The defining difference, of course, is will. Specifically, political will. Australia is at another decision point on climate change as it heads to the May 18 election.
All indications are that Australia is heartily sick of the “climate war”. In the decade that the “war” has raged between the political parties, the country has been harmed and opportunity lost. Australia, an energy superpower, now has the most expensive electricity in the world.
The power grid has become so unstable that the energy market operator says it is intervening in the market every day “to keep the lights on”. If it handn’t, we would have celebrated Australia Day with mass blackouts across Victoria and South Australia.
And no, despite the public impression of such things, it wouldn’t have been because of renewable energy. “The contribution from coal generation was significantly less than expected and renewables was slightly more than expected” thanks partly to breakdowns in Australia’s ageing coal-fired generator fleet, in the words of the Australian Energy Market Operator.
Solar cell technology invented at the University of NSW was taken offshore and helped make China the world’s leading exporter of solar panels. That technology now accounts for half of global solar panel output worth $US10 billion in sales in 2017. Its annual sales are projected to be $US1 trillion in 2040.
We can buy them back one panel at a time – Aldi supermarkets had a special on solar photovoltaic panels in their Australian stores on April 6 for $179 each. Revelling in the adrenaline thrill of political battle and clutching abjectly to lumps of coal from the industrial revolution of the past, Australia is missing the industrial revolution of the future.
The electricity industry would like an energy policy. After six years in office, the Coalition hasn’t been able to come up with one. Business would like a steady, affordable electricity supply so it can keep running the Morrison government’s fabled “strong economy”. Big investors would like enough policy certainty to put major sums into new Australian projects.
The “climate war” is not some sort of inevitability – recall that John Howard and Kevin Rudd both agreed on the need for an emissions trading scheme to curb Australia’s carbon emissions.
We got into this endless war as a matter of political choice. The broad bipartisan consensus was shattered when two politicians – first the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce and then Tony Abbott – decided that they had more to gain by exploiting the problem than exploring a solution.
That’s not to say Abbott is solely to blame. None of Australia’s political parties has a clean record. If Labor under Rudd had held its nerve, and the Greens had been interested in cutting carbon emissions instead of striking a pose, the national outcome could have been very different.
So, what’s next? There is every sign that a great reckoning is coming. Public opinion on climate change has moved against the Coalition. A record hot summer, and record extreme weather events, have helped crystallise the electorate’s concerns. It’s been a long time since it was a lefty fringe preoccupation.
The Reserve Bank deputy governor, Guy Debelle, last month called for immediate action on climate change to avert an “abrupt, disorderly” economic transition.
Only 13 per cent of voters consider the Coalition to be doing a “good” job of dealing with climate change, according to an Ipsos poll this month. In a head-to-head comparison, 42 per cent of voters prefer Labor’s climate policy and 25 per cent prefer the Coalition’s. This is a decisive margin.
Internal Liberal polling shows that it is one of the party’s biggest liabilities, together with its chaotic handling of its leadership. And Abbott, one of the original warriors of the “climate war”, is likely to become one of its latest casualties under challenge from independent Zali Steggall, who decided to go into politics because of her concern over climate change.
Scott Morrison’s actions show that he’s fully aware of the problem. The guy famous for holding a lump of coal aloft in the House as treasurer has announced as Prime Minister billions in funding for the Snowy 2.0 hydro scheme, a Tasmanian hydro “battery of the nation” project, and an extra $2 billion for the Abbott-era emissions reduction fund. These are not a comprehensive policy, of course. But they are talking points for his candidates to get them through the campaign.
And Morrison is doing pretty well in the argument so far, despite the Coalition government’s dismal record. This week he managed to drag Bill Shorten into the old dead-end argument over the cost of Labor’s climate change policy. The Liberals can’t believe their luck – it’s the same dead end that the Coalition lures Labor into every time, and every time they give Labor a beating.
This week’s argument was over the cost of Labor’s plan for a lower-carbon economy. Both Labor and Liberal were quoting figures from the same report to support their arguments.
Labor has a policy to cut carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, and the Coalition by 26-28 per cent. A study for the Coalition by the well-regarded economist Warwick McKibbin found that the economy would continue to grow under both plans, but that Labor’s more ambitious target would cut about $60 billion more from national GDP in the year 2030 than the Coalition’s.
“Relative to what the size of the economy would be,” about $2 trillion, “the impact is a small fraction,” McKibbin said this week. But $60 billion sounds like a dauntingly large sum.
Of course, there are two much bigger questions. Instead of allowing itself to be pinned down on cost, Labor might want to look at the question of opportunity.
How much new investment went into renewable energy in Australia last year? The total for projects under way or completed was $26 billion in 2018, double the previous year’s, according to the Clean Energy Council.
And the eminent economist Ross Garnaut points out that there is mind-boggling potential for Australia’s post-carbon economy. Australia, says Garnaut, could be the world’s “renewable energy superpower” because of the abundance of its resource.
Beyond that, whole new areas of competitive advantage would open up for Australia as a result. Australia would also be the natural location for the world’s fastest-growing materials industry, pure silicon for computers and other electronics, as well as the global hub for steel-making, aluminium smelting and other industries where Australia today struggles to hold on to the last vestiges of its capacity.
This potential is almost entirely unmentioned in the Australian debate. Garnaut is delivering a series of lectures to develop the idea in the coming weeks.
And the second big question is the cost of inaction on climate change. The hothouse of Australian politics is nothing compared to the hothouse that carbon emissions are preparing for the planet. Britain’s Financial Times this month reported on a new frontier of climate research that explores the prospect of a tipping point where the atmosphere not only heats up, but doesn’t stop heating up.
“Some have warned of the risk of a sudden shift to a new ‘hothouse’ version of the earth,” writes the FT’s Matthew Green. “In this alien home, it is unclear how organised human life would survive.”
To deliver the opportunity, and avoid the worst, Australia needs more investment. That means more ambitious policy and a steadier political commitment to change. The Coalition over six years has proven that it doesn’t believe in the fight. But so far Morrison is doing a pretty good job of distracting Labor into showing that it’s not up to it, either.
The Coalition may not believe in the fight on climate change, but it has ample will to defeat Labor.
Peter Hartcher is Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.