(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a
columnist for Reuters.)
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia Nov 23 - How do you go
from being the worst per capita polluter to among the lowest in
just 15 years? The Australian Greens believe they have the
answer, and surprisingly it could actually work, as long as it's
tweaked to find some role for coal and natural gas.
At the outset, it's worth noting that the Greens' vision has
virtually no chance of becoming government policy, given the
party holds only one seat in Australia's lower house of
parliament and just 10 of the 76 in the upper house Senate.
But in releasing their policy on Nov. 22, just ahead of next
month's Paris Climate Conference - known as COP21, the Greens
are certainly putting the issue of what actions a top polluter
such as Australia should take on the agenda.
Among the 15 biggest polluters worldwide, Australia has the
highest per capita emissions, ahead of Canada, the United States
and Saudi Arabia, according to Australia's Climate Change
Authority that advises the government.
However, on a total emissions basis, Australia ranks 13th,
with emissions totalling just less than 6 percent of those of
top polluter China.
Australia's conservative Liberal Party government has
pledged to cut carbon emissions by 28 percent from 2005 levels
by 2030, a target the Climate Change Authority says is not
enough if the country wants to help meet a global plan to limit
warming by 2 degrees centigrade versus the pre-industrial era.
This target is well below the 41 percent reduction by 2030
from 2005 levels pledged by the United States, while China has
said its emissions will peak by 2030 and decline thereafter.
Australia is currently on track to meet its relatively low
target, but this is being achieved more by slower economic
growth and the loss of polluting industries rather than by a
major switch away from fossil fuels, which still accounts for
more than 80 percent of the country's power generation.
The Greens' document calls for Australia to use renewables
for 90 percent of its energy generation by 2030, which the party
claims is needed to limit global warming to a lower 1.5 degrees
centigrade by 2040.
This sounds completely unobtainable, but the Greens believe
it can be achieved with the right combination of government
policies and industry incentives.
They call for a new government authority, called
RenewAustralia, with a budget of A$500 million ($350 million) to
drive the process, which they believe will create jobs and
increased economic prosperity.
At the heart of the Greens' thinking is the view that
Australia is rich territory for their preferred renewable
sources - solar, wind and waves.
The plan calls for the government to drive investment in
large-scale renewable projects, in conjunction with industry,
while also encouraging households and other property owners to
go off-grid and install their own solar and battery systems.
AMBITION TO RUN INTO REALITY
It's here that the plan may run into some harsh realities.
The Greens recognise that market forces won't be able to
accomplish such a large switch in how electricity is generated,
so it will most likely have to be done through policy mandates.
While investing billions of dollars in solar power plants,
wind farms and battery storage is possible, it will come at a
cost to the national budget that may be too much to bear,
without committing political suicide by raising taxes.
The Greens also believe that companies will be willing
investors into such projects, and there is a large pool of
pension savings ready to be committed as well.
But companies and fund managers will only invest if there is
a strong business case, and that likely means guaranteeing
revenue, which may make it hard for the Greens to meet their
target of renewable energy that is actually cheaper than the
existing largely coal-fired fleet.
It's also the Greens' view that coal should be left in the
ground, as should natural gas, and under any Greens government
the future of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports would
But this would render useless hundreds of billions of
dollars in fixed assets, such as mines, railways, processing
plants and ports.
This would drive many companies into bankruptcy and also
result in foreign investors fleeing Australia because of
unacceptable political risk.
Instead, a more realistic plan would call for coal to be
used, albeit in a much more environmentally friendly way.
Such a plan could include using renewable energy to power
coal-to-liquids plants, which would dramatically reduce the
emissions created by the energy-intensive process of gasifying
coal, and then turning the gas into liquid fuels.
But where the Greens are correct is in thinking that coal is
an energy of the past, and this is something the Australian
government needs to recognise.
There will be tremendous first-mover advantage to countries
that move strongly toward renewables as the backbone of their
There is nothing wrong with a minor party coming up with a
policy document that is probably over-ambitious, and it could
serve to push a seemingly reluctant government to think harder
about its climate policies.
This is a debate that is not unique to Australia. Many
developed and developing nations are grappling with what they
should do, how big a renewable target is appropriate and how to
achieve whatever target is agreed upon.
In addition, climate politics has become very divisive,
witness the United States where President Barack Obama believes
climate change is the greatest challenge of our times, while
many of his opponents deny there is even a problem.
In this kind of environment, politicians are more likely to
play it safe rather than promote what their opponents could
easily demonize as radical policies.
For these reasons Australia is more likely to remain a
climate laggard, despite being one of the countries best
positioned to be a leader in the probably inevitable switch to
(Editing by Himani Sarkar)