It's taken a long time but Australian climate politics are now as bizarre as the sad state of affairs in Washington, with the government's new infatuation with coal turning into some sort of pantomime for morons with Treasurer Scott Morrison waving a lump of coal around in parliament last week.
I'm staggered these fools could embark on this black comedy during Australia's hottest summer ever, in the midst of a huge heatwave and with fires burning across the most populous state and with blackouts happening or being threatened across half of the states in the country.
The Guardian has a good roundup of the latest state of play in Australian energy politics, noting renewables have now been clearly proven to be cheaper and no more prone to grid problems than coal - and have the added benefit that companies are actually willing to invest in them to provide new generation capacity - Hard facts unmask the fiction behind Coalition's 'coal comeback'.
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.
* Renewables cannot take the blame for the recent rise in prices. Queensland, which also has a tiny proportion of renewable energy, has had price spikes that added an astounding $1bn to wholesale power prices just since the beginning of this year. South Australia, cited by the federal Coalition as the terrible case study of what Labor’s renewable energy policies might do, has had just a few. The
Queensland price spikes are also vastly higher than those felt in South Australia last July, which were described as an emergency, according to an analysis by Dylan McConnell from Melbourne University. Weirdly, no federal ministers have been berating the Queensland government over its (fossil fuel) choice of energy source.
* 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.
This is not a downward spiral anyone should feel comfortable about pic.twitter.com/TuXSjYhHXD— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) February 8, 2017
clearly we need to burn more coal. pic.twitter.com/yPyUlQxzdx— Jonathan Green (@GreenJ) February 10, 2017
In a new, bold move to deter refugees, the Australian government decides to set the whole country on fire... pic.twitter.com/fbKLvEaUTX— Richard Easther (@REasther) February 11, 2017
What's the difference between Scott Morrison and a lump of coal?— Dave Donovan (@davrosz) February 12, 2017
One is filthy, dark, backward and dense and the other is a piece of coal.