Hewson's view: Coalition forfeits right to govern without effective climate action plan

'Fair dinkum power': Prime Minister Scott Morrison in front of the Tumut 3 power station at the Snowy Hydro Scheme in Talbingo, on Tuesday where he announced a further $1.3 billion investment into the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project. Picture: Lukas Coch
'Fair dinkum power': Prime Minister Scott Morrison in front of the Tumut 3 power station at the Snowy Hydro Scheme in Talbingo, on Tuesday where he announced a further $1.3 billion investment into the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project. Picture: Lukas Coch

The last week has seen a flurry of announcements by the Morrison government in relation to the challenge of climate change.

This is a clear recognition of the likely significance of the issue in the election now scheduled for May. It acknowledges the consistent message from many polls and surveys in recent years that some 70-80 per cent of voters want government-led, decisive action on climate change, including a transition pathway to lower emissions and a greater reliance on renewables.

It also acknowledges, although they didn’t admit it at the time, the significance of the climate issue in the recent Wentworth by-election, which saw a swing against the government of nearly 20 per cent, and the loss of what they had taken for granted as a “safe” Liberal seat. Some backbenchers in particular, have been very concerned that the government appeared divided on the issue, without anything that resembles a climate action strategy.

However, the “grab bag” of initiatives announced in recent days wouldn’t really convince anyone that the government has developed an effective response – rather just a political exercise to try to look like they are “doing something”.

Morrison has been claiming that we will meet our Paris commitment to reduce emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2030 “in a canter”. His statements this week reveal that he is relying on past reductions/abatement achieved under the Kyoto Protocol 2005 base ratified by the Rudd government, rather than to meet the Paris requirement of emissions reductions from the 2005 base. In effect, this would lower our 2030 target to a reduction of about 12.5 per cent.

However, there is no overarching, whole economy, emissions reduction strategy that doesn’t just concentrate on electricity (which is only about one third of total emissions), but covers transport (about another third), agriculture and other industries etc. For example, we burn the dirtiest petrol of all OECD countries, yet there are no emissions standards.

Morrison also committed some $2 billion over 10 years to an emissions reduction fund, which some in the media have described as “putting lipstick on Abbott’s pig” – a reference to the fact that it is really just an extension of what was the key element of Abbott’s Direct Action Plan, which essentially paid for all sorts of little schemes or paid polluters to reduce their pollution.

While some can see Snowy Hydro 2.0 as a possible benefit as a “storage or battery solution”, to provide power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, the government won’t release the cost/benefit assessment to demonstrate its commercial viability.

The government has already spent/committed some $6 billion in buying out the states and committing base equity. The actual cost of Snowy Hydro could be at least double that, and take many years getting all the environmental and other approvals. It is also annoying that the government hasn’t considered alternative, cheaper, less geographically specific, alternatives, such as a series of thermal storage nodes along the grid.

Another element of Morrison’s flurry is a proposal for a new power connection between Tasmania and the mainland to deliver Tasmania’s vast renewable energy resources, at a cost of upwards of $3 billion. The old one, Bass Link, was burned out some years ago.

However, as the feasibility study suggests, this project would only be viable if there was an accelerated shutdown of existing coal fired power stations and assumes we have a target to reduce emissions by some 52 per cent by 2030, double the Paris commitment - essentially what the Opposition has been calling for. Of course, the government denies this reality.

Overall, this is not a realistic, or comprehensive, or deliverable package. Ask the obvious question – is this projected waste of taxpayers’ money simply an attempt to identify projects that they believe may be popular in key marginal seats?

It certainly sits at odds with the reality of a renewable energy future that many in the government still fight against, and still dream of new coal fired power plants, even though a very large number of international banks will no longer fund them, and insurance companies won’t insure them.

The voters will demonstrate that a government that doesn’t have an effective climate action plan forfeits its right to govern.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

The 'grab bag' of initiatives announced in recent days wouldn’t really convince anyone.