The horrific climate-fuelled bushfires that have ravaged vast swathes of eastern Australia over our summer break have dramatically exposed the government's reluctance to confront the climate crisis.
In the last two years the strong build out of renewable energy under the 2020 Renewable Energy Target has been the one area of our economy that has seen emissions fall. But with government inaction on transmission and reform of market rules, this boom has been stopped in its tracks. With no other effective way to cut emissions, this is bad news for a government on the back foot on climate policy.
So when the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, appeared to offer hope his government might strengthen its climate resolve there was understandable excitement. Following his suggestion that the government was “going to continue to evolve our policy in this area, to reduce emissions even further”, a bunch of self-described ‘modern Liberals’ applauded the apparent shift and talked up the government’s interest in climate action. Prominent Liberals at the state level have added to the pressure on Morrison with the NSW environment minister and the Victorian Liberal leader Michael O'Brien calling for greater federal action on climate change and acknowledging the role of climate in the bushfires.
Now, I’m as much of an optimist as anyone, and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, but short of a major internal revolt, I don’t see the government’s long-standing intransigence on climate going anywhere.
How can I tell?
The number one clue is that despite clear evidence to the contrary, senior members of the government carry on with their ridiculous, and in some cases downright insulting, claims that they will “meet and beat” their climate targets. To save readers the distress of going through these preposterous claims one more time than is necessary, I’ll simply point to this calm and reliable explainer.
A second clue is that reports subsequent to the PM’s interview suggest the government remains locked in behind its inadequate 26% by 2030 emissions target. Scientists have calculated that the world’s commitments under the Paris agreement would lead to temperature rises above three degrees. When you consider that our current bushfire and drought crisis is being driven by just one degree of warming, three degrees would be catastrophic for Australia. Further, Australia is not even doing its fair share under Paris, with its 26% target falling well short of the 45% cut that would bring us into line with even this terrible outcome.
So, to the aforementioned major internal revolt....
The last election delivered the government a majority of just 3 seats in the lower house. There are more than half a dozen inner-city Liberals with constituents increasingly worried about climate change. Think Dave Sharma in Wentworth in Eastern Sydney, Tim Wilson in Goldstein in Melbourne, Trevor Evans in Brisbane. So the maths are there to allow this bloc to appeal to the government’s better angels and push for change. It’s just that recent history suggests that these moderate Liberals are not as prepared to ‘go rogue’ and threaten to cross the floor as, say, Queensland LNP Senator, George Christensen. Nor do they appear to command support among the more powerful ranks of the party. So, stand down on the champagne corks for now.
The implications of all this for wind and renewable energy are serious. As previously mentioned, new starts for wind and solar farms have collapsed, dropping from 4300 MW across 46 plants in the 2019 financial year to just 151 MW in two projects this financial year. Transmission bottlenecks and outdated energy market rules can be addressed by state governments and regulators but a lack of federal coordination makes the process much slower and more costly.
With state governments, business and private citizens prioritising clean energy and climate action, the federal government will continue to be pressured to stop being a roadblock to action. Which is different from saying they’ll stop anytime soon. It may be we need to work around them.