In Australia, both the previous Howard Liberal-National Coalition government (1996-2007) and the present Rudd Labor Government have been strongly influenced by the big greenhouse gas emitting industries to go slow on climate action.
One source of evidence supporting this statement is a set of leaked notes from a meeting on 6 May 2004 of the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group, which comprises CEOs of the major fossil fuel producing and consuming corporations. The meeting, which was addressed by the then prime minister John Howard and former industry minister Ian Macfarlane, discussed ways and means of limiting the growth of the renewable energy industry and thus protecting the fossil-fuel based industries.
This apparent collusion between the Howard government and the big greenhouse gas polluters was subsequently confirmed by author Guy Pearse. As a member of the Liberal Party and a former ministerial adviser in the Howard Coalition government, Pearse was able to obtain frank interviews with the captains of these polluting industries for his PhD thesis. He reports that they boasted to him that they — the self-styled "Greenhouse Mafia" — were responsible for writing government policy on greenhouse response.
Additional grounds for concern that the Howard government was attempting to suppress renewable energy comes from an apparently concerted government campaign against wind power, the least-costly of the new renewable sources of electricity. In this campaign, verbal attacks on wind power were uttered by at least five ministers, including the prime minister, within a period of about one year.
The Rudd Labor Government won office in November 2007, partly because of its promises to expand renewable energy in Australia. As of May 2009, no leaks or whistleblowers have revealed collusion with the big greenhouse gas emitters per se, though clearly emitters are having a strong say in the development of Government legislation. The new Government’s failure to implement its main election promises — by not making the necessary financial allocations to renewable energy in the May 2008 budget and its failure to set up the appropriate institutions in 2008 — are indications that the change of government has not necessarily brought a significant change of policy. Specifically, apart from the symbolic gesture of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, the new Government has delayed implementation of all of its principal election promises to support renewable energy. A comparison of the November 2007 election promises with the 2008 budget papers, raises a number of concerns.
The first is over the "Renewable Energy Fund" that Labor promised before the election, to which it would allocate $500 million over seven years for the development and deployment of renewable energy. But in its first budget in May 2008, Labor allocated nothing to renewable energy (apart from geothermal drilling) from this fund. However, it did allocate funding to the coal industry from its so-called Clean Coal Fund — for $500 million.
Another concern is over Labor’s promised $150 million Energy Innovation Fund for renewable energy research. From this fund $50 million was to be allocated to solar thermal energy research and $50 million to solar photovoltaic electricity research. But in its first budget, the new Labor Government allocated zero research funding in 2008-09 to solar, wind and bioenergy. As of March 2009, it is still in the process of setting up the fund and the associated Solar Institute.
Then there is the "Renewable Energy Target". Before the November 2007 federal election, Labor promised to expand the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) to 20 per cent of electricity by 2020. This means increasing the existing contribution from renewable energy — about 8.5 per cent of electricity or 15 Terawatt-hours (TWh) per year, mostly hydro — to about 60 TWh per year. However, after attaining government, Labor unnecessarily delayed implementation by handing over the process to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).
According to the Government’s White Paper, implementation will only take place on 1 January 2010, over two years since the Government was elected. Meanwhile, Rudd set up the Wilkins Inquiry to pronounce on whether such "complementary measures" as MRET were necessary once an emissions trading scheme is operational. Wilkins reported around July 2008, but the Government has stated that it will not make this report public.
Rudd has also cut subsidies for residential solar power. In the May 2008 budget, the Government introduced a means test of $100,000 gross household income to limit eligibility to receive the $8000 rebate for residential solar electricity. This was a weakening of an election promise. At the same time the Government proposed to replace the rebate with a feed-in tariff, handing the proposal over to COAG — a sure recipe for delay. After considerable public debate throughout 2008, the Government announced in early 2009 that on 1 July 2009 it would discontinue the rebate and not implement a feed-in tariff to replace it. Instead it would increase the number of "solar credits" (renewable energy certificates) allocated to residential solar PV electricity under the new Renewable Energy Target by a factor of five. In this way, the Government diminished support for residential renewable electricity, transferred the costs from itself to electricity consumers and in effect reduced the size of the Renewable Energy Target.
Perhaps one of Labor’s most significant broken promises came when it changed the way it would respond to the Garnaut Climate Change Review. Before the 2007 election, Labor announced that it would base its emissions trading scheme on Garnaut’s recommendations. However, in February 2008, when Garnaut published an interim report expressing the need for very strong action, the Minister for Climate Change backtracked, announcing that the Garnaut Review would be just one of several inputs to its policy.
The Government’s White Paper on climate change ignores or waters down several of the key recommendations of the final report of the Garnaut Review. As Garnaut points out, for an emissions trading scheme to be effective, it is essential to auction all permits and to use the revenue raised to assist low-income and other households to reduce their emissions and to fund new infrastructure. Garnaut also pointed out that paying "compensation" to the largest greenhouse gas polluters would undermine the scheme. Yet in its White Paper, the Government attempts to placate the vested interests in greenhouse pollution by offering the coal-fired electricity generators free emission permits valued at $3.9 billion in the first five years of operation of the scheme, and offers the emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries initially 25 per cent of all permits free of charge, increasing to a maximum of 45 per cent by 2020.
The first four of these broken promises were unconditional election commitments that should not have been delayed until the Garnaut Climate Change Review and the Government’s White Paper on climate change had been published. Given adequate political will, they could all have been implemented in the first six months after the Government took office.
The Government’s explanation for the delays is that they were needed for setting up administration. This is hard to believe. The MRET already existed under the Howard government, so the scheme could have been expanded immediately, with the constraint that projects could not benefit from both the federal and state schemes.
Furthermore, administration issues have clearly not delayed funding for so-called "clean coal". The most likely real explanation for the delays is pressure from the Greenhouse Mafia. While it is possible that all the 2007 promises will be implemented in some form in the near future, the long delay indicates that the Government is unwilling to treat climate change as an urgent issue and give strong support for renewable energy, despite its rhetoric. The need for a growing climate action movement is clear.
If you have any lingering doubt that the Rudd Government has been captured by the Greenhouse Mafia like the previous Howard government, inspect the membership of the High Level Consultative Committee for Australia’s 2009 Energy White Paper. The business representatives come from coal, oil, gas and uranium. There are no specific representatives for renewable energy or energy efficiency. Clearly, the result of the Energy White Paper process is predetermined.
In July last year, 34 per cent of Australians thought Labor was the "party better able to handle climate change". By October, an opinion poll found that number had fallen to 28 per cent, with the Coalition rising 5 points to 14 per cent.
But perhaps most significantly, almost 60 per cent of Australians could see no real difference between Labor and the Coalition on climate change.
This is an edited extract from Climate Action: A companion manual for greenhouse solutions (2009), by Mark Diesendorf, published by UNSW Press
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