Features Australia

Zero net sense

Green commitments achieve nothing

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

14 November 2020

9:00 AM

Thanks to US president-elect Joe Biden’s declaration that his administration will set a target of net-zero emissions for the US by 2050, meaningless statements about emission targets are now the political vogue.

President-elect Biden had barely made this declaration before independent Federal MP Zali Steggall brought forward her previously announced plans to launch a private member’s bill containing the same target for Australia. Britain and France have already made such declarations, as has China.

The private bill is extremely unlikely to reach the governor-general’s desk for royal assent but means just as much as all the other pious declarations made by the other countries, as it does not spell out how Australia is going to reach such a target.

Instead the bill sets out various processes which may help in achieving the target, such as forming a Climate Change Commission (as opposed to the late and unlamented Climate Commission) to advise on the matter, as well as mandating a national climate risk and national adaptation programs in addition to adopting the government’s existing technology road map.

All the extra public servants that have to be hired for those initiatives will then work out the irksome details on just how to eliminate or offset the emissions from Australia’s aluminium smelters and steel-making operations, not to mention changing all of the power industry over to renewables and the cars to electric.

Just how any of those targets will be achieved in thirty years is anyone’s guess but the major advantage for Steggall and the other proponents of this bill is that they can pose as green saviours knowing that the bill will never become law. If the bill, or some variation on it, does eventually get through parliament they will never be held accountable for any failure to meet a target so far into the future — at least five parliamentary cycles. In the meantime, taxpayers will be left to pay the bill for an expanded green bureaucracy plus consultancies.

Much the same calculation may underpin the decision by organisations such as Oxfam, the Business Council of Australia, the ACTU and the Australian Medical Association to publicly support the bill. They get green street cred knowing that the bill is unlikely to see the light of day.

President-elect Biden is in a different position as he will be expected to do something about the target, but at 77 he is highly unlikely to be held accountable for a target 30 years from now and he has a host of ready made excuses. For Biden only has the power to set targets, not to enforce them.

In the disparate US system, individual states have more freedom to mess things up than in Australia, assuming they have any interest in climate targets in the first place. It is difficult to imagine hard- core Republican states such as Texas, for example, being impressed by Biden’s climate aspirations and the Republican senate is unlikely to pass legislation that would force them to do so.

Then there is the reality of decarbonisation. Even Democrat California, which has its own climate targets, will struggle to meet the President-elect’s intermediate goal of decarbonising the power industry by 2035. As has previously been noted, California’s emphasis on renewable energy and failure to invest in reliable power plants resulted in rolling blackouts during a Northern summer heatwave (‘Battery Battles’, The Spectator Australia, 29 August, 2020). Activists living in the state have excused this failure on the grounds that the blackouts did not last for long, while Democrat state governor Gavin Newsom has blamed neighbouring states (which faced similar high demand) for refusing to sell power to California.

The checks and balances of the American system will also make it difficult for President-elect Biden to take the US back into the Paris treaty framework for reducing emissions, as he has declared he will do. America was only ever able to sign it in the first place in 2015 as a presidential agreement rather than a treaty. The wording of Paris was even altered so that it could be considered an agreement rather than a treaty as far as the Americans were concerned. Treaties have to be ratified by the US Senate which would never have happened at the time and still won’t happen.

However, Biden can still sign the Paris deal as a presidential agreement, binding him to do what he can to meet climate targets, knowing that green activists will insist on calling it a treaty, without any of the legal obligations of a treaty.

He can also still waste a lot of taxpayers’ dollars once he reaches the White House in pursuit of his declared goal and already the sum of $US2 trillion to be spent on clean energy over four years has been mentioned. That is a lot of money to spend on batteries and wind farms.

Particularly hard to take for anyone with knowledge of the climate scene is activists hailing, as a breakthrough, the declaration by Chinese President Xi Jinping that his country will aim for net-zero emissions by 2060 to a virtual audience of world leaders at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly last month.

Chinese mines dig up half the world’s coal (both power and smelting) and the country still has to import billions of dollars worth from Australia to feed its industry. Earlier this year US climate organisation CarbonBrief estimated that in 2019 the Chinese built coal plants capable of generating 37 gigawatts, net of closures, or about the same as the existing total coal-fired capacity of the Australian system.

Although coal’s share of the power generating market is declining despite that growth, thanks to increases in hydro power and nuclear, it is still very difficult to reconcile that building program with China’s net-zero emissions declaration.

This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that Australia should meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 ‘as quickly as possible, as quickly as it’s able’, but he declined to mandate a target until it was clear how it would be achieved and what the cost would be.

Former Prime Minister John Howard would not sign Australia up to the Kyoto Protocol in 2005 for the good reason that it was useless and was pilloried by the green movement for his honesty. Morrison may also be pilloried for his honesty but there is little doubt that until there is some indication about how net-zero emission targets can be achieved, such declarations are meaningless.

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Mark Lawson’s website: www.clearvadersname.com

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