Australia’s climate betrayal – time to despair or regroup?

In the wake of the carbon tax failure a new focus on renewable energy might offer a way to create positive change for Australia.

Image by Paola Harvey, Sourced: Flickr CC

Australia earned global scorn last week, as the first nation to dismantle a well-functioning national policy for reducing greenhouse emissions. While this is a major step backward, and many Australians will consider it reckless, I believe that there is hope for the future, if we focus our efforts on renewable energy, rather than a price on carbon.

Our Clean Energy Future package was the best carbon price scheme in the world. It included $13 billion for clean energy plus independent, non-partisan processes for measuring progress, setting targets and evaluating the potential of renewable energy.

Political journalists have rightly condemned the government for demolishing our climate policy. Bernard Keane at Crikey writes ‘It’s an attack…on the future and on the young.’ He says it makes Australia ‘an international greenhouse vandal.’ Lenore Taylor at the Guardian Australia is equally scathing. But she also challenges us to rethink our strategy. She says ‘those concerned about climate change’ now ‘need to regroup’.

Taylor is right. She and I were at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, where the UN climate convention was created and we have both followed the debate closely since then. At the time, the best scientific advice said humanity had to immediately cut emissions by 60%. What actually happened? We increased emissions by 40%. The old strategy of negotiating for a global agreement, around a price on carbon, has clearly failed.

There are three main reasons why the carbon price negotiation strategy failed.

The first reason is that the global climate negotiation process was powerless. It required a voluntary consensus of nations in order to cut pollution. There is simply not enough good will in the family of nations for that to be possible.

Nations were allowed to sprint ahead of the pack on their own. Germany invested massively in solar, which brought down its price so solar is now competitive against fossil fuels. But leaders such as Germany were penalised by trade law, which prevented them from protecting their innovative, low carbon industries against cheaper imports from high-pollution countries. On one hand, international law rewarded polluters with a race to the bottom in the climate negotiations and on the other hand, it punished nations who invested in innovation.

The second problem is that public opinion and conservative political parties, especially in the English-speaking world, turned significantly against climate science. Polluters, especially in the US, and Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire waged a war against climate action: promoting junk science, slandering climate scientists, vilifying renewable energy and rewarding climate denier politicians, such as Australia’s PM Tony Abbott.

The third problem is that global business became more powerful than national democracies. There is more power in the hands of global corporations than in democratically elected parliaments. Business-as-usual shaped politics, which determined policy. As ABC TV’s Four Corners programme said recently, ‘Coal has defined Australia’s political economy’.

The good news in this dire scenario is that leaders such as Germany have made solar and other clean technology cheap enough to beat fossil fuels on price. This completely changes our strategic scenario. That fact needs to be fully appreciated by climate campaigners and political parties.

The next, related piece of strategically good news is that renewables are naturally popular. Polls around the world show that solar especially, but also wind and other clean technology, enjoys a super-majority (70%+) of support.

Public campaigns for climate action and most political party agendas have focused on a carbon price, which remains unpopular and difficult to communicate. They have largely ignored renewables, which enjoy a high level of public affection and are easy to promote. Carbon markets are only understood by a tiny, political elite and thus continue to lack the legitimacy of solar or wind energy.

Green Banks, such as Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation or the New York Green Bank are a positive development and deserve more emphasis in climate campaigns. They harness the dynamism and power of financial markets, to fund renewable energy. This makes them more effective policies than any plausible carbon price.

Once clean energy has displaced a substantial proportion of fossil fuel generation, this economic might will create the political momentum that is required before we can properly tackle emissions from the other areas: mining, manufacturing, agriculture, cement, forestry, aviation and design. The dynamism and realpolitik of clean energy make it a superior public policy to carbon pricing alone.

We have a responsibility to turn the tactical failure of carbon pricing into a strategic win for the environment. Renewable energy is the key to changing the political game, so we can save our climate.

This article was first published by The Guardian Australia on 18 July 2014.

Dan Cass is a sustainability consultant and Honorary Associate of the Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN) at the University of Sydney Business School. Dan and BERN are looking at organisational aspects of these issues in current research.