The UN calls time on our carbon wars

While carbon trench warfare rules in Canberra, power supply is in a world of trouble. The UN's position shows it's time to disarm.

In parliament, there are dozens of ‘friendship groups’ in which cross-party backbenchers get together to agree that something is a Very Good Idea. Never mind if their leaders won’t do anything about it.

Labor MP Michael Danby runs a group on Tibet. Liberal Kelly O’Dwyer and Labor’s Amanda Rishworth have one promoting women in science, maths and engineering. There are groups focused on men’s sheds, mental illness, dyslexia, the Antarctic – you name it.

But you won’t find one on energy policy or climate change in the official parliamentary list

That’s a pity, really, when Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd nearly got a friendly approach to these core issues off the ground with the bipartisan carbon pollution reduction scheme in 2009. 

Since that time, the major parties at both state and federal levels have done their best to turn these two issues into lethal political weapons.

If power costs increase, gullible Australians believe it’s all down to Labor’s price on carbon. Or if power costs rise, it’s down to vote-buying solar subsidies by state governments.

And to state the bleeding obvious, if something nasty happens in the natural environment – the tragic bushfires sweeping NSW being the latest example – it either is, or isn’t connected to climate change, depending on which party you joined back at university.

Both the federal government and opposition are avoiding suggesting the fires are due to climate change, though UN climate chief Christiana Figueres has not been shy about linking the two.

Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten can’t say this as they’d lose support from Australian voters, but Figueres has no interest in Australian votes – she wants to use Australia as a graphic example of what will happen elsewhere if current climate modelling is on the money.

And Figueres knows that Australia is an unusual country when it comes to climate change policy. As overseas commentators often remark (as did the head of the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change Lord Deben recently), Australia leads the world in giving air-time and column-inches to under-qualified commentators to rubbish the views of highly credentialled scientists (The Palmer 'Six Pack' may not be easy to control, October 10).

Australia is also a world leader in casting the climate change debate as a ‘socialist conspiracy’, while elsewhere conservatives lead the charge in doing something about it.

In Britain, there is now talk of a ‘new dawn’ for nuclear power as the best solution to reduce carbon emissions. The first reactor to be built in a generation is planned for rural Somerset, and will supply 7 per cent of Britain’s power. Another new reactor is being discussed to follow in quick succession.

As UK commentator Michael Hanlon puts it: “Decades of dithering by successive governments – Labour, Tory and Coalition – and cowardice in the face of illogical protests along with a supine acceptance of dubious arguments made by an aggressive and well-organised Green lobby, has left Britain’s once proud nuclear industry an embarrassing shadow of its former self.”

Turning that situation around is a Tory project, and one that aggressively seeks to stamp out Green dissent. Doesn’t sound like a socialist conspiracy to me.

Meanwhile, back in the land of carbon trench warfare, while Labor and the Coalition try to blame each other for rooking the consumer to pay for flawed schemes  – Labor by taxing polluters who pass costs onto consumers, and the Coalition by taxing consumers directly – the other side of the equation, power supply, is in a world of trouble.

Electricity demand is falling, well ahead of government projections that came with Labor’s Clean Energy Futures package in 2012. This is due to a stagnant economy affecting business consumption levels, but also the ‘irrational’ love of consumers for rooftop solar.

A million homes now have panels on their roofs and sell their extra power back into the grid to reduce their power bills via feed in tariffs.

The Australian Energy Market Commission now says that these bill-dodging power users may have to be charged extra to stay connected to the grid, because they are in effect being subsidised by the householders who can’t afford, or don’t want, rooftop solar.

The Australian quotes an as-yet unpublished AEMC report that states: “Stakeholders are concerned that network costs of consumers with solar PV are cross-subsidised by other consumers, due to current inefficiencies in network tariffs. Where tariffs are based on the volumes of energy drawn from the grid, such consumers benefit from having the network infrastructure available without paying as much for that network as those without solar PV."

So while the climate change wars rage in Canberra, consumers are both addressing their carbon footprint and destroying the economic model that underpins centralised, transmitted power – the model that was so obviously a good thing when coal could be burned without any thought for its global social costs.

This is both good and bad news for environment minister Greg Hunt. The good news is that his expensive (in per tonne terms) Direct Action plan is likely to hit the bi-partisan target of a 5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, but due to economic stagnation and voluntary ‘direct action’ by households – not because it's a good policy.

The bad news is that the economic viability of coal- and gas-fired energy providers is being wrecked. To stay in business they must keep raising prices, even though getting rid of the carbon price was supposed to allow them to do the opposite.

The real question – the kind of  question a Turnbull-Rudd friendship group might address – is how the economics of baseload power can be freed from any particular fuel source, made ‘technology agnostic’ (one of Turnbull’s favourite phrases with the NBN) and still permit a steady shift to non-carbon energy sources to reflect global developments.

And who knows, they might even choose to follow the Brits and look at the nuclear option?

Instead, turning these issues into political weapons month after month, the major parties ensure the opposite outcome will come to pass – to borrow another ‘nuclear’ term, that means mutually assured destruction.