26 April 2012
This was republished today on The Punch.
Global Warming and rapid progress in renewable energy technology has bought us to a turning point. Do we cling fearfully to coal, or keep up with the rest of the world and develop our vast renewable energy resources?
Senator Christine Milne, the new leader of the Australian Greens, is using this question to construct a new political axis, with the Greens on the side of the future and the Liberal (& National) and Labor parties on the side of the past. She has the facts of science on her side and, increasingly, the successes of the world’s smartest technology companies and investors.
Both the right and left will recognise this as a new take on the classic dilemma of Australian history. In the words of historian Manning Clark, there is always a choice to be made, between the positive vision of the ‘enlargers’ and the fear of the ‘straighteners’.
In the 1993 election campaign, Paul Keating, the Labor Party Prime Minister, used Clark’s dichotomy to pillory the Liberals. Keating said that the Liberals would keep Australia as an industrial museum, a 1950s time capsule of monarchy and Menzies.
In 1996, John Howard, the new Liberal Party Prime Minister, hit back at the left’s version of events. He said,
The late Manning Clark produced a powerful piece of historical mythology when he cast the Labor Party as the ‘enlargers’ of Australian horizons and our side of politics as the ‘straighteners’ of our national life.
It was always a myth, but never more so than today. …
We in the Liberal Party are the enlargers of choice and opportunity in Australian society.
In 2012, it is the leader of the Greens who is defining the enlargers as those who have faith in science and technology and the straighteners as those who cling to the past.
Labor and Liberal acolytes would do well to consider the facts below, before jumping into an uninformed frenzy in the comments section.
Even a climate skeptic like Nick Minchin would concede that rich, developed nations such as the USA and Germany are investing in clean technology. Just this week, Wells Fargo, the largest US mortgage lender, announced US30 billion for green economy investments.
But few Australians seem to be aware that poor countries are catching up and will soon overtake our last-century energy sector:
Indonesia increased its investment in renewable energy by 520% over 2011, a faster growth rate than the US or Australia.
Brazil is bringing in a progressive feed in tariff, to turbo charge the development of its solar industry.
China will manufacture 5 million electric vehicles, just for domestic consumption, in 8 years.
Kenya is starting on a wind farm at Lake Turkana, which will be the biggest in Africa. The wind speed is about double the average for Australian wind farms, which means an energy density eight times higher.
Modelling commissioned by the International Trade Union Confederation shows that an investment of 2% GDP in emerging market economies could create 18 million green jobs over the next 5 years. G20 nations could generate 24 million green jobs.
The Labor-Greens Clean Energy Future package includes $13.2 billion for clean energy, but this is all potentially doomed if Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister.
Tony Abbott’s latest disinformation campaign is against the $10 billion, Clean Energy Finance Corporation. He argues that it is an unprecedented, dangerous investment to make.
As usual, Abbott is using slogans, not facts, to paralyse his fellow ‘straighteners’ with fear and loathing. The China Development Bank has provided US$47 billion to help the solar and wind industries, just since 2010.
While the rest of the world is ramping up investment in a renewable energy future, Australia is still debating the science of climate change!
Consider what the Liberal party has done in the states where it has won power. Victoria has the most draconian anti-wind laws in the world. Queensland has all but shut down its solar industry. New South Wales is enacting a regulatory minefield for wind energy that is likely to drive billions of dollars in investment out of the state.
This struggle between modernisation and stagnation is a constant theme of our economic history. Do you want to see us scrabble for wealth in a hole in the ground, or use our brains to manufacture and value-add?
Paul Keating shocked us in 1986 by warning that unless Australia could become a ‘banana republic’. Unless we grab the opportunity of cleantech, low-carbon industries, we will soon become the Republic of Coal.
Economic rationalists preached in 1980s and 1990s that we should only develop sectors such as mining, where we have a natural competitive advantage, even if this meant losing all our manufacturing jobs to Asia.
Australia’s greatest natural competitive advantage is not our finite, mineral deposits, but our renewable energy wealth. The sun and wind and waves won’t run out.
Our failure to invest in renewable energy, along with the Americans and Germans, Chinese and Indonesians, is already costing us dearly. Over the next several years, Australian energy consumers will pay more than $50 billion of subsidies to the electricity industry, without even knowing it.
The public-private National Energy Market will effectively be taxing each of us, several billion dollars a year, to pay for upgrades to our last century, baseload grid of coal and gas generators.
Our competitors, meanwhile, are modernising their energy networks, to increase productivity, employment and sustainability.
Once the billions are spent, this stranded capital will encourage waste and penalise Australians who invest in their own solar panels, to cut their power bills.
Christine Milne used the first few days of her role as greens leader to start the debate about a ‘green economy’. She has referred the electricity industry to our consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Technological trends and the spectre of climate change are both on her side. So is popular opinion, with something like 80% of Australians supporting more investment in renewable energy.