazelwood power station closure could have catastrophic consequences, residents warn
Australia is closing down its dirtiest brown-coal powered generator (a decision made by the French corporate owner), but there is concern about job losses.
March 14th 2017
SA electricity crisis: Government unveils $550 million power plan
South Australia recently faced a disastrous and extended power-out caused in part, it is believed, due to extreme weather events causing wind power to come off line and subsequent failures in the grid. A few days before this announcement Elon Musk, of Tesla and SolarCity fame, promised to fix the problem in 100 days with a massive battery farm – or he would charge nothing.
16th March 2017
Snowy Hydro scheme boost to secure electricity supply on east coast: Government
Here is the Federal government wading in 2 days later with what looks like a hastily cooked-up plan to help secure electricity supply with a large hydro-electric upgrade.
18th March 2017
Adani: Qld Premier, mayors hope to convince company to go ahead with Carmichael mine
Here we have a desperate scramble by the Queensland Government to secure Indian investment in a massive planned coal mine which is projected to deliver 15,000 new jobs.
10th April 2017
Coral bleaching events on Great Barrier Reef leaves marine scientists devastated and horrified
Scientists wring their hands in despair at the extent of damage to the reef due to increased water temperatures. I was there not long ago; it makes you want to cry.
19th April 2017
Mega Solar farm planned for Gympie
Now, not far away from the planned Adani mine, we have plans for a mega solar farm consisting of up to 3 million solar panels which will deliver 15% of the State’s electricity needs.
As you can see, the picture is confuddled and erratic with no sense of a clear direction or plan.
As a country where so much of the economy depends on the export of commodities, particularly iron ore and natural gas, Australia has always had a schizophrenic attitude towards climate change. My observation and belief is that much of the Australian population has a strong affinity with nature and that there could be strong public support for leadership towards a low carbon economy. Unfortunately, with three-year election terms and a history of knife edge results, making a bold move in that direction would likely be political suicide for National politicians.
So if we assume that the Federal regulation lever is unlikely to be pulled any time soon, what other options are there?
At the State and City level the prospects for regulatory and policy changes are much better. There is an enthusiasm amongst politicians at this level – paradoxically driven by an apparent enthusiasm for green progress at a local level from the same voters who elect the Federal government!
On the design and technology front, there are reasons for optimism also. With a few exceptions (for example AgTech and BioTech), Australia’s historical record of innovation and commercialisation of ideas is not great. However, in recent times Australia has “caught the start-up bug” with some world-class new ventures emerging from Universities and incubators. We can expect some strong contributions to the problem from these businesses in the future.
However for Australia, I think that the finance and investment lever may ultimately be the one which nudges the country towards a low(er) carbon economy. We have already seen global miner Rio Tinto recently divest their Australian coal assets – they clearly saw some writing on the wall. The Adani decision may be a watershed moment for the Australian coal industry. Despite recent Prime Ministerial lobbying with the Adani family in India, it is still not clear whether the project will be funded. Over the lifespan of a mega-mine the risk of stranded assets casts a long shadow. If shrewd Indian investors decide that the risks are too high, then perhaps this signals the death knell for the Australian coal industry. If this happens then maybe Aluminium is next and the centre of mass for the Australian economy will be tilted inexorably towards the industries of the future.
The lucky country, with its renowned competitive spirit, has the capacity to change, embrace and succeed in a low(er) carbon future, but I think we need a pretty big nudge to get us off the beach. Sadly, at this time it’s not clear where this might come from.
That’s my view from Down Under, how does it look from where you are?