Tackling climate change through a rapid transition to renewable energy is perfectly feasible, but corporate interests are determined to frustrate action, writes Erima Dall.
The world is at a climate crossroads. For over 20 years, international meetings of world leaders have wrangled to avoid any meaningful climate action. The science is as clear as ever; the planet hotter.
In November over 190 world leaders will meet at the COP21 conference in Paris. But countries have already announced their emissions reduction targets, and they will not prevent a rise of 2°C in global temperature – a generous estimate of what is a “safe” temperature increase.
Global investment in renewable energy is growing, but nowhere near fast enough. We are operating in a battlefield. To stop a dangerous shift in our climate system we will have to challenge the economic greed of the capitalist system.
We need to build a mass radical movement capable of challenging the fossil fuel giants, and governments’ absolute commitment to the market; a movement to demand a just transition to 100 per cent renewable energy and an expansion of green jobs.
Many held hopes that the end of Abbott and the rise of Malcolm Turnbull to Prime Minister would mean a shift on climate policy.
Abbott’s climate change denialism contrasted with Turnbull’s previous support for an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) when he was opposition leader in 2008-9. But Turnbull has embraced Abbott’s ludicrous “Direct Action” policy, calling it a “very, very good piece of work”, and stuck to the pitiful emissions reduction target of 26-28 per cent by 2030. The Climate Change Authority has said a 45-65 per cent reduction target is necessary.
Nor is Turnbull willing to reverse Abbott’s attack on official climate change bodies, by re-establishing a Department for Climate Change, the Climate Commission, or raising the Renewable Energy Target that Abbott cut back. Moreover he has just re-approved the Adani Carmichael coal mine—the biggest in the nation, and one of the biggest in the world.
The hypocrisy is stark, given Turnbull previously called Direct Action “an environmental fig leaf to cover a determination to do nothing”. He has ducked any thorny questions about his abrupt position change, telling the 7.30 report, “we’re not looking for theoretical or economic theoretical purity here; we’re looking for practical measures that work”.
But Direct Action doesn’t work. Its main mechanism—an Emissions Reduction Fund of $2.55 billion is a spectacular waste of money. The fund has so far spent $660 million funding projects that will allegedly reduce emissions by 47 million tonnes over ten years. Not only is this a drop in the ocean (it amounts to less than 17 per cent of an already pitiful 5 per cent reduction target), but these are not real emission cuts. Rather they consist of dubious schemes such as “not clearing land”.
In fact most of the projects were already in existence. LMS Energy, for example, successfully bid for $100 million of funds for 28 separate landfill gas projects, of which 25 were already operational—some for more than ten years.
Environment minister Greg Hunt is chalking this up as a victory for “low-cost emissions reduction” at $13.95 a tonne. But of course, the lowest cost projects would be the ones that already exist. As Solidarity goes to print, the second round of auctions is taking place, and will spend up to another $1 billion from the fund.
Turnbull is a climate hypocrite and Direct Action a joke. But it would be a mistake to lobby the government for a carbon price, or back Labor’s proposal to return to an Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). This is not the “sensible centre” of the debate, but another dangerous distraction (see box).
Labor’s proposed return to an ETS only threatens to again squander the opportunity to make a real shift to renewable energy.
A renewables revolution?
To tackle climate change we need to shift to 100 per cent renewable energy. Electricity remains the highest source of emissions in Australia, at 33 per cent, so tackling these emissions is central to a climate solution.
This is technologically feasible. The price of wind and solar PV technology is plummeting. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 2013 was the first year more renewable energy was added to global energy mix than fossil fuels—a trend they expect to continue.1
In Germany, to take one example, renewable energy has increased eight-fold since 1990. And China’s renewable energy market is growing remarkably. By 2017, China will generate over half a trillion watts of electricity by renewable power.
Australia is exceptionally well resourced with renewable energy sources, but only gets 14 per cent of energy this way. Most of that is from hydro-electricity.
A report written by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) in 2010 shows how Australia could achieve 100 per cent renewable energy in ten years, based on a blue print that combines 12 large-scale solar-thermal plants with wind farms across the country. To achieve a 50 per cent renewable target would cost only $80 billion, according to new analysis for the USB bank. Much of this will come from the private sector, and most of the money would be spent anyway because ageing coal and gas plants need replacing.
If we lived in a sane world, all of this would be good news that a solution is imminent. But we are down the rabbit hole: this is capitalism. Even as renewable capacity grows, so do emissions and the fossil fuel industry, such is the system’s insatiable appetite for growth and profit.
It will take more than logic and a few PV solar cells to stop the coming climate catastrophe. The Fifth Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has produced a global “carbon budget” that shows if we want to stay below a 2°C rise, we have already burned half the allowable carbon emissions.
At current rates, we will chew through the remainder in just 30 years. And even this carries a significant chance of exceeding 2°C of warming.
But existing proven reserves of fossil fuels represent five times this allowable carbon budget! These are mines of gold in the eyes of corporations driven by profit and competition. In Australia $36.8 billion was made from coal exports in 2012-13, and there are predictions that volumes of coal exports will double in the next ten years.
The fossil fuel corporations are amongst the wealthiest, and hence the most powerful, companies in the world. Three oil companies and two car companies sit among the world’s 20 largest companies. Meanwhile, G20 governments subsidise oil, gas and coal companies to the tune of $120 billion a year—while the top 20 companies themselves spent less than half this on exploration in 2013. Australia is amongst the worst, giving over $4 billion every year in direct subsidies. These are the forces we are up against.
As Naomi Klein put it at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, “Climate change is not just about carbon pollution; it’s the collision between carbon pollution and a toxic ideology of market fundamentalism that has made it impossible for our shackled leaders to respond, while they simultaneously make the problem so much worse.”
Then there is the issue of how governments are not spending money. To get anywhere near 100 per cent renewable energy we need base-load solar thermal technology. This form of solar energy is not dependent on continuous sunshine, because it stores up energy in tanks of molten salt that can then be released over time to provide round-the-clock power, and hence replace base-load coal-fired power stations. BZE’s 100 per cent renewable energy plan suggests this technology could produce 60 per cent of Australia’s energy.
But the start-up capital costs for solar thermal remain high—too high for the private sector when more lucrative profits can be made elsewhere.
In Port Augusta, BZE have joined forces with local climate activists to campaign for Australia’s first solar thermal plant, to replace ageing coal-fired power stations.
But power company Alinta Energy has made it clear this would be, “well outside of the bounds of a commercially attractive investment”, at an estimated cost of $577 million for a 50MW solar thermal plant with 15 hours storage.
We cannot wait until it is “commercially attractive” before saving the planet. That is market madness. We need to demand that the government build the necessary infrastructure. They could build seven such power plants in one year alone using the money that is currently subsidising the fossil fuel industry.
Rebuilding a climate movement
A mass expansion of renewable energy and public transport would be immensely popular, and a way of building support for climate solutions that are based on more jobs, more social services and a higher standard of living. Seventy-eight per cent of people believe that climate change is happening, and support for renewable energy is very high.
The People’s Climate March on 29 November is an important initiative, and will send a strong message for the government to do more—but, astonishingly, it does not have any explicit demands, and so risks simply falling in behind Labor’s call for a return to an Emissions Trading Scheme.
The experience of the Rudd-Gillard years was that backing a carbon price is a dead end for the climate movement. The carbon tax was an unpopular, inequitable and ineffective market mechanism. It pushed up the power bills of working class people, as the fossil fuel companies simply passed on the costs.
This experiment set things back, as it put the burden of climate action onto the poor and working class, and there was nothing to show for it! In a Newspoll conducted late last year, 88 per cent were in favour of government funding for renewable energy, but 64 per cent said this was only a good idea as long as they didn’t have to pay more for electricity.
A climate campaign that can win will need a movement that reaches deep into the working class, and has to relate to concerns around cost of living.
Working people are not the problem. In fact they hold to the key to a solution, because only the working class has the power to strike and take industrial action to cut off capitalism’s profits—something that could really force action. A radical working class movement could refuse to build further polluting power stations or industries, and demand new clean jobs instead.
This has happened before—in the 1970s the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF) put construction bans on high-rise developments that would destroy parklands or low-income housing. This year the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has backed a Labor policy proposal to create an agency to help workers in fossil fuel industry with redeployment, retraining and income support during the transition to renewable energy. Such a plan, if carried out seriously, could help build workers’ confidence that opposing fossil fuels won’t leave them jobless.
The fact that unions are involved in the “Building the Future” block at the Climate March is a small start.
There is strong popular opposition to CSG drilling, and growing opposition to mining developments. The prolonged battle against the Whitehaven coal mine (which was unfortunately unsuccessful), and looming battles against the Adani and Shenua mines, have given rise to calls for a moratorium on coal.
But campaigns against coal exports do little to actually reduce the carbon emissions produced by the big polluters in Australia, which according to the OECD has the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions per head of population in the world.
We need a fight for climate action that links with the fight against austerity; that fights to save and demand more jobs, that expands affordable public transport, that makes corporations and the rich pay more tax, puts power back into public hands and brings down electricity costs. These are the kind of demands that could build enthusiasm for climate action amongst the working class and give us a movement powerful enough to challenge the system before it destroys the climate.
1. Bloomberg reveals 143 gigawatts of renewable was added to the energy mix compared to 141 gigawatts of fossil fuels, however they include a small amount of Nuclear energy in the category of “renewables”.