Clean energy from an ABC climate debate

While no one's mind may have been changed by last week's ABC climate doco, at least there seems to be universal agreement about the need for clean energy.

Last week’s ABC documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate was roundly criticised before it even appeared for giving a voice to climate sceptics, as if by tamping off the oxygen they can be starved out. But it seemed to be an honest attempt to look at all sides of the debate.

Where it really succeeded was in the respect that was apparent between the two presenters, Nick Minchin and Anna Rose, despite their passionately-held positions at the polar opposites of the debate. Empathy and respect are some of the obvious casualties of the long and acrimonious campaign on climate change that has been bitterly fought by both sides.  Nick and Anna’s desire to find some common ground – as opposed to simply hitting each other over the head with metaphorical blunt instruments – was refreshing.

What they landed on was clean energy. Indeed, clean energy seems to be the one thing in this debate which all political parties agree is worth doing, because it offers an opportunity for Australians beyond simply reducing emissions: that is, an economic opportunity, especially for regional Australia.

While state governments differ in their enthusiasm for technologies such as wind, solar and bioenergy, the federal Coalition, Labor and the Greens all recognise the potential value that clean energy has for our economy. While they might disagree on some of the details, the national 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target remains one of the few significant policies in this or any area to enjoy ‘tripartisan’ political support.

Although Australia’s mining sector is going great guns, the rest of our economy doesn’t have quite the same firepower in the current global conditions. But clean energy provides the means to build that firepower. It’s also worth remembering that the jobs and investment offered by renewable energy projects are typically in rural or regional areas, where our world-beating sunshine, wind, bioenergy and other renewable resources can be found. These new industries can give these areas a much-needed boost.

One of Minchin’s selected experts was “sceptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg, whose idea is that we just need to pump money into clean energy research and development and some magical energy technology will appear in a decade or two that will solve all our problems. Where people like Lomborg go wrong with this idea is that the history of electricity generation has been a series of gradual improvements that enable us to increase efficiency and lower costs in the process. R&D is important, but we need to look beyond the lab and support the actual roll-out of clean energy. In Australia this support comes from policies like our Renewable Energy Target.

There are still big gains to be made in the cost and efficiency of the technology itself – despite huge cost reductions already – but a large proportion of the price tag comes from getting the stuff into the ground and onto our rooftops. We need to build up a domestic industry that will lead to greater economies of scale and industry expertise. This will help to bring down the cost of clean energy for everyone.

For large-scale renewable energy like bioenergy plants or wind or solar farms, the first few times you build something is a learning process – and every country is different because each has different planning systems, environmental approval processes and so on. So while one technology might be a success overseas, it can take some time for it to make the same inroads here. We are learning by doing, and each time we go through all the motions we get better at it.

As can be clearly seen when we watch the worm on televised political debates, people generally don’t like negativity. We should welcome anything that helps remove the anger and the dogma from the public discussion of climate change, and seeks to find the things we can all agree on. And as I Can Change Your Mind About Climate showed, one of those things seems to be the value of renewable energy.

Russell Marsh is the Clean Energy Council’s Policy Director.