Flat White

Trying to duck the climate fight has made the next election harder for the Coalition

1 November 2021

4:00 AM

1 November 2021

4:00 AM

Last week I received an email from federal Liberal director Andrew Hirst soliciting a donation because renewable energy lobbyist and activist Simon Holmes a Court has assembled a fighting fund of $1.4 million to run pro-renewable independents in Liberal held seats.

I don’t remember the last time I donated to the Liberal Party, and the next time is not likely to be any time soon either. I replied:

Thanks, but as you appear to have decided to throw the country under the bus by adopting the net zero by 2050 mantra, there is not much point giving you any money.

You might have used the levers of government to fight back against vested interests like Holmes a Court. Instead, you’ve capitulated. That doesn’t strengthen your case for funds, it weakens it.

Scott Morrison’s “Long-Term Emissions Reduction Plan” makes the case for the Liberal, and now the National, parties even worse.

While the Liberal Party prides itself on being pragmatic, which often means being less than ideologically pure, pragmatism also means weighing the costs and benefits of things. There’s little measurement of either in this document.

The climate neurotics would say that is reasonable, because we are in a “climate emergency”, but in fact there is no evidence of one at all.

Yes, the temperature is increasing, but at a very manageable 0.14° C per decade. I live in Brisbane and temperature-wise that is the equivalent of moving from the breezy eastern suburbs to the more arid western suburbs, and taking 100 years about it.

We’re told the Barrier Reef is the canary in the mine, but last year saw record (as far as records go) coral cover.

Sea rise is allegedly going to make parts of major cities uninhabitable, but look at the Fort Dennison tide gauge in Sydney Harbour where sea levels are rising at about 6.5 cms per century, a figure echoed up and down the east coast of Australia.

Then there is rainfall. Instead of the forecast perpetual drought rainfall has increased, not decreased, in Australia. Worried about extreme weather events? Cyclones have decreased in frequency and become milder since the 70s over the period when most of the emissions have occurred.

And so on.

We have the leisure to decide what to do and how to sequence and prioritise it. We have time to subject the risks from CO2 emissions and policies to deal with them to a proper cost benefit analysis, using the latest scientific observations and understanding of the causes of climate change, as well as technological and engineering insights.

The worst thing we can do is put an arbitrary deadline on these changes, just because someone somewhere thought the slogan “Net-Zero by 2050” sounded good.

One looming disaster is electric vehicles. It appears the Coalition is about to adopt last election’s Labor policy (which I critiqued here). One of the problems with reducing emissions by driving electric is that for quite a period of time they will be mostly brown and black coal-fired vehicles, until the network becomes substantially less carbon-intensive. They also embody a lot of fossil-fuel energy in their manufacture, particularly if made in China.

EVs also bring a demand for more power infrastructure, as do a lot of the other requirements of NetZero. If we are going to electrify everything, then as Tom Biegler explains, we need to expand power generation by 200 to 300%. How long is that going to take with all the other capital works occurring at the moment, and at what cost, with shortages in materials and labour driving the cost of both up?

And if we build all this additional infrastructure around unreliables, that also creates an increased need for network-scale storage, as well as grid stabilisation. Pumped hydro is the only grid-scale storage system available, but where are the sites, and has anyone incorporated the length of time it takes to actually build a dam? (Snowy 2.0 uses existing dams, and will take 8 years to get any power flowing and  will have 2 GW, the size of one very large power station). Yet going ahead with unreliables without storage will lead to disaster. If you run before you can walk you’re bound to end-up on your knees.

Which leads me to conclude that without some form of new, despatchable baseload power, the Net-Zero fantasy will fail. The Coalition’s plan appears to recognise this so is big on the need for new technology. With the advent of small modular reactors, and Australia’s purchase of nuclear-powered submarines, we think the time is now right to start laying the groundwork for a nuclear power generation industry.

But the government shies away from nuclear in favour of hydrogen (nuclear is mentioned 17 times in the document, but hydrogen is mentioned 211). Hydrogen is a proven, and highly expensive technology, with known limitations. Even producing it from hydrocarbons (which releases CO2) it is hugely expensive. The plan is to produce it from water (H2O), but the cost of this is fixed by the strength of the hydrogen/oxygen bond and the cost of breaking it. The idea that this cost will dramatically reduce, is magical thinking.

It’s a mystery why the government is shying away from nuclear. Our polling suggests that the public is probably ready to accept it.

Rushing headlong into decarbonisation doesn’t just pose engineering and economic problems but it also poses an unacceptable security risk. 

Wars are seldom won by the economically weaker power and are as much contests of logistics and production as they are armed warriors on the battlefield. Not only have we exported much of our capital-intensive industries to our geopolitical rival China, increasing their wealth and robbing ourselves of the sinews of war, but if we prematurely jam unreliable forms of “renewable” energy into our grid we increase grid instability and the risk of blackouts, further decreasing our defensive ability.

The federal coalition seems intent on trying to skate through the next election on the basis that people who disagree with their new climate policy won’t vote for an even worse alternative. That is short-term and wrong thinking.

Let’s not forget that the federal government only won the last election through a self-confessed “miracle”, and that lots of factors have moved against them since, like the collapse of the state Liberals in WA, redistributions of seats, and now a minority state government in SA, just to mention a few.

It’s not that they can’t stand too many things going wrong, it’s that they need a few things to go right.

Now they appear to have repudiated the promises of the last election, which gave them record swings in Central Queensland seats. This is to appease the Holmes a Courts of this world, and possibly the British and the Americans. But the Holmes a Court faction in the community won’t vote for a party that promises to implement policies they think it only pretends to believe in – who knows what it will believe tomorrow. They’ll go straight across.

Last election the Coalition said net zero by 2050 was unaffordable. Now their document declares net zero will actually increase wealth. How? Don’t ask me – I’ve scanned the document and it’s more a picture book than a plan, with lots of pretty diagrams, but not one skerrick of modelling. And even if there were modelling it would be a manufactured result because the physics says that using low density forms of energy, like wind and solar, produce less energy per dollar than high density forms, like gas, coal and uranium.

If I were a central Queensland voter who has voted at various times for each of Labor, Liberal, National, Katter, One Nation and goodness knows what else (as many have in the last 21 years), I might switch my vote to Labor this election. If I’m going to get policies I don’t like, I might as well get them from a party that actually believes in them.

Such voters might think that if politicians are short-term thinkers, uninterested in policies or keeping their promises; careerists, only interested in saving their own jobs; then they’ll use the employment lever and sack the current crowd hoping to send a message to the next political generation that if they don’t align with their principles, then they won’t have a career.

Morrison and Taylor could have used the levers of government to explain to voters the real costs of transitioning; that if it is not a truly global effort, which includes China and India, it is futile and weakens our defence and economy for no tangible gain; and that complete electrification is not going to happen in the next 30 years.

Instead, they have ducked the fight, and now find themselves exposed in the run-up to a federal election to the taunts of their friends, as well as their foes. No wonder the latest Morgan poll has the ALP on 54% of the vote. I’m surprised it’s not more.

Graham Young is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress and founder and editor of On Line Opinion.

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