How can we deliver climate progress from the next three years of Government?

The entirely foreseeable result of Saturday’s Federal election has installed a Prime Minister whose sanguine views on the seriousness of climate change are well known. Prime Minister Abbott has made it clear that the first order of business for his Government is the repeal of Australia’s carbon pricing mechanism. While that may be a great deal easier said than done, no one can doubt the seriousness of the intent or the pre-eminence of the policy for this incoming Government.

This provides a stress-test for those concerned about our climate. Do we rail for policy and political change? Or do we press for climate advantage? Can we do both? Should we?

Carbon pricing was implemented on the back of the high water mark of public concern on climate change from around 2006/2007. I maintain a position of straightforward support for the pricing of greenhouse gas emissions. As a fundamental principle of both sustainability and economics, the effective internalisation of the costs of environmental externalities makes a great deal of sense as a central platform for effective action on climate change. It is also utterly diabolical politics. It is also not everything in terms of progress on climate change, and never was.

Which brings us to now, and what we can achieve for the climate over the next three years.

Pushing for the Abbott Government to take climate change more seriously, in either rhetoric or policy, will be a classic case of asking the dog to set the dinner table. The problem lies with expectations, and we would be fools to be disappointed with the result.

The temptation for many is probably to spend three years digging in and fighting the Abbott Government’s climate policy, and working for a return to power of Labor. That seems reasonable so long as we bear in mind what we are defending: an emissions trading scheme that has been linked to the broken European ETS; a Government that kept saying the right things as it progressively lost nerve on the climate issue itself; a Government that wanted to grow Australia’s coal exports; and a Government that planned to meet our 2050 emissions reduction targets via massive purchases of overseas carbon credits, rather than actual decarbonisation of the Australian economy.

To those who would point at The Greens as our champions, I offer two reminders. Firstly, the linkage to the European ETS was supported by The Greens and trumpeted as a triumph for Australia’s carbon pricing, despite it pushing the price to the floor. Perhaps they were hoping for the EU to remedy the absurd over-allocation of permits within the scheme to shore up the price. If so, their hope was misplaced, and politics beat carbon pricing again.

Secondly, I personally discovered that their climate change and energy plan rides on a wing and a prayer. Their rhetoric of “climate emergency” is hollow.

A remaining option makes a great deal of sense from the point of view of climate change and is likely to be too confronting for many. Instead of focussing on fighting a person or a party that hold a different point of view of the problem, focus on working with them to progress a powerful solution in the form of nuclear power.

The Coalition Government, and Tony Abbott, are on the record as having a more supportive position on nuclear power than any other major party. The former Coalition Government of John Howard delivered the UMPNER report, outlining the case and steps for an Australian nuclear power industry in some detail (As an aside, at this time I was an anti-nuclear Howard-hater. I’m honestly not sure which drove which).

The deployment of nuclear power in Australia to replace ageing coal plants has the potential to take mighty bites our of our emission profile, for 60 or more years at a time. It also has important political advantages. This Government can support this solution without needing to effect a massive level of concern about climate change. It is well-priced, predictable, reliable generation that is very clean (from an air pollution point of view) and will plug relatively simply into our existing system. That it will also drive deep and lasting reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions… well, that’s a bonus isn’t it?

Nuclear power has been demonstrated to be the fastest and most comprehensive replacement for fossil fuels
Nuclear power has been demonstrated to be the fastest and most comprehensive replacement for fossil fuels. Image by Geoff Russell

Even better, politically speaking, important early steps don’t really need a Government to do anything. Removal of the arbitrary barriers prohibiting nuclear power, pushing back against the obvious kybosh that has kept many public organisations from considering nuclear power in planning, and a message to global business that we are open for consideration of their product will be enough to get started. Asking this Government to eliminate arbitrary obstacles to certain technology investments is a request that is consistent with their values.

The cheapest form of new-build electricity in Australia will be wind power and nuclear power. There is no economic argument to not using both
The cheapest form of new-build electricity in Australia will be wind power and nuclear power. There is no economic argument to not using both

Putting climate pragmatism over partisan politics will be a bridge too far for many Australians. That’s symptomatic of how many environmentalists are addicted to the ego-thrill of fighting, forgetting that the idea is to win.

Hopefully, many others will see it differently. We have an important opportunity to secure climate advantage in the next three years. If the vehicle is a Government that voices less concern on the issue itself, then so be it. If we want to de-politicise serious action on climate change, then it’s time to be the change we wish to see.

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  1. As I have stated before, putting much hope in the Coalition progressing nuclear power politics in Australia is probably short-sighted. Only the ALP can successfully reform itself to create a bipartisan consensus in favour of nuclear power. Only the ALP could broker the Accord, float the dollar, lower the tariff barriers. Tony hasn’t got the skills to create a consensus on this issue, he’s not a uniter, I really fear that this would be taken up as a wedge issue by the Coalition, and opposition would deepen. It’s very open to a fear campaign. Still, we can live in hope.

    PS where did that energy technology assessments diagram come from? It suggests that combined cycle and/or supercritical lignite has an emissions intensity over 1 tonne/Mwh. This is the current benchmark for Loy Yang’s current operations, so it can’t be right.

  2. Unfortunately the clean energy debate may degenerate into ‘us vs. them’ so even a good LNP idea may create a kneejerk reaction. With two Palmer party MPs the coal lobby is also well entrenched. For nuclear to get a look in several things have to happen.
    – legislation has to be changed
    – the huge cost advantage of uncarbontaxed coal ($45/Mwh) needs challenging
    – financial risk needs to be lowered with indemnities and loan guarantees.
    Never mind that wind and solar have had a cushy deal for several years. On the other hand if the east Australian gas price doubles after Gladstone LNG export begins then lite-coal users like SA and Tas will be disadvantaged.

    I think there’s a good chance Abbott could be out in a year if the Senate rejects carbon tax repeal. The public will punish him if he insists on a double dissolution. Until the dust settles no investor is going to spend a $1bn or more on a SMR with on-again, off-again policies. There’s going to be a lot of acrimony before that dust settles.

    1. I feel like I have to repeat myself, but there will never be a DD election. If you think the fruitcakes came out in force this time around, they would be worse next time, with only half the quota required. Whenever a political journo mentions DD elections without scoffing, you know they’re clueless.

  3. Abbott doesn’t seem like the compromising type to me. He’s asked the ALP/Greens to accept the will of the people but he didn’t do that mid 2008 if I recall when the CPRS was tabled. If the sporting motorist senators or whomever don’t agree to c.t. repeal I don’t see what else Abbott can do.

    But wait now Clive Palmer wants the c.t. handed back to the coal generators, some $13 bn I think it was in the first year. I note pro-nuclear Senator Bob Carr may step aside for pro-nuclear unionist Paul Howes. However Albanese who wants to head the ALP is anti-nuclear.

    Meanwhile other websites merrily publish articles saying renewables will save us with no mention of the subsidies and mandates which are clearly now off the table. I doubt Australia is ready for a level headed debate any time soon.

  4. It’s a matter of approach.

    Firstly, you could make a damn good case for ‘direct action’ funding.

    Secondly, approach it from the ‘reduction in pollution’ angle rather than CO2 angle. The coalition is looking for measures that provide other benefits, so give them other benefits.

    Third, energy security and diversity is important to them.

    As I’ve maintained, nuclear is advantaged by the climate change meme, but it’s case is not built upon it. It’s those other aspects that you need to sell, and just treat climate change outcomes as a bonus.

    1. Ditto. With the general public pollution reduction is a safer argument than climate change and CO2 emissions. Pollution enables advocates to demonstrate that Nuclear has negligible pollutants as all potential pollution is captured on site in highly engineered cannisters by skilled engineering professionals.

      Throw in some electricity price analysis and Nuclear can have a solid argument. That I am afraid is a tricky thing to do. I have recently discovered the Australian Energy Regulators reports on the energy market are a good source of understanding how our market works.

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