Understanding Australia’s Tepid Attitude Towards Renewable Energy

Renewable energy in Australia is facing a crisis of confidence, instead of utilizing Australia’s vast renewable energy potential, Australia’s political elite have instead turned towards the coal and natural gas industry to provide for Australia’s energy needs.

Since 2013, the Liberal National Coalition has retained government in Australia under Tony Abbot and Malcolm Turnbull. During this period, the fledgling Minerals Resource Rent Tax was repealed, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was scrapped and the renewable energy sector endured a political smear campaign and numerous large-scale funding cuts.

In 2015, wind energy and rooftop photovoltaic technology lost government support and funding after the Federal Government declared that they were not emerging technologies.

In 2016, the Federal Government (now under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull) cut $435 million from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s funding.

As recently as February 19, 2017, Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg affirmed his desire to reduce renewable energy targets in Australian states, potentially violating Australia’s commitment to the 2016 Paris Agreement and increase Australia’s dependence on coal fired power plants across the nation. Despite Australia’s ideal environmental conditions for renewable energy infrastructure, Australian politicians are putting coal and natural gas at the forefront of the national energy plan. While the rest of the world is recognising the threat of climate change and the economic perils of non-renewable fossil fuel reliance, Australia is lagging increasingly far behind.

Coal fired power station into atmosphere

Comparison with the Rest of the World

Support for renewable energy technology and clean energy initiatives are scarce prospects in Australia. For years, Australia has portrayed itself internationally as a highly affluent, forward thinking and responsible member of the global community. However, the Australian Government’s sceptical approach to climate change and renewable energy development is not only economically illogical, it is also tremendously irresponsible and dangerous. Australia has been ranked 15th in the G20 countries in terms of climate change action [1]. In comparison with the developed and developing world, Australia is embarrassingly far behind in terms of private and public investment in clean energy, commitment to worthwhile renewable energy targets and regional leadership on the pressing issue of climate change.

The policies and economic action of Bhutan, Denmark, Germany and China emphasise just how far behind Australia has become in regard to renewable energy infrastructure and development. Bhutan, a small Asian country located within the Himalayas, produces energy through hydropower and other renewable initiatives. Bhutan is a carbon sink; the country’s forests sequester over 6 million tonnes of carbon every year in comparison to the 1.5 million tonnes of yearly carbon emissions [2]. Australia’s larger size and population cannot be used as an excuse to justify its deplorable lack of support for renewable energy. Comparatively, the world’s most populous country, China, is the world leader in renewable energy research, development and construction. Between 2016 and 2020, China intends to spend $361 billion on maintaining and expanding its diverse renewable energy infrastructure [3]. Since 2015, China has successfully integrated ‘green’ investment into its economy, limited yearly fossil fuel usage and guaranteed long term energy security. In 2016 alone, China expanded its renewable energy capacity by over 34GW [4]. In comparison, Australia plans to expand its own capacity by 14GW over a ten-year period [5]. Australia’s barebones commitment to renewable energy development stands in sharp contrast to growing global accountability and awareness of the dangers of fossil fuel reliance.

solar and ind power needed in Australia

Australia’s Solar and Wind Potential

It is predicted that, if properly utilised and developed, Australia could use solar and wind energy to supply Australia with its energy requirements several times over. Australia has the world’s highest incident solar radiation per square metre [6]. Moreover, Australia also has considerable wind resources: most of Queensland, elevated parts of New South Wales and vast areas of Western Australia record consistently high wind speed throughout the year. Using wind power alone, Australia would be able to generate enough energy to meet the nation’s electricity demands [7]. While Australia fixates on coal mines and gas pipelines, renewable energy infrastructure is fast becoming a profitable international industry. Australia is extremely affluent, contains vast tracts of vacant land and has excellent solar and wind resources in comparison to the rest of the world. The question must then be asked, why has Australia failed to capitalise on such a privileged position to become a global leader in renewable energy?

We need to move quickly toward renewable energy sources
Failure of Australia’s Political System

Australia is currently under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal National Coalition. During a period of rising unemployment and debilitating energy costs, Australia’s renewable energy sector is consistently used as a scapegoat for rising electricity costs. For example, former Prime Minister Tony Abbot was widely criticized by technical professionals and climate scientists when he raised concerns about wind turbines on a morning radio show, saying: “Up close, they’re ugly, they’re noisy and they may have all sorts of other impacts” [8]. Outraged members of the general public were quick to point out the unsightly aspects of mines, quarries, smokestacks and coal power plants. In a recent book launch, former PM, Mr Abbot, criticised the current Government’s commitment to (insufficient) renewable energy targets and accused Prime Minister Turnbull of “pandering to climate change theology” [9]. This kind of uneducated and misleading analysis is unforgiveable from a graduate of Oxford University and former Rhodes Scholar. Global warming and its affects are an observable phenomenon and human industry, transport and electricity generation have undeniably changed the Earth’s atmospheric composition. Increased levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (such as CO2 and methane) leads to a warming feedback loop, causing heightened atmospheric energy, rising sea levels and reduced rainfall.

According to the Australian Government, the large scale blackout in South Australia on September 28, 2016, was caused by the state’s high reliance on renewable energy sources. Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull was quick to use the highly publicised blackout to criticise the South Australian State Government’s investment in renewable technology. In actuality, the failure of the South Australian energy grid was largely due to storm damage affecting interconnecting transmission lines and there is very little evidence that the blackout was worsened as a result of South Australia’s extensive renewable energy infrastructure.

The Australian Electoral Office has very loosely defined laws on political donations. Multi-billion dollar corporations like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and BP donate massive sums of money to the Liberal National Coalition and Labor Party. From 2013 to 2016, the Liberal National Coalition has accepted over $2.5 million in political donations from fossil fuel companies while the Labor Party has accepted over 1.1 million [10]. The influence of the mining and energy industry on Australia’s election campaigns is undeniable.

Both of Australia’s major political parties are unwilling to commit to a large scale move towards renewable energy in Australia; instead, continual support and subsidisation of the fossil fuel industry appears to be the long term plan for both the Australian Government and the Opposition. While minority political parties like the Australian Greens are committed to tackling the issue of climate change and understand the need to embrace renewable energy, there are other outlier parties within Australia that actually promote climate change scepticism. For instance, the disturbing surge in support for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party has put individuals like Senator Malcolm Roberts in positions of authority. A former coalminer, Senator Roberts has ludicrously described climate change as “A gigantic hoax perpetrated by the United Nations to introduce an antihuman socialist New World Order, aided by bankers and politicians” [11]. Many Australian politicians like Mr Roberts are actively propagating misinformation in regards to climate change and renewable energy. Scientific evidence, analysis and recommendations are freely available through reports like the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessment reports yet Australia’s elected officials continue to mislead the public.

The effects of global warming are no longer forthcoming, anthropogenic climate change has become a contemporary issue facing Australia and the rest of the world. The longer we wait, debate and stubbornly cling to specious reasoning and conservative populism, the greater the impact will be. Australia is the most prosperous and least populous country in the Pacific region. Rising sea levels will drive climate refugees from Kiribati, Micronesia and other Pacific Island nations to Australia. Despite the availability of fact based evidence, research, feasible technology and economic benefits, Australia’s politicians continue to be more concerned with securing re-election in their local electorate rather than enacting meaningful legislation to mitigate the effects of climate change. Australian politicians have a responsibility to be informed of the global consequences of climate chance, mitigating the effects of global warming will require substantial monetary cost but in the long term, making hard choices now will save billions of dollars and millions of lives.

by Alex Burns
By Alex Burns

Alex is currently nearing the final stages of university life, and will graduate with a dual-degree in Geospatial Engineering and International Relations. He is passionate about travelling, modern history and contemporary social issues. When he isn’t maniacally attacking a keyboard, he spends his time exploring Sydney, butchering the Spanish language and unsuccessfully learning to cook.

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Reference List

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/17/australia-ranked-among-worst-developed-countries-for-climate-change-action
[2] http://www.ecowatch.com/this-country-isnt-just-carbon-neutral-its-carbon-negative-1882195367.html
[3] http://www.dw.com/en/china-to-invest-360-bln-in-renewable-power-in-2016-2020/a-37031957
[4] http://reneweconomy.com.au/china-solar-wind-capacity-crosses-200gw-25905/
[5] https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australias-renewable-energy-wars-how-do-our- targets-compare-internationally
[6] http://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/energy/resources/other-renewable-energy-resources
[7] https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/40851/3/SolarElec.pdf
[8] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-12/tony-abbott-launches-another-attack-against-wind-farms/6541952
[9] http://theconversation.com/tony-abbott-says-governments-challenge-is-to-be-worth-voting-for-73545
[10] http://greens.org.au/dirty-donations
[11] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/true-disbeliever-senator-malcolm-roberts-crusade/news-story/0fd975d7b278dcb6a7d627ca2e62ee3e

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