Environment

Stark climate policies on offer at this election but will voters bite?

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If our politicians are supposed to be driven by polls and focus groups, why is it that climate change isn't a policy that attracts bipartisan or even tripartisan support?

As we learnt again last week from the respected Lowy Institute, the threat of a warming world is of growing concern for Australians and now tops even terrorism or North Korean nukes.

Respondents to surveys say they want more renewable energy and action on climate change - but will they vote that way at the ballot box?

Respondents to surveys say they want more renewable energy and action on climate change – but will they vote that way at the ballot box?Credit:Fabrizio Bensch

While the full findings won't be out until next month, support for renewable energy is likely to remain high, too. Last year, backing was 84 per cent – numbers "that we don't really see on other issues", Lowy's poll chief Natasha Kassam told the Herald.

Britain, of course, offers good and bad models when it comes to governance of late, but the Conservative government under Theresa May cheered the fact that the country had gone a week without burning coal for electricity for the first time since those dark satanic mills started spinning.

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That response even drew a rueful reaction on Twitter from Malcolm Turnbull, whose term as prime minister was abruptly ended last August with his effort to get his optimistically named National Energy Guarantee policy through his party room one last time.

With the Morrison government dropping the NEG, it is not clear what the Coalition is offering voters on the energy front.

Yes, investors have earmarked about $25 billion for wind and solar projects over the past three years of the Renewable Energy Target, and that is no small change.

However, there is little indication what will follow after 2020 if the Morrison government is returned, and the industry is fearful they are facing a cliff.

AGL''s Liddell power station in the Hunter Valley - barring some unexpected closure elsewhere - willb e the next to halt production in 2022.

AGL''s Liddell power station in the Hunter Valley – barring some unexpected closure elsewhere – willb e the next to halt production in 2022.Credit:Janie Barrett

Reading the polls, the Liberal-led NSW government of Gladys Berejiklian is working on the assumption that the remnant of the NEG – replete with deeper emission-target cuts for the power sector – will be revived under a Labor government as Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised.

Labor's promise of securing 50 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2030 is a key arrow in its policy quiver. Even though it looks like a long shot – roughly doubling where we are now in the eastern states that make up the National Electricity Market – in fact it's probably not much more than business-as-usual.

(The caveat, though, is that investors in that sector have barely known a "usual" period in the past decade.)

The likelihood is the surge in clean energy alternatives to coal and gas in power generation will continue, meaning there's a reasonable chance that 50-50 target will be exceeded and then some by 2030.

The Greens say 100 per cent renewables should be the goal by then, and that a bonanza of new jobs – in the order of 180,000 – will offer employment opportunities to aid the transition for the Hunter and Latrobe valleys that will fare worst from the demise of coal-fired plants.

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They also advocate a policy whose name the two main parties dare not utter – a carbon price. That's despite seasoned commentators such as Tony Wood from the Grattan Institute supporting a market solution.

"The major parties seem to prefer an unproductive debate on cost [of taking climate action], while the Greens have arguably the best core policy – an economy-wide carbon price," Mr Wood told readers of our sister paper The Australian Financial Review last week.

Transport is one sector that will have to cut emissions sooner or later. Labor plans to toughen efficiency standards and aims for half of new car sales to be electric by 2030 - up from about 0.2 per cent now.

Transport is one sector that will have to cut emissions sooner or later. Labor plans to toughen efficiency standards and aims for half of new car sales to be electric by 2030 – up from about 0.2 per cent now.Credit:Dmitry Panchenko

Labor's climate policy will indeed generate a carbon price as companies face a "cap" on carbon pollution, with those able to reduce emissions more quickly able to trade their surplus achievements with laggards.

The problem is that Labor's goal of cutting emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels will be complicated by adjustments for all the sectors or enterprises that will be partly or fully exempt. These include the agriculture sector and trade-exposed firms such as aluminium smelters – which is a key reason that Labor can't come up with a pat answer to the question of what its climate plan will cost.

But Labor is at least taking a stab. It has a declared net-zero emissions target for 2050 and, although Australia arguably signed up for a similar goal when it agreed to the Paris climate goals, the Coalition appears not to have a policy to get there.

The Morrison government says its rebadged direct action plan – now called the Climate Solutions Fund – will earmark $2 billion over a decade to pay polluters to cut emissions to farmers – and other sectors – to sequester emissions such as boosting the carbon content of soils or restraining land-clearing.

The Coalition's headline goal of cutting 2005-level carbon emissions by 26 per cent masks a couple of backtracks. Australia's official Paris goal is 26-28 per cent, but the upper end of the range has quietly been dropped.

More contentious, though, is the Coalition's plan to use expected carry-over credits from the current climate policy to which Australia has signed up, the Kyoto Protocol, as the Herald and The Age first reported last December.

Most nations with such credits, including Germany, Britain, New Zealand and Sweden, have voluntarily decided to extinguish any such "surplus" generated by exceeding goals up to 2020 when the Paris accord kicks in.

The slogan "NO PLAN B" is projected on the Eiffel Tower as part of the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015.

The slogan "NO PLAN B" is projected on the Eiffel Tower as part of the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015.Credit:AP

The consequence is that Australia's abatement effort of 695 million tonnes of carbon dioxide shrinks to about 325 million tonnes at the stroke of a pen – assuming global negotiators don't blow the whistle on this plan.

Labor could have used this short cut to count towards its higher target of 45 per cent reduction in emissions but decided not to use it. One consequence could be that Australia will end up turning to international markets to import such reductions if domestic abatement efforts are too costly. (Again, modelling that cost is difficult, not least because we don't know how well Australia will go nor how much other countries will turn to such credits.)

Dylan McConnell, an energy analyst at the University of Melbourne, has joined a few dots to show that Australia has a lot of work to do if it wants to meet both the current targets for Paris and higher ones in the future.

Remember that almost 200 nations agreed in Paris in late 2015 to limit global temperatures to 1.5 degrees and "well below 2 degrees".

We are more than halfway to that level of heating, with global surface readings more than a degree above pre-industrial levels, and further warming all but locked in because of the time-lagRead More – Source