Cleaning up the climate debate

A recent poll shows there is strong popular support for renewable energy – support that might just win the politics of a carbon price. So why aren't governments, and companies, making the most of it?

A recent poll confirms what I have come to believe after watching the global warming issue for 20 years; renewable energy is the only way to save the debate about saving the planet.

If the UN wants to make progress in the climate negotiations and closer to home, if Julia Gillard wants to win the next election, then the debate should be couched in terms of the tangible benefits of today’s solar and wind technologies.

A poll by Essential Research, conducted during Australia’s recent carbon price negotiations, shows overwhelming public support for investment in solar and wind, and that this support might just win the politics of a carbon price.

The poll shows that the public loves renewables, but that this sentiment is vulnerable to attacks from various clean energy detractors. Solar and wind have been politicised and companies need to step in and vigorously defend their interests.

Renewable energy consensus

The central question of the poll was 'Does that fact that the carbon pricing scheme includes a $10 billion investment in renewable energy make you more supportive or less supportive of the carbon pricing scheme or does it make no difference?'

Fourty-three per cent said the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) makes them more supportive, 10 per cent said more negative, and 41 per cent said it made no difference.

If wind and solar firms, along with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Australian Greens, can shape the national narrative around the progress of renewable energy technologies, then that 41 per cent who said the CEFC $10 billion makes no difference can probably be activated into supporting the package.

The poll also questioned whether or not renewable energy appeals to people’s basic values. In answer to the proposition, 'Investing in renewable energy is good for people and the environment,' a startling 89 per cent agreed, with only 6 per cent in disagreement, and 5 per cent undecided.

Fourty-five per cent of Australians strongly agreed with the value proposition, and 2 per cent strongly disagreed. That is a level of support that neither fossil fuels nor nuclear power will ever have.

So a majority of Australian think renewables are a good thing, but how many actually want to see money spent on them? It turns out that 87 per cent agree that 'There should be more investment in renewables like solar and wind.' If you understand the value of renewable energy, then you want to see more investment.

The heavy polluting industres know they cannot easily shift basic values, so they have undermined solar and wind at the next level of understanding, around jobs, prices and the electricity industry. In reaction to the statement, 'Investing in renewable energy is good for the economy by creating jobs,' 80 per cent were in agreement, and only 10 per cent in disagreement.

After two years of campaigning for coal and against renewables, energy-intensive and heavy-polluting industry, along with certain media outlets and Opposition leader Tony Abbott, have done barely any damage to the perceived value of renewables as an industry.

When asked to respond to the statement, 'Renewable energy can be as reliable as other sources of energy,' 68 per cent agreed, and we begin to see where the antis have been effective.

Busting the baseload myth

The next issue, to mine, is the question of so-called ‘baseload’ electricity. At the Labor national conference last weekend, a disconcerting number of delegates chose to run the furphy that only coal and uranium can power our electricity grid.

In response to the statement, 'Renewable energy like wind and solar can provide enough energy for all of our needs,' 56 per cent agreed and 17 per cent said "don’t know."

This question is so important that it was asked in another formulation: 'If we invest in sufficient renewable energy it will be able to replace coal and other sources of fossil fuel-based energy.' This had the same result, with 56 per cent in agreement (and 17 per cent undecided).

Detractors, like Tony Abbott say they are concerned with policy, but all they are really interested in is creating hip-pocket fears, so the politics largely hangs on the question of prices. This is where people are very confused. 57 per cent agree with the statement 'With sufficient investment in renewable energy, the costs of power for households would decrease.'

When the question is posed differently, the result shifts. In response to the statement, 'Renewable energy will increase households' cost of living through increased power prices,' 40 per cent agree and 24 per cent are undecided.

This is where the carbon price becomes an electoral liability, with only 44 per cent of people in support of the statement 'I am prepared to pay a little more for renewable energy.'

Renewables are, of course, cheaper in the long run than fossil fuels, because they internalise the environmental costs of carbon pollution. That is the whole point of the debate.

Unfortunately, however, the false economics of our energy market means that there are up-front costs to be borne in the transition to renewable energy, and people are not yet prepared to pay these costs.

Some elements in the Liberal Party have expanded their objections from climate change to renewable energy, and behave as though windmills and solar panels are virtually weapons of mass destruction. Electorally, this would appear to be dangerous ground and should be seen as ripe and juicy low-hanging fruit for campaigners.

It is a moving front in the battle against reason and facts. When asked to consider the proposition, 'There are legitimate concerns about the safety of renewable energy like wind and solar,' only 28 per cent of people actually agree with the safety question and almost as many (25 per cent) are undecided.

The renewable energy industry has done almost nothing to defend itself, when compared to the energetic campaigns run by the likes of the coal sector, banks, pokies, retailers, coal-seam gas miner, fishermen, tobacco and alcohol retailers.

So why is renewable energy still held in such high esteem? Firstly, because while people might be easily misled and apathetic, but they are not stupid. Anyone can see that solar and wind are excellent technologies.

Secondly, it is due to the effort of two organisations that I donate my time to: Beyond Zero Emissions and the 100% Renewable Campaign. Both organisations have given more constructive momentum to the climate debate in Australia than the government or the traditional environmental NGOs.

But more must be done if the CEFC and the Renewable Energy Target are to be protected. It is necessary to present the electorate with the real world choice we face. The constantly dropping costs of renewable energy must be showcased frequently and clearly. With the right campaign effort, killing off renewables will come to be seen as a crazy form of political suicide

Saving the debate

Renewable energy is the technological core of the transition to a healthy, post-carbon economy. This fact has seemingly been forgotten by the thousands of well meaning climate NGOs and experts who have been drawn into the vortex of the UN climate process.

Thanks to Beyond Zero Emissions, 100% Renewable Campaign and the Greens, Australia is moving the conversation away from the carbon fetish and towards renewables, where it should be. The core of the CEF agreement is renewable energy, and that is what will power most of the emissions reduction. The carbon price starts at $23, which is not high enough to bring on solar and wind by itself, so it should be seen as a support mechanism. The carbon price provides a small but important economic signal and raises funds for RE acceleration.

This technology-centred approach could save the UNFCCC, which is far too broad, slow and unenforceable. The climate treaty being negotiated in Durban was written in 1992. It is clear that we would have been better spending the last 20 years accelerating the progress of proven solar and wind renewables, rather than the toothless, complex climate agreement we have today.

If we had simply focused on renewables, they would now be cheaper than coal and gas and we could let the market solve the problem. This would free up the UN to address complex issues of industrial production and agriculture and how to protect our forests and oceans.

The opposition in Australia probably won't wake up to this anytime soon, but it could. A sensible opposition would look to today’s wind and solar technologies for new financial opportunities, cleaner power, innovation and climate security.

A carbon price should not be seen as the only response to the global climate disaster we're heading for, otherwise the garbage put out by the polluters will crowd out reason and responsible action.

(These poll questions were asked in the weekly omnibus conducted by Essential Research from 27th to 31st July 2011 and is based on 1,019 respondents. The survey was conducted online.)

Dan Cass started Dan Cass & Co in 2010 to provide lobbying and campaign services to renewable energy firms. He is a Director of Hepburn Wind, Australia's first community-owned wind farm.

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