OPINION

Federal government left playing catch-up on climate change

There's a certain delicious irony to the fact Parliament House will soon be powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity.

It is the same building where Tony Abbott repealed the carbon and did his level best to abolish the hugely successful Renewable Energy Target. The same building where Scott Morrison waved around a lump of coal on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Research from the Australia Institute shows the ACT will be the first jurisdiction outside of Europe, and the eighth globally, to move from a fossil fuel-based electricity supply to 100 per cent renewable electricity.

Treasurer Scott Morrison with a lump of coal during question time in 2017. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

Treasurer Scott Morrison with a lump of coal during question time in 2017. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

As Atlassian boss Mike Cannon-Brookes tweeted: "This is an absolutely stunning achievement."

Why is this important? Well for starters, because it proves the naysayers are full of it when they say moving to 100 per cent renewables is impossible.

Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly has described renewable energy as "completely and utterly useless" and it was just two years ago Scott Morrison was deriding South Australia's plan to build the world's biggest battery, as being about as about as effective as The Big Banana or The Big Prawn.

Well, Kelly's Parliament House office will soon be powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity. And while Morrison and Kelly's state of NSW had nothing in its generation fleet to save it from blackouts when lightning strikes took out transmission lines around this time last year, it was South Australia's Hornsdale Power Reserve that kicked in within a fraction of a second, saving South Australia from blackouts.

Secondly, meeting the ACT's 100 per cent renewables target proved to be both quick and reasonably priced showing once again that renewables are the fastest and cheapest new electricity to build. According to the Energy Market Commission, the ACT has some of the cheapest residential electricity in the country.

Since the Coalition won office six years ago and scrapped the carbon price, wholesale gas prices have more than doubled and electricity prices have increased 12 per cent. If everything is going according to the Coalition's plan to reduce prices, what on Earth would it look like if things were going wrong?

While the government likes to pretend that so-called "virtue signallers" are standing in the way of new coal-fired power, the fact is there's nothing stopping any company from building a new coal-fired station. It's just that no one thinks it's a good investment when it's their own money on the line. It's worth remembering that almost every coal-fired power station in this country was built with public - not private - funding.

Coal-fired power stations not only take longer and cost more to build, but once built they need tonnes of coal to burn every day, to turn the steam engine, that makes the electricity. Nuclear takes even longer to build and is even more expensive.

Once you build a solar or wind farm, the sun and wind are free. Can't get a better bargain than that.

I am always blown away when the same people who are convinced it's too difficult to integrate wind turbines and solar panels into the national electricity market seem to think building a nuclear power plant would be a walk in the park.

At least now we can confidently ignore anyone who says Australia cannot transition from a fossil fuel-based electricity system to 100 per cent renewables, because the Australian Capital Territory has gone and done it.

And, they've done it quicker and cheaper than planned.

That's not to say it's easy, but it can be done, and it can be done much more quickly and cheaply than Morrison and Kelly would like you to believe.

Federal government pouring fuel on the fire

The gap between the states and the federal government's climate ambitions would be laughable if it wasn't so depressing.

While the Morrison government is presiding over its fifth straight year of rising emissions and is considering how it can extend the life of ageing and unreliable coal-fired power stations, the ACT is now getting on with establishing a pathway for achieving net zero emissions by 2045. The ACT has plans to phase out natural gas and electrify its public transport and public school buildings, as well as introducing incentives for people to switch to electric cars over time.

Every other state and territory now has a net zero emissions by 2050 target. The Australia Institute's recent Climate of the Nation survey shows almost two thirds (64 per cent) of Australians agree that Australia should have a national target for net zero emissions by 2050.

While the federal Morrison government is going to let the successful national Renewable Energy Target die, most state governments have implemented their own renewable energy targets - in line with a whopping 69 per cent of Australians who agree that state governments should be putting in place incentives for more renewables.

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Recent Australia Institute research shows the climate impact of Australia's coal, oil and gas exports ranks behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia exports in terms of global emissions. The government plans to use dodgy Kyoto credits to meet our emissions targets - a loophole that means Australia will count controversial past reductions to meet over half of its current Paris Agreement target - and essentially be able to keep carbon pollution at current levels.

If Australia uses this loophole, it would be the equivalent of around eight years of fossil fuel emissions of all its Pacific neighbours, including New Zealand.

The Morrison government's climate policy consists of little more than an accounting trick and repeating the furphy that we'll meet our Paris target "in a canter".

With rising emissions, accounting tricks, subsidies for new coal-fired power and massive fossil fuel exports being the best Australia can manage, is it any wonder kids went on strike across Australia and the rest of the world yesterday?

Future generations will look back on the politicians, fossil fuel companies and climate deniers who have delayed action, denigrated science and cooked the planet in the same way we now look back on tobacco companies. It's unforgivable.

But it was heartening to see unprecedented action by more than 2000 businesses, which heeded the call from Atlassian's Cannon-Brookes to join the Not Business as Usual Alliance and support their staff to attend the Global School Strike for climate.

"Humanity faces a climate change emergency. It's a crisis that demands leadership and action. But we can't rely on governments alone," said Cannon-Brookes.

In New York on Monday, Greta Thunberg will open the UN Climate Action Summit along with Prime Minister Jacinda Arden of New Zealand. Morrison will skip the summit, despite being in the United States, and instead is spending his time with the only leader in the world to pull out of the Paris climate agreement.

While Greta Thunberg has sparked a global movement that has mobilised a whole generation and now the business sector, the Coalition hasn't been able to get a climate and energy policy past its own party room for years.

The Global Strike for Climate is a powerful democratic response to a massive generational and political failure. What a privilege it was to participate in the strike, at least the ACT government is leading the way where the federal government has failed.

  • Ebony Bennett is the deputy director at independent think-tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett
This story Federal government left playing catch-up on climate change first appeared on The Canberra Times.