Energy White Paper Must Focus On Future Not Past

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A Green Paper for the Abbott Government’s Energy White Paper is due to be released any day now.

The Government says that the White Paper “will set out a coherent and integrated approach to energy policy to reduce cost pressures on households and businesses, improve Australia's international competitiveness and grow our export base and economic prosperity.”

But is that what’s needed?

Surely Australia’s energy policy in the 21st century should respond to the issues and opportunities that we face in the 21st century.

It needs to take a strategic approach to meeting the needs of the 21st century and guide transformations where they are needed, rather than perpetuating systems and mindsets from past centuries.

The primary issue for the 21st century is mitigating climate change and ocean acidification.

Climate change, with its twin ocean acidification, is the greatest problem that has ever faced humanity.

It is about this planet and its ability to support life as we know it.

Unfortunately, this is not just another discreet economic or political problem. Rather, it is a systemic crisis that requires concerted action locally and globally.

Tackling this problem will require everyone – including the energy sector – to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to zero.

The Climate Change Authority – established by legislation to provide independent advice on Australian Government climate change initiatives – recognises that ‘Continued growth in global emissions creates real risks for all countries, including Australia.

It is in Australia's interests to contribute to global action to limit the increase in global average temperature compared with pre-industrial levels

We are yet to see any evidence of the Government accepting this advice.

The decisions that the Government takes now and the actions all stakeholders take under its leadership are vital if life on Earth as we know it is to survive.

Evidence is increasing that climate change is accelerating. This amplifies the imperative to act quickly and boldly: we are beyond the stage where we can take a ‘gently, gently’ approach.

To have even a 50:50 chance of limiting global warming to 2°c (which, many warn, already involves facing massively damaging climate impacts) industrialised countries like Australia must cutting our greenhouse gas emissions by about 10 per cent a year – and we need to start right now.

We are living in times that are very dangerous for the future of our planet's ability to support life. Because of built-in lag times, our children and our ecosystems are already facing a very different world to previous generations.

They will experience much more extreme weather and increased food and water shortages.

And – if we continue to dig up, export and burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas – those impacts will only get worse… to the extent that planet Earth will become uninhabitable for humans and most other species.

So why do does the Abbott Government continue to extol the virtues of fossil fuels?

Australia is in the unique position of being both a developed country and a primary production country – and of suffering severe impacts as a result of climate change.

If we, in that unique position and already experiencing some of those impacts, do not show the world that we understand and are prepared to really tackle climate change, what hope is there for other developed countries and newly industrialised countries to do so?

We can stop this march to our own destruction… if we all work together to ensure quick and decisive action to reverse this march.

That's the call of The Elders.

In January, Kofi Annan challenged governments, businesses and citizens across the world to step up and take bold action on climate change. 

The latest science demands that Australia and the world take stronger action to reduce emissions and do so quickly. The IPCC report released in September 2013 made clear, yet again, that the world is warming rapidly, humans are the primary cause, and substantial and immediatel action is required.

The majority of Australians want stronger action on climate change. This has been repeatedly reaffirmed in many polls and research, including some released very recently by the Lowy Institute

To ensure that planet Earth remains habitable we need to transform current human-made systems from ones that are destroying our planet’s resilience and ability to support us to ones that sustain life.

All this means that Australia, and its energy sector in particular, needs to take bold action to transform itself from being a major contributor to the climate change and ocean acidification problem to being a major contributor to the solution.

This is a big ask. And it will require some serious decision-making.

The Abbott Government has shown it has an appetite for bold decision-making. Can it now take some bold decisions in a direction that will benefit everyone?

Essentially, we must move to a ‘war footing’ where we take all actions that that could be needed to have any chance of winning this ‘war’, the war for our survival.

Fighting the ‘war’ against climate change is not about protecting our coal, oil and gas industries; quite the reverse.

It is about shifting to sustainable energy and sustainable practices.

The later we leave reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector to zero, the harder it will be to turn around our changing climate and oceans, the more drastic the actions will need to be and the greater the costs.

Australia already has to do to more to make our industries ready for a carbon-limited future, because Australia’s economy is more greenhouse gas emissions-intensive than many of our trade partners and comparable countries.

Every year of slow, ineffective action means we are missing opportunities for benefitting from innovation and transformation – and higher costs from the consequences of inaction or slow action are substantial.

Unlike many other countries, Australia has bountiful renewable energy resources and some of the best researchers in the world. We are a nation of innovators, world leaders in relevant technologies such as solar energy.

We need to foster, care for and profit from these natural advantages, rather than hobble them. In that way we can position our economy so it is sustainable in the long term.

Organisations such as Beyond Zero Emissions and University of New South Wales’ Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets have shown how we can transform our economy and infrastructure so that we meet our energy requirements without greenhouse gas emissions.

This work demonstrates how we can make that move within 10 years – using existing technology, economically and with many additional benefits.

Moving the energy sector to zero greenhouse gas emissions very quickly is not only desirable, it is possible and could benefit Australia tremendously.

We can make the transformation. And, hopefully, we can do it in the timeframe required to ensure a habitable planet.

Will we see this reflected in the Energy White Paper? I certainly hope so, for all our sakes.

* Gillian King is a former public servant who now works as a sustainability facilitator bringing people, information and ideas together for a habitable Earth.
 

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