(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Clyde Russell
LAUNCESTON, Australia, Nov 23 (Reuters) - - 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.
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 be threatened.
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 electricity generation.
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 renewable power.
Editing by Himani Sarkar