On Monday, an opinion piece by Minister for Environment and Energy Josh Frydenberg, marked a transparent and disappointing return by the Coalition to the Tony Abbott approach to climate change and energy policy. Never mind the facts, just stoke fear and division while pretending that the current generation can blithely and ignore our responsibility to take action to protect the country for our children and grandchildren. Those in the business and broader community who were hoping for a more mature discussion will be disappointed by the Government’s return to a hard right – Trumpist agenda.
After the election in July, Labor welcomed Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to combine the Climate Change and Energy portfolios, and to appoint a new Minister in Josh Frydenberg. The appointment presented an opportunity for a fresh start in an area of policy that has been riven by conflict since Tony Abbott overthrew Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009. Business and environmental groups have consistently told me that they need the major parties to work towards the sort of consensus that will underpin the investment needed for Australia to resume its transition to a clean energy economy, while ensuring energy security and affordability.
But, for Mr Frydenberg’s appointment to mean anything, he and Mr Turnbull need to take a serious look at the policies they inherited from Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt. The first challenge for Josh Frydenberg is the demonstrated reality that the Liberal Party’s Direct Action Policy is failing to constrain, let alone reduce, Australia’s carbon pollution levels. Last year, Australia’s pollution levels started to rise again after coming down by 8% under the Labor Government. The Government’s own official data – slipped out during the election campaign – confirm that Australia’s pollution levels are rising for the first time in a decade and, by 2020, will be some 3% higher than 2000 levels, rather than the bipartisan commitment for them to be 5% lower. Australia is now pretty much the only major advanced economy where carbon pollution levels are growing.
The second legacy left to Josh Frydenberg by his predecessors is a collapse in renewable energy investment. In 2013, Australia was one of the four most attractive destinations for renewable energy investment in the world. Tony Abbott’s attacks on the renewable energy industry in 2014 saw investment collapse by 88%. Since 2013 global renewable energy jobs have grown by 45% to 9.4 million this year, but under the Coalition Australian renewable energy jobs have fallen by 17%. Abbott and Greg Hunt oversaw a resurgence of coal fired power with a resulting increase in carbon pollution from the electricity sector of almost 6% in just two years.
Australia has some of the best renewable energy resources in the world. With the right policy settings, we can again be one of the top four renewable energy jurisdictions. The growth of renewable energy is good for our economy, our environment and electricity consumers. Tony Abbott’s own handpicked panel to review the Renewable Energy Target confirmed that the growth of renewable energy puts downward pressure on wholesale power prices.
Reform in energy markets is tough work, but almost everyone agrees that real reform is essential and overdue. Labor took a policy to the recent election, largely welcomed by the business community, to conduct a thorough review of electricity market rules to ensure that they reflect the needs of 21st century consumers. In particular, market rules must reflect the modern imperative to move to an electricity system that relies on clean energy – as well as emerging trends like the spread of renewables technology, distributed generation and the coming wave of battery storage technology.
Australia also needs to develop a policy that will support the building of renewable energy projects beyond 2020. Labor took a policy at the last election to ensure that at least 50% of Australia’s electricity was generated from renewable energy by 2030 – a policy which has been estimated to create 28,000 new jobs, but one Malcom Turnbull described in the Parliament as ‘reckless’. But, the Coalition has no policy whatsoever to support the building of new renewable energy beyond the next three years.
Malcom Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg have the opportunity to make a fresh break from the hard line regressive policies on climate change and energy driven by their predecessors, Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt. They should resist the calls of Abbott and his supporters who read in the tea leaves of a Donald Trump Presidency permission to return to more fear and division.
If Australia is not able to build a policy platform in these areas that attracts agreement across party lines, we will continue to miss out on the huge investment and jobs opportunities that are available. Labor stands ready to play a constructive role in meeting that challenge, but it takes two to tango.
This piece originally appeared on Renew Economy Thursday, 1 December 2016.