CLIMATE SPECTATOR: The Australian's fear of reds under the bed

The Australian's front page critique of wind energy on Friday was the latest in a series of embarrassing errors when it comes to climate change and renewable energy.

Climate Spectator

On Friday, The Australian newspaper dedicated front page coverage to a United Kingdom study that claimed that, in Britain, using wind turbines to cut emissions costs 10 times the price of a gas-fired power station. Such a claim is not correct for Australian circumstances. But what I find remarkable is why The Australian considered such a study to be front page news.

There are more than 50 Australian economic modelling studies (my hard drive holds 730 megabytes worth) – prepared by a range of highly credible sources – that examine the relative costs of wind versus alternative power sources, specifically for Australian conditions. The Australian could have chosen from the Australian Energy Market Operator, the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, Access Economics, CSIRO, Carbon Market Economics, the Treasury, the Electric Power Research Institute, several of Australia’s major electricity companies, and even ACIL Tasman (who they have cheerfully and uncritically quoted on countless occasions in the past when they have been commissioned by the Coal Association and the oil and gas industry).

If they had bothered to pick up any single one of these studies they would have found the claim of a tenfold cost difference to be profoundly exaggerated.

Yet the paper decided a study analysing UK conditions and prepared for a lobby group (The Global Warming Policy Foundation) that is obviously dedicated to undermining the case for action to reduce carbon emission, was not just news, but front page news. I would have perhaps understood such a response to an international study if it had been prepared by the International Energy Agency, or the OECD, or the UK’s peak scientific body, the Royal Society. But the Global Warming Policy Foundation?

This report was supported by commentary by their environment reporter, Graham Lloyd, headed ‘An Industry Running out of Puff’. In it he suggests that community opposition to wind farms and health fears about wind turbines are widespread, major problems afflicting the wind industry. No mention is made of the CSIRO study that found that opposition within local communities hosting wind farms in Australia is largely exaggerated. Nor does it mention that many thousands of people in Denmark have been living in close proximity to wind turbines for more than a decade without ill-effect.

The cost of producing power from wind does cost noticeably more than gas in Australian conditions. Based on my own review of a very wide range of sources incorporating the most up-to-date data available, the cost of producing electricity from wind farms in Australia is around $90 to $120 per MWh. For a combined cycle gas plant in eastern Australia the price required to make a new plant viable is around $70 to $80 per MWh. It would be entirely legitimate for The Australian to point out that there are cheaper ways of reducing emissions in Australia in the short-term than deploying wind power. But instead they chose to prominently publicise a costing from the UK that is wrong, and for which there were other better sources of information readily available.

If this was an isolated case from The Australian then one could just pass this off as ‘slow news day desperation’. But the embarrassing errors have been systematic and long-running. Below are some stand-out examples, but there are enough to fill a book.

In an editorial on January 12, 2006 the newspaper got smog confused with the greenhouse effect and then proceeded to knowingly explain that not enough was known about the science behind global warming to justify strong immediate action. That not enough is known about global warming might be true, but only for The Australian editorial writer who clearly hadn't even undertaken a cursory level of research into the topic.

Just three months out from the 2007 federal election, The Australian ran a story with the headline, ‘Climate expert backs Canberra’. In the article it was claimed that the head of the IPCC, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, "backed the Howard Government's decision to defer setting a long-term target for reducing greenhouse emissions until the full facts are known.”

Dr Pachauri was sufficiently unimpressed that he wrote a letter to the newspaper stating:

"I am writing to convey my deep disappointment at the news report in your newspaper…Nothing that I said in my telephone interview with Mr Matthew Warren implied or even remotely conveyed that I supported or opposed the Australian Government's policies on climate change. I am surprised that a very general opinion that I expressed without reference to any country was twisted around to create the impression that I supported the current government's stance on climate change.”

And in an editorial on April 4, 2011 and another article by Graham Lloyd on April 9, they cited a report I co-authored to suggest the Renewable Energy Target be dismantled. Graham Lloyd stated:

"Despite some wildly enthusiastic claims, present renewable technologies are not yet advanced enough to replace fossil fuels for base load power. And government programs to promote them are either too clumsy or poorly targeted ...This is particularly the case in Australia where a report this week by the Grattan Institute lifted the lid on how the hundreds of millions of dollars promised by government for renewable programs is being recycled rather than spent. The report found that, on average, for every $1 million the government has announced under its $7 billion of grant tendering programs, only $30,000 of operational projects result within five years and only $180,000 within 10 years.”

Yet what the report I wrote actually found was that the Renewable Energy Target was one of the very few success stories in Australia’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. And the grant tendering programs Lloyd was citing as evidence against supporting renewable energy for the most part allocated money to support fossil fuel projects not renewable energy.

Why do they commit such obvious errors? An editorial on January 14, 2006 provides a critical insight, ".. support for Kyoto cloaks the green movement's real desire – to see capitalism stop succeeding.”

Unfortunately, it appears that The Australian has fallen victim to the ‘global warming as communist plot’ syndrome, which I wrote about last week (Why is climate change seen as a communist plot?, March 5). These ideological blinkers cause them to look at climate change issues in an irrational, mistake-ridden manner.

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