Clean tech trumps carbon policy for climate action - an historical and a here-and-now perspective
Murray Hogarth: On My Watts
LATER this year will mark 20 years since I covered the 1997 Kyoto climate change summit as environmental correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald. Kyoto was meant to be a landmark for UN-led global climate action, held five years after the famous Rio Earth Summit in 1992, but that lofty optimism was never fulfilled.
A lot has changed since, but not the hopeless muddle that Australia and much of the world are still in when it comes to meaningful policy for climate action. Heck, new US President Donald Trump is vowing to make coal great again and the current Australian Government is trying to raise from the dead the redundant fantasy of clean coal generation of electricity.
Those with long memories will recall that Kyoto was where the idea of using market-based mechanisms, anchored by a price on carbon and emissions trading, first gained some traction as a policy prescription. This arose at the instigation of the US delegation. America had accumulated encouraging experience of using pricing and trading to cut the toxic pollution - coming from coal-fired power stations and industrial plants - that was causing acid rain.
The ground-breaking idea was to take the learnings from reducing NOx (nitrogen oxides) and SOx (sulphur oxide) and apply it to the vastly more problematical CO2 (carbon dioxide). If stopping pollution had monetary value, this would drive cost-effective action and a market for clean solutions, including renewable energy technologies, and also energy efficiency.
The initial response from those on the Left and in the green arena broadly defined was that it was American free-market thinking gone crazy: Put a price on pollution to cut pollution? You’re kidding, right?
At first, on the ground in Kyoto, Australia’s then John Howard-led Coalition Government was drawn to the newly-articulated American position from the Clinton-Gore White House. Cynics would say for two reasons: because it distracted from the immediate pressure on coal-heavy Australia to do more to cut emissions itself; and because successive Australian governments pretty much suck up to the US on anything it wants.
Except the US didn’t have the resolve to put a price on carbon pollution, certainly not under the subsequent Bush-Chaney Administration, and nor did the Howard Government in Australia. (It actually fell to a Labor state government in Australia, in NSW led by then Premier Bob Carr, to introduce the world’s first mandatory carbon trading scheme in 2003.)
Then came the more enlightened Obama Administration, but it was immediately clobbered by the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and pricing carbon was perceived to be politically impossible for the foreseeable future. Next has come the unforeseen, in the form of the 2017 inauguration of President Trump and his band of climate action recalcitrants. Now even the whole UN push for a meaningful global climate response is in peril again, despite the historic 2015 Paris Agreement that the US helped to achieve.
There’s no real need to rehash in detail the sad, regressive story of how Australia finally achieved a carbon pricing scheme in 2012, under the Julia Gillard Labor Government with a touch of Greens. Then it was repealed (i.e. torn down) in 2014 under Tony Abbott’s Coalition Government. That policy madness is still too painfully fresh in our memories.
A bitter irony is that supposedly pro-market politicians on the conservative Right quickly abandoned the economically-responsible, orderly, market-based response to climate change. This left it to the initially sceptical Left and green side of the political menagerie, the more naturally pro-regulation people, to support carbon pricing and trading. You’re kidding, right?
Politics takes too long on the big issues
Hopefully I’ve made my point. If we are going to rely on politicians and policy prescriptions to drive climate action commensurate with the threat of a dangerously hotter world, then we’re going to end up … well, pretty much where we are now.
That is demonstrably true for Australia and America at the federal levels, although selected states in both countries offer far more encouraging recent histories - South Australia and California are standouts. It’s not entirely the case for parts of Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and the like) and also Asia (see solar go in China and more recently India).
A feature of the past 20 years of climate confusion from Australia in particular is that the central national policy debate has been dominated throughout by the conflict over carbon pricing and trading. This has totally overshadowed the low-cost, productivity-positive opportunity to drive energy efficiency much harder, and has continued to obscure the success and great near-future further prospects of the Renewable Energy Target (RET).
When Bill Shorten’s Labor Federal Opposition went all aspirational, many fear half-heartedly, by pledging itself to a target of 50% renewable energy in Australia by 2030, the alternative government is only advocating with sparse policy detail what California has already mandated. Even in the past week, meanwhile, California lawmakers have begun legislating for 100% renewables by 2045.
The Coalition wants us to believe that 50% renewables by 2030 is a recipe for energy security disaster; that state governments on both the Labor and Coalition sides that are already pursuing such targets are reckless; and that anything like 100% by mid-century is impossible. They simply can’t see through coal-coloured glasses.
With better vision, if Australia doesn’t get to at least 50% renewables by 2030, we’ll be global technology laggards as well as climate action ones. Both our economy and our environment will suffer as a result.
The golden state of California, meanwhile, gets technology at an instinctive level. It is, after all, home to Silicon Valley. Long before California started pricing carbon pollution, it used sensible, well-targeted regulation to drive energy efficiency and more recently renewables. Technology improvements have been a key factor, dramatically decreasing per capita energy consumption by comparison with the average for Americans.
This cloud has a solar lining
That said, for all of our policy befuddlement, Australia already has nearly 20% market penetration for residential-scale rooftop solar PV, or 1.6 million installations. That’s the world’s highest in terms of the raw number of homes, real success for a crucial new energy technology, and far ahead of California much less the US as a whole (only 1% of homes). In turn this has made Australia the global hotspot for energy storage technologies. So we are by no means out of the technology game, and we have real advantages at residential-scale to lead innovation for more solutions.
I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago, flying in on the day of the Trump inauguration and joining the (albeit too-little-too-late) women-led anti-Trump protest marches the following day. My view is that the ‘resist movement’ to The Donald goes much deeper than small ‘l’ liberals opposing his brutalist brand of macho right-wing demagoguery. In California at least, there’s also a deep underlying confidence that technology can help to deliver a better world, and I for one like how that feels.
Where does this optimism come from? A key driver is the powerful convergence of a) distributed clean energy technologies - everything from solar PV to battery storage, electric vehicles to green-powered public transit systems, energy efficiency to demand management, and large-scale wind, solar, tidal and pumped hydro as well - with b) contemporary information and communication technologies, home automation and the rise of the Internet of Things.
This combination of renewables, efficiency and digital is making clean energy cheaper than its fossil fuel counterparts, precisely because it is smarter and better. More secure and resilient, much more sustainable, and more popular with the people too, with opinion polling invariably showing how high the level of support for solar is in the electorate, including with many conservative voters.
There is still time for national lawmakers across the Australian Parliament to embrace the technology path much more enthusiastically. New energy technologies have been boosted in the past decade by sporadic positive policy measures, such as the 20%-by-2020 RET and state feed-in tariff schemes for solar PV. Much more can still be done to continue the transformation of electricity grids - including accelerating uptake of energy storage, boosting commercial-scale solar PV installations, supporting residential-level demand management, and finally doing justice to energy efficiency opportunities. (Why has an oft-mooted National Energy Saving Incentive scheme gone nowhere, under Labor or the Coalition, when that can really cut power bills at low cost straight away?)
The good news, however, is that energy technology is advancing anyway. Australia may yet be a world leader on more clean tech fronts, just as it's been with both the science and the implementation of solar PV. Technology advances will drive transformation with or without our political leaders’ unequivocal support, and even in spite of substantial obstruction.
Massive change has its challenges of course, such as re-engineering grids for energy to flow two ways instead of only one as they were originally designed, and these things will be addressed. The beauty of the technology-led path is that it confronts and solves its problems as it progresses.
If only politics were more like that.
FOOTNOTE: In Kyoto, all those years ago, I met up with Paul Gilding; then a recent ex-head of Greenpeace International, more recently author of The Great Disruption. Paul was establishing a strategic consulting firm, Ecos Corporation, to drive corporate and market action on climate change and sustainability. We became friends and worked together at Ecos for nearly a decade. This week I read Paul’s latest post, on his Cockatoo Chronicles blog, on why he’s glad Trump beat Hillary Clinton for the US Presidency (the gist is that it will force change rather than more muddling along with a do-too-little political establishment). I commend his characteristically contrarian view on The Walking Dead in Washington, because there are policy zombies walking the corridors in Canberra too.
*Murray Hogarth is director of communications and community networks for homegrown Australian energy technology company Wattwatchers. He is the author of two books, The 3rd Degree: Frontline in Australia’s Climate War (Pluto Australia, 2007) and Law of the Land (EDO NSW, 2016).