Renewables, climate and intergovernmental relations – OPINION

The Federal Government’s refusal to adopt the Chief Scientist’s recommendation for a Clean Energy Target has been roundly criticised by its political opponents. As you would expect.

But what does it mean for the relationships between Australia’s different levels of government?

The Government’s new policy sees the end of any subsidy for renewable energy after 2020, yet continues the effective subsidy of fossil fuels through the lack of a carbon price. It means that the unedifying and at times vicious squabbling that has marked what passes for debate on climate change and energy policy in this country will continue.

The Federal Opposition has said, understandably, that it will not cooperate with the new policy and will oppose it in Parliament.Any dispassionate reading of the situation will show that it is Labor that has been prepared to compromise, and it is the Government that has retreated from bipartisanship.

That fact alone will cause continued uncertainty, which most observers agree is a significant cause of the investment paralysis that is behind much of the increase in energy pricing in Australia in recent years.

The Government’s new policy is an energy policy first, with climate barely mentioned. It was developed unilaterally, with no reference to the states. Yet it is now demanding the very consensus it has conspicuously failed to deliver itself, and is asking for ‘certainty’ when it has been the main reason there is none.

Its new policy is uncosted, unmodelled and -in the poisonous policy vacuum that it itself has created – unachievable.

At the state level, the Labor States of Victoria, South Australia have indicated that they will pursue their own renewable targets.  Both are facing elections next year. Western Australia, which is not part of the National Electricity Market, is looking at its own policy. Queensland, effectively in election mode and with the Adani mine a major issue, is more equivocal, but sees no reason to compromise with the Feds.

NSW has a Liberal government and will not want to be seen to be fighting the Feds. But it also has its own target of 20 percent renewables by 2020, and it too is facing an election, though not for 18 months. NSW will have to walk a fine line between maintaining Tory solidarity and not alienating voters.

Both the Turnbull led Coalition and federal Labor believe they have the right policies on climate change and energy to appeal to voters. Coalition believes this so strongly that it is actually going out of its way to retreat from the modest climate policies of even the Abbott government (which, remember, supported a renewables target).

Labor will push the necessity for action on climate, the Coalition will push energy security. Both will say their policies will achieve those objectives, and that their opponents’ will not.

So Australia will have separate federal and state energy policies. On top of that, many local government authorities will have their own policies. There will be no national consensus, no certainty on investment, and no spirit of cooperation.

Australia’s climate and energy policy landscape will be much like that of Donald Trump’s America. What a great example to follow.

One difference will be that we will at least pay lip service to the Paris Climate agreement, but that means little, since under the Coalition’s policies we will have no chance of meeting our commitments. As in the US, we will have separate local, state and federal policies.

The Special Energy COAG in November should be a lulu.

Climate change, ‘the great moral issue of our time’, will in Australia continue to be a policy wasteland and political graveyard.

Just last week we reported on the United Kingdom’s adoption of carbon pricing. We commented on how that country, under a Conservative government, has somehow managed to avoid the acrimony of the Australian debate.

Climate change and energy policy in Australia remains broken. It represents a great failure of political will and the victory of short-termism over the common good.

A few years ago I had a market research and analysis company specialising in climate change and energy efficiency. Most of our clients were the energy retailers and distributors.

Then, during the years of the Gillard government, the whole debate turned poisonous. Nobody wanted to do anything. They didn’t want to plan, they didn’t want to invest, and they certainly didn’t want to buy market research. Policy uncertainty and wilful disinformation cost me my business.

Let us hope it does not cost Australia much more.

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