Australia remains in a climate transition muddle

FRUSTRATING: Endless political point-scoring and blame-shifting is wasting precious time. Picture: Shutterstock
FRUSTRATING: Endless political point-scoring and blame-shifting is wasting precious time. Picture: Shutterstock

Anyone looking in on Australia's response to the climate challenge would be justifiably confused and dismayed. Much worse if they had tuned in to Scott Morrison's comments to the recent Biden climate summit.

If they are able to cut through the rhetoric, spin, claim and counterclaim, misrepresentation and fake news of the so-called political climate wars - mostly point-scoring and blame-shifting with little genuine policy development or implementation - they would find themselves being buffeted around almost daily by a multiplicity of media reports of various targets, projects and technologies, with considerable difficulty determining their significance.

At best, they would be bemused and disturbed, by all this white noise in a country that has everything going for it to provide it with the best basics to lead the world in transition to a low-carbon society by mid-century.

We have enviable endowments of land, solar, wind, graphite, lithium and recyclable wastes, with the technologies to exploit them for the essential transitions across all sectors.

Rather than being tagged globally as a most conspicuous laggard in our response to climate, we could easily be a globally significant leader - an energy superpower.

It's a muddle, with several decades squandered at the cost of billions of dollars of investment and growth, and hundreds of thousands of jobs, yet leaving us exposed to ever more frequent and intense extreme weather events, and the rapidly mounting costs of their impacts.

With the disturbing vacuum in national political leadership failing to put in place an effective longer-term strategy for the essential transitions, the states, businesses, households and key institutions have stepped up, attempting to fill the void.

For example, against Morrison's mere "preference" to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the states, many businesses and key industrial and other organisations have adopted the target as a firm commitment.

Moreover, as Morrison sticks with the totally inadequate 2030 target to reduce emissions by 26-28 per cent - less than half what is required to achieve 2050 net zero - Victoria has now moved to 28-33 per cent by 2025, and 45-50 per cent by 2030.

While Morrison scaremongers about this, it is easily achievable with appropriate transition thinking and planning.

For example, Victoria could accelerate the closure of the coal-fired Loy Yang B and Yallourn power stations, and/or incentivise the transition of households from gas-fired heating and cooking.

It would be so much better if the responses were unified and consistent across the country, especially as actions taken by some may complicate the whole system.

For example, Australia has the highest and fastest rollout of roof top solar in the world. But this means that power prices often sink to zero or negative around midday, as with wind often at night, but rocket up in the evening and morning peaks.

This has changed the business model of solar and wind projects, especially as they can no longer count on the subsidy from the Renewable Energy Target.

The Australian Energy Market Operator is now recognising locational disadvantages by imposing marginal loss factors on their output.

Consequently, there is a considerable industry shake-up under way, with many of these projects now on the market at substantial discounts.

These projects now need to be made dispatchable with load-shifting storage.

Denying the commercial reality that solar and wind generation are cheaper, with negligible emissions, and are readily bankable and insurable, Morrison is pushing ahead supporting gas generation, potentially stranded assets.

At best, gas will only have a role as a "peaker", the limit of which has been put at about 200MW.

Yet we have seen federal and state government financial support for two much larger gas projects in Tallawarra and Kurri Kurri in New South Wales in just the last week.

Hydrogen has become the flavour of the moment, even though we are a long way from seeing it commercially viable at scale.

Green hydrogen is too expensive in power generation even if the government achieves its technology goal of $2/kg, foreshadowing a better future in transport, and as a diesel replacement.

The move towards 100 per cent renewables has been constrained by the fact that coal-fired power was built near coal mines, and solar and wind projects where the sun and wind were best - not actually where it was most needed.

The states are now competing in transition.

Australia desperately needs leadership - and a national and co-ordinated approach to the transition - across all key sectors, power, transport, regenerative agriculture, building codes and materials and industrial processes.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

This story Hewson's View | Australia remains in a climate transition muddle first appeared on The Canberra Times.