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Issue #1839      September 12, 2018

Climate change

Liberals dump the future

The “new” government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dumped Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee (NEG) scheme, in effect abandoning Australia’s meagre international commitment to help tackle climate change.

The NEG scheme endorsed the former Abbott government’s pathetically feeble agreement made at the Paris international climate change conference, that by 2030 it would reduce carbon emissions between 25 and 26 percent compared with the 2005 level. The national emission level had begun to fall during the Rudd and Gillard governments’ periods in office, but immediately rose after the Coalition with its climate change deniers took power.

A large proportion of emissions comes from the generation of electrical energy from coal-fired power plants. The National Energy Guarantee was weak, but it included provision for the Paris emission level agreement to be formally recognised in legislation that would (in theory, at least) have encouraged energy providers to generate a greater proportion of power from clean renewable energy sources.

But that was too much for the coal and gas industries, and the pro-coal MPs threatened to vote against the scheme. The Coalition had a one-seat majority in parliament and Turnbull was terrified that the government would fall if the pro-coal MPs crossed the floor of the House during voting, so he postponed implementation of the NEG.

But even that wasn’t enough for the pro-coal faction. Turnbull failed again to reconcile the irreconcilable, and after a short vicious battle he was ejected from leadership of the Liberal Party. His replacement, Scott Morrison, who is infamous for having once brandished a lump of coal and sung its praises on the floor of the House of Representatives, has now dumped the NEG scheme altogether.

Fossil fuels, fossil governments

The Morrison government isn’t denying climate change outright, it’s simply taking no action to deal with it. One commentator recently noted acidly that the members of the government are not climate deniers, they are just climate “do-nothingists”.

That comment is understandable but misleading. By deciding to take no action to mitigate climate change, members of the government are condemning this and coming generations, including their own families, to a very nasty fate. Climate variation is already clearly evident, with heatwaves in northern Europe and other extreme weather events including typhoons and flooding in Asia.

Australia is now having bushfires in mid-winter. This year nationwide maximum temperatures are at a record, 1.36 degrees above the 1961-1990 average. Northern Australia is currently under severe fire warnings, and the eastern states are also in for a summer of terrible danger.

Turnbull’s own son, who has advised the public not to vote for the Coalition at the coming by-election for his father’s old seat, commented bitterly “ ... my father fought the stupid and the stupid won.”

As if to prove the point, Angus Taylor, the new Minister for Energy and avowed enemy of wind farms, has declared that the real issue involved in energy generation is the price and reliability of energy, not climate change, and that a rise in renewable energy generation will result in further price rises.

But there are limits to how much disinformation the public will accept, and for how long. Last Saturday’s catastrophic result for the Liberals in the Wagga Wagga state by-election in NSW was undoubtedly partly due to public disgust over the Liberals’ leadership battle, but public distrust is also mounting over the Coalition’s energy policies.

In fact, despite Taylor’s statements, the rise in energy prices between 2015 and 2017 was largely due to higher coal and gas costs and the closure of some power plants, including Hazlewood in Victoria, according to the Grattan Institute. In recent months the nationwide price of energy has declined slightly at the same time as the proportion of energy generated from renewable sources has increased. The price decline is most notable in South Australia, which has had the nation’s most ambitious renewable energy target.

Coal-fired power generation is also proving unreliable, with 100 breakdowns in the nation’s ageing generators reported this year.

Taylor opposes subsidising renewable energy. But a gigantic double standard is at work there. Big business is no longer interested in investing in coal-fired power stations, which cannot compete economically with renewable energy generation, whose energy source is available free of charge. Some members of the government have therefore expressed interest in former PM Tony Abbott’s proposal to publicly fund the construction and operation of new coal-fired power stations, at stupendous expense for the taxpayer.

Public interest, not private benefits

Abbott has also recommended dumping Australia’s commitment to the Paris agreement emission target level. That would have a devastating impact on the development of privately-funded renewable energy projects.

But the history of the last few years proves that the private sector is unable to meet the challenges of climate change. The situation has become highly critical. A recent editorial in Renew Economy pointed out:

“To prevent temperatures rising above the upper 2 degrees limit of the 2015 Paris agreement, it is no longer possible to follow a gradual transition path. We have left it too late; emergency action, akin to wartime regulation, is inevitable. Market-based measures alone are insufficient.”

But emergency regulation will not be brought in by the current conservative regimes in Australia and the US. They and the pro-coal commercial media “shock-jocks” are still promoting coal-fired power generation. Australia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of coal and gas, major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the federal government is supporting a proposal by the malignant mining corporation Adani for construction of the world’s biggest coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which will probably contribute to the eventual destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. During the recent conference of Pacific Island nations the Australian delegates refused to support a statement advocating the adoption of renewable energy generation with the greatest possible speed.

In the US, President Donald Trump recently made the astonishingly stupid claim that coal is a superior energy source because renewable energy generation infrastructure is vulnerable to enemy attack, whereas coal is totally invulnerable. Of course, coal-fired power plants are just as vulnerable to enemy attack as wind or solar energy plants, and as energy sources the sun and wind are just as invulnerable as subterranean coal.

A US company backed by transnational oil giant Shell has also developed a method of converting captured carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations into synthetic fuels and gases. They claim the process is carbon neutral because combustion of these products would produce no more carbon emissions than during the original combustion of the coal.

They ignore the fact that carbon emissions are unlikely to be captured during combustion of the synthetic products, and that high cost has made carbon capture and storage an uneconomic process for coal-fired energy generation, even without the added cost of carbon conversion.

Pouring resources into such projects is likely to worsen the impact of climate change, because it will delay the implementation of really effective steps to deal with climate change just when speed is of the utmost importance.

Meet the challenge

To meet the challenges of climate change we need to nationalise the energy industry, rapidly transfer to renewable energy generation and phase out coal mining, phase out the production of vehicles powered by fossil fuels and support the introduction of electric vehicles, prevent land clearing and promote reforestation, scientifically predict the impact of climate change, adopt more efficient and more appropriate agriculture, boost water conservation, update medical practice and procedures to deal with new conditions, promote understanding about public responsibility, and develop scientific methods to facilitate all of the above.

That sort of program will never be implemented by Australia’s conservative Coalition.

The Liberal Party leadership struggle illustrates that in order to preserve the economic dominance of the coal and gas industries their representatives in parliament and the commercial media have been prepared to bring the Liberal Party, the national defender of capital itself, to its knees. The Party is certain to lose the next federal election and is in severe danger of splitting apart.

Multiplying disasters lie ahead if we don’t take serious and immediate steps to tackle climate change.

Next article – Editorial – The rights of all are threatened

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