The Australian Government is undermining climate action.

The Australian government is posing as an active proponent of climate action both at Copenhagen and at home. But, behind the fine words, symbolic gestures and (mostly unfulfilled) 2007 election promises, its actual strategies and policies are serving the Greenhouse Mafia, that is, the vested interests in coal, oil, centralised electricity generation, aluminium, steel, cement, motor vehicles, forestry and agriculture.

In Copenhagen the government’s negotiators advocated rule changes entailing that land use changes that produce carbon pollution are not counted, while land-based carbon sinks are. This would mean that most of Australia’s reduction targets could be met through changes to agricultural practices rather than
reductions in fossil fuel use.

At home the government has been trying to push through Parliament an emissions trading scheme (ETS) that would lock-in dirty coal-fired power stations and an expansion of emissions-intensive trade-exposed (EITE) industries (notably aluminium) for at least another decade, while rewarding these greenhouse-intensive industries with billions of dollars of tax-payers’ money. This scheme is unlikely to achieve any emission reductions in Australia, since the few greenhouse polluters that would have to purchase emission permits could buy cheap offsets overseas from schemes of dubious effectiveness.

With the support of the Coalition, the government has succeeded in passing through Parliament an expanded Renewable Energy Target (RET) designed in such a way that it cannot achieve its stated goal of 20% renewable electricity by 2020. This is because the RET allows solar and electric heat pump hot water, and ‘phantom’ (non-existent) residential solar electricity systems created under the Solar Credits Scheme, to count towards the target. The immediate result has been a collapse in the price of Renewable Energy Certificates (which provide a subsidy for residential renewable electricity and hot water) and a RET that in effect squeezes out large-scale renewable electricity. Already the manufacturers of wind turbine components, such as Keppel Prince, are on the point of laying off hundreds of workers, and the bio-electricity power stations at Condong and Broadwater are heading for bankruptcy.

The solutions to these problems should be obvious:

  • Either reform the ETS by strengthening the target, requiring all emission permits to be auctioned and disallowing overseas offsets, or replace the ETS with a carbon tax with border tax adjustments for
    EITE industries.
  • Either reform the RET to become a genuine renewable electricity target, by removing solar and heat pump hot water and phantom solar electric systems from it, or replace it with national gross feed-in tariffs for renewable electricity systems of all types and scales.
  • Even if the RET is reformed as suggested here, it would only assist wind, bio-electricity and residential solar electricity. National feed-in tariffs are still needed for the more expensive renewable
    electricity sources of high potential, such as large-scale solar and geothermal power.
  • Solar hot water should be assisted by state governments, by removing all local government requirements for planning permission for these systems.
  • Sources and sinks of emissions from land-use change should be accounted for separately from fossil fuel emissions, which can be measured accurately.