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Australia won't pull its weight on climate change, despite a population embracing solar power

  • Written by  Matthew Brace
  • Published in Climate
A solar farm at sunset in South Australia A solar farm at sunset in South Australia MYPHOTOBANK.COM//SHUTTERSTOCK
24 Sep
Australia has the highest per-capita use of rooftop solar power in the world and some of its states and territories are striding ahead with clean-energy initiatives, yet the federal government still keenly supports fossil fuels. So what’s up Down Under?

On 11 October 2020, South Australia achieved a national milestone. For one hour, solar power provided 100 per cent of the state’s energy needs. ‘Never before has a jurisdiction the size of South Australia been completely run by solar power, with consumers’ rooftop solar systems contributing 77 per cent,’ said the managing director and CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman. ‘The domination and successful integration of rooftop solar in South Australia foreshadows the rebuilding of jurisdictional power systems in Australia.’

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The milestone was indicative of a wider uptake of solar power in Australia. More than 29 per cent of Australian homes now have solar panels on the roof, the highest per capita uptake in the world. In Queensland – appropriately nicknamed the Sunshine State, stretching from the sub-tropics to the most northerly tip of the Australian mainland – the figure is closer to 40 per cent. The latest figures from the country’s Clean Energy Regulator show 2.8 million small-scale photovoltaic solar power systems have been installed. Combined, they can generate electricity output of more than 14,000 MW.

Zibelman’s comment about ‘jurisdictional power systems’ is important because it’s local jurisdictions that are powering the country’s renewables shift. As well as the national federal government, Australia has six state governments and two territories, and several of these are making significant strides towards renewables adoption and emissions reductions. The Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) government (which includes Canberra) has used 100 per cent renewable-generated electricity from a range of sources since October 2019, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 per cent. The ACT was the first jurisdiction outside Europe to achieve this and is well on its way to its ultimate goal of net zero emissions by 2045. All of the other states (and the Northern Territory) have a formal target to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Numerous local councils across the continent are also on board, with many declaring climate emergencies and taking action.

Private sector big-hitters are involved, too. Woolworths, the country’s retail giant, announced in mid-2021 that all of its Australian stores ‘will be powered by 100 per cent green electricity by 2025’. In addition, the membership of Australia’s first truly ethical fossil-fuel-free pension fund, Future Super, doubled between 2019 and 2021 as more people moved away from fossil fuel investments. The fund now has AU$1 billion under management.

Resistance to renewables

The renewables revolution in homes, neighbourhoods and businesses across Australia is progressive and dynamic, but it faces a potentially insurmountable hurdle. In stark contrast, Australia’s federal government – a centre-right conservative coalition between the Liberal and National parties – is resisting the move.

Although the government ratified the Paris Agreement and has made a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 26–28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, there is no net-zero emissions target, nor a renewable-electricity target. Electric vehicles don’t figure at all – the 2021–22 budget failed to allocate a single dollar to them.

At the same time, Australia continues to maintain its position as the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the OECD and one of the highest in the world. The only countries with higher per capita emissions are small petro-states such as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, and in 2020, Australia overtook Qatar as the world’s biggest liquified natural gas (LNG) exporter. According to research by public policy think-tank the Australia Institute, the country is the world’s largest exporter of fossil fuels after Russia and Saudi Arabia.

This is the core of Australia’s renewables paradox. The crescendo of calls to act on climate change and push for renewables from numerous, cross-party quarters in Australia is being met by the federal government’s King Canute approach, which sees it holding back renewables and persisting with fossil fuels.

Coal mine AustraliaA solar farm at sunset in South Australia [MARK HIGGINS/SHUTTERSTOCK]

‘The only explanation is that for whatever reason, a bunch of people with prejudice against renewables have made it into a federal government,’ says Chris Bowen, Australia’s shadow minister for climate change from the opposition Australian Labor Party. ‘Their thinking is not ideology – that gives it too much credit – it’s just prejudice against renewable energy.’ At the state government level, ‘both Labor and Liberal governments have quite strong renewable policies’, he adds, but without a national policy, the risk of failure is high.

The government’s AU$1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative does include funding for ‘clean energy and recycling’, yet the language on the initiative’s website seems to water down renewables, saying that ‘technologies for manufacturing many low emissions commodities, and the markets that value these characteristics, are still emerging’ and that ‘finding demand is a common barrier for emerging manufacturers in recycling and clean energy’.

The latter seems particularly out of place considering the country’s enthusiastic uptake of solar power. ‘You would have thought that having the world’s biggest take-up of rooftop solar per capita was a pretty good indication of both an already-emerged technology and a very high and obvious demand,’ says Richie Merzian, the Australia Institute’s climate and energy director.

Super funds

Another example of the Australian public being more interested than their government in renewables is ethical private pensions. Known locally as superannuation or just super, private pension assets totalled AU$3.1 trillion at the end of March 2021 in Australia, according to the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia. As Australians become increasingly conscious of ethical investing, more and more funds have been introducing and expanding ethical products, including a move away from fossil fuels towards renewables. Roughly six per cent of people are already with an ethical super fund.

Leading the ethical pack is Future Super, the country’s first 100 per cent fossil fuel-free super fund. According to its founder and CEO, Simon Sheikh, ‘superannuation underpins the Australian economy. It’s just about channelling that enormous pool of money in more positive directions, such as renewable energy, and it wouldn’t take much to effect even more change.’

Membership of the fund doubled between 2019 and 2021 and it now has AU$1 billion under management. ‘We’ve seen a massive growth in people who understand the power of their money, particularly when it comes to climate change,’ adds Sheikh. ‘People don’t want to choose clean energy or profit. They want both and they’re realising they can have both.’

The Australian Government knows that it has to be seen to be acting on emissions. As a result, it claims that the country has reduced emissions by 20 per cent from 2005 levels. However, this doesn’t reflect enlightened energy policy. The Australia Institute’s August 2021 report, Back of the Pack, revealed that most of the reduction is the result of changes to farming, most notably a drop in farmers clearing their own land. Emissions from land clearing in Australia fell by 114 Mt CO2-e since 2005 but emissions from energy generation actually rose by 18 Mt CO2-e over the same period. 

The federal government’s approach extends to actively promoting fossil fuel industries. It’s clinging to Australia’s formerly world-class but now declining coal industry and is keen to promote its secondary fossil-fuel resource, LNG, pointing to a ‘gas-fired recovery’ from Covid-19’s economic blows. 

There are some obvious reasons for this approach and geography is key among them. The continent’s rich coal seams are ingrained in the Australian psyche. For generations, the quintessential Aussie was a tough sort, toiling away despite infernal temperatures to work the land, whether it was herding sheep across dusty paddocks or digging for natural resources.

Coal has been such a part of the geological and economic bedrock of Australia that in February 2017, the current prime minister, Scott Morrison (then treasurer), famously brought a lump of it into parliament and held it up to thank both the mineral itself and the industry behind it for giving Australia an ‘energy-competitive advantage’ for more than a century.

Australia climate protestAustralia’s renewables paradox is heightened by the significant support for renewables among a large section of the population [ROSE MAKIN/SHUTTERSTOCK]

‘Australia has had such a long and rich economic legacy with coal and iron ore that when we call for a phasing out of coal it sounds like we’re trashing an old relative,’ says Australian singer, songwriter, producer and climate-change activist Holly Rankin (aka Jack River). ‘Coal has supported our economy for so long that it can’t just be dropped off a cliff, but the majority of people I meet and talk to aren’t asking for that. Instead, they are asking for a responsible, just transition out of coal to renewables. Yet nobody at the federal level – apart from some independent MPs – is talking about what that transition even looks like.

‘We have incredibly smart people here and some of the world’s cutting-edge science, especially regarding solar and hydrogen, and increasingly in terms of battery storage,’ she continues. ‘And there are plenty of Australians who want the transition. Yet it feels like we won’t be at the edge of any kind of societal change or economic innovation anytime soon. Maybe that’s not of interest to our population. Maybe it’s because we are so comfortable here, so sheltered and isolated.’

Huge potential

Labor’s Bowen highlights a particularly nonsensical element of the Australian renewables paradox: ‘Australia leads the world in per-capita rooftop solar – mainly in private households – but we don’t have one offshore wind farm,’ he says. ‘If you think of the size of our coastline, that’s pretty bizarre. There are proposals for ten offshore wind farms around Australia but none of them are being built because there’s no federal government policy on renewables. They can’t be built without one because of licensing and numerous other issues.’ He adds that one wind farm proposed for the blustery waters in Bass Strait, off southern Victoria, ‘would satisfy 20 per cent of the state’s energy demand if it was operating today’.

Electric vehicles offer another example of the way in which a lack of central policy causes problems for those trying to push for a more sustainable future. ‘The states and territories all have different plans,’ says Bowen. ‘They’re doing this because there’s no national electric vehicle policy, but we risk ending up with a hotch-potch of regulatory frameworks.’

It’s worth pointing out that the Labor Party doesn’t have a national renewables policy either, although Bowen insists that one will be announced later this year. The party has pushed ahead by committing to net zero emissions by 2050. It has also committed AU$20 billion towards the establishment of a Rewiring the Nation corporation, which will partner with the private sector to build a ‘modern electricity grid for Australia to become a renewable energy superpower’. 

Politicians and commentators fear that the lack of coordinated policy means that Australia could miss out on a chance to use its world-class resources experience to develop an equally impressive renewables industry. Australia produces almost all of the minerals needed for the production of lithium-ion batteries (vital for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage) but most is exported to countries that are making the switch to renewables. It also has enviable resources of rare earth elements (REEs), which are critical for, among other things, wind turbines and hybrid- and electric-vehicle motors. China leads the field in REEs, and Western fears about Chinese expansion mean a safe-haven alternative would be desirable – a role Australia could play.

Energy emissions up

The Australian Government knows that it has to be seen to be acting on emissions. As a result, it claims that the country has reduced emissions by 20 per cent from 2005 levels. However, this doesn’t reflect enlightened energy policy. The Australia Institute’s August 2021 report, Back of the Pack, revealed that most of the reduction is the result of changes to farming, most notably a drop in farmers clearing their own land. Emissions from land clearing in Australia fell by 114 Mt CO2-e since 2005 but emissions from energy generation actually rose by 18 Mt CO2-e over the same period. 

According to Bowen, this gives Australia enormous opportunities. ‘We produce nine out of the ten minerals necessary for lithium-ion batteries, but right now, we dig them up and send them overseas,’ he says. ‘We don’t make the batteries here, by and large. We could and should make them here.’

Battery manufacturing potential does exist. One example is the industrial port city of Townsville in northern Queensland. Reading some of the pro-business literature, you would think the city was inseparable from the nearby and controversial new Carmichael coal mine. However, a report by the independent, community-based organisation Solar Citizens reveals a different attitude. According to the organisation’s Queensland energy strategist, Stephanie Gray, ‘a lot has shifted in the past few years. Townsville community and business leaders who were very vocal supporters of Adani [Carmichael’s owner] are now excitedly talking about the economic opportunities associated with using cheap renewable energy to power new local manufacturing and minerals-processing projects. There are all these manufacturing proposals popping up around Townsville and a lot of them are for processing non-fossil-fuel Australian minerals here and manufacturing components for renewable energy, related mainly to electric vehicles and battery storage.

‘We looked at these proposals and asked: if they proceed and are powered by local renewables, how many jobs would they create?’ she continues. ‘We found they would create 11,000 jobs. There’s a lot of industry that’s taking a look at northern Queensland right now, chiefly because of its abundant and cheap solar resources.’

This is particularly important because the Australian government often plays the jobs card when it comes to fossil fuels. It’s a strategy that has worked well, possibly even winning them the last general election in 2019. It also puts the Labor opposition in a tricky spot because, as the party of workers and unions, it can’t be seen to be anti jobs. 

Australia climate protestAt a climate change strike in Sydney in 2019, two activists dressed as firefighters confront another dressed as Prime Minister Scott Morrison [SHUTTERSTOCK/ROSE MAKIN]

However, research by the Australia Institute suggests that the jobs argument is based on a misconception. Richie Merzian, the institute’s climate and energy programme director and a former Australian government representative to the UN climate change conference, explains that according to the institute’s findings, on average, respondents (excluding those who say they don’t know) believe that gas mining and exploration makes up 8.2 per cent of the total workforce. In reality, gas mining and exploration employs fewer than 28,600 workers, making up less than 0.2 per cent of the 12.5 million people employed in Australia. ‘Australians overestimate it by a factor of 40,’ Merzian says. ‘They overestimate the size of the coal industry, too. Excluding those who say they don’t know, on average, Australians believe that coal mining makes up 9.4 per cent of the total workforce. In reality, coal mining employs around 48,200 workers, making up just 0.4 per cent.’

The institute’s surveys also found that the Australian government’s ‘gas-fired recovery’ might not be as popular with the electorate as it thinks. When it comes to driving Australia’s post-Covid economy, only 12 per cent of Australians said they prefer gas to take the lead, compared to 59 per cent who would prefer it to be primarily powered by investment in renewables.

Australia’s renewables reputation

It may be that as matters progress, the government will find it more difficult to ignore calls for action on climate change. According to the Australia Institute’s Climate of the Nation 2020 report, launched by the New South Wales Minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean (interestingly, from the same political party as the Prime Minister), 82 per cent of Australians are concerned that climate change will result in more bushfires; 83 per cent want coal-fired power stations to be phased out; 71 per cent want Australia to be a global leader in finding solutions to climate change; and 68 per cent believe Australia should have a national target for net zero emissions by 2050.

Among the groups calling for change are leaders in the emergency-response sector, who’ve seen an escalation of natural disasters first-hand in the past few years, notably the devastating 2019–20 bushfires. The country’s most experienced military leaders are also making their voices heard, primarily through the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group. The group, established in 2021, has called on the Australian government to undertake a national assessment of the security risks posed by climate change, saying the country is ‘ill-prepared for climate impacts, with climate-security risks not being fully assessed or understood in Australia’. Its founders and members – some of them among the most decorated and senior defence personnel – don’t mince their words. ‘As ex-service members and experienced practitioners of national and international security who have witnessed up close the devastation of war and crisis, we recognise that climate change is a fundamental threat to the security and prosperity of all Australians,’ says Admiral Chris Barrie (retired), former chief of the Australian Defence Force. ‘We are being left behind, with some of our closest allies already taking action. In the USA, the Biden administration has elevated climate change to a high-level national security issue, with significant stature within national security decision making.’

power station AustraliaLoy Yang, a coal-fired thermal power station, is the largest in the state of Victoria [DANIEL L SMITH/SHUTTERSTOCK]

Australia’s renewables paradox is also damaging its reputation overseas. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was famously denied the opportunity to speak at a global leaders’ climate-ambition summit in late 2020 because his country’s commitment to climate change was deemed to be too weak. In a letter to his Australian counterpart, later made public, Boris Johnson wrote that ‘we have tried to set a high bar for this summit to encourage countries to come forward with ambitious commitments’. In other words, Australia didn’t make the cut.

More recently, in February 2021, Sir David King, a former scientific advisor to the British government, said that compared to other nations, Australia’s commitment to emissions reduction ‘is one of the worst I can think of’. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: ‘It is, I think, really sad that Australia, this very advanced country that is also suffering in many, many ways from climate change already... it is very, very strange to me that Australia isn’t among the leading countries for action.’

The Australian Government – a coalition – is trying to find common ground between its two parties and draft a climate policy in time for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow in November. As it does so, it is coming under renewed attack from within the country and outside. At the global Better Futures Forum in August, New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean, a Liberal MP, called on the federal government (the same political party) to start transitioning to renewable energy. 'We need to send a message to all leaders, in every part of our society, that failing to deliver on the promise of what we can be is not an option,' he said. 'Australia should not be a climate laggard. We should be a climate leader.'

At the same forum, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Australia was 'out of step' with the world on tackling climate change. 'In the short term, the US, Japan, the EU and the UK have committed to emissions reductions that are roughly two to three times as deep as Australia's current effort. It is insufficient to meet Australia's Paris Agreement commitments.' He also cautioned that Australia 'risks finding itself on the wrong side of carbon border tariffs as other nations move ahead'.

At a more grass-roots level, singer-songwriter Rankin notes that ‘Australia is getting left behind on the issue of climate change while the rest of the global economy is moving ahead. We’re already in a risky position with our relationships with China and the USA, so to put us at further risk in terms of the global electricity industry is concerning.’ 

Rankin has a big following across the country and a growing fan base overseas. ‘From touring the world over the past few years, I feel like Australia has been known for our human rights abuses, mainly around refugees, and now for climate inaction in relation to the Paris Agreement and our attachment to coal,’ she says. ‘Those things put us at risk of losing the best new researchers, thinkers, scientists and forward-thinking companies who want to be at the forefront of not only industry but also moral innovations.’

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