Requiem For The RET

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The Abbott government has already pulled off its ugly coup de grace on renewable energy, but the tactics of the last few days have been an uncomfortable reminder of just how deep its anti-environmental dogmatism runs. 

Up until recently the government had been slowly strangling the renewables industry. Appointing a self-professed climate sceptic to review the Renewable Energy Target spooked the horses, and when he recommended abolition or deep cuts, they bolted.

Investment fell by 88 per cent in 2014. Dick Warburton’s review wasn’t even handed down until August. Australia fell from being the fourth most attractive place to invest in clean energy to the tenth. 

Effectively, all the government had to do was nothing: Offer Labor the occasional unworkable compromise on how ambitious the target would be, signal to the media a bit, and the fledgling industry would be paralysed with uncertainty about the policy scaffolding that supports it.

The politics of negativity and cynicism did the job easily.

To give Labor some credit, it was taken hostage and holding few chips. 

If the government rubbished renewable energy, the threat of a deal with the crossbench to cut the RET would remain live for the sector. An agreed, albeit reduced, target was judged preferable.  

Big investment decisions are based on bipartisan policy, and it’s not hard to see why Labor has played this long game of negotiations over how deep the cuts would be.

In the end, 13 months after the Warburton review was commissioned, Labor agreed to an effective cut of 20 per cent to the RET. Abbott’s government had promised it would make no changes to the legislated 41,000 gigawatt hour target, but it broke its election commitment and had ground Labor down to 33,000 gigawatt hours by May this year.

But the Shadow Environment Minister emerged from the last negotiating meeting (where the deal for a 20 per cent cut was made) to explain that the government had exhumed a four-year-old debate over whether biomass from native forest wood waste is ‘renewable’ energy. 

Labor and the Greens had declassified wood waste under the Renewable Energy Target legislation in 2011. It was obviously going to make waves, so for a Prime Minister that boasts his government has been aiming “to reduce the growth rate of this particular sector as much as the current Senate would allow,” it was a deft move. 

“Frankly,” Tony Abbott said, he “would have liked to reduce the number a lot more”.

“We got the best deal we could out of the Senate” he assured Allan Jones’ listeners last week.

It wasn’t quite “the best” it could be yet, though. Events since Wednesday have exposed the government as more insidious. No longer content with climate action obstruction, they’ve outed themselves as true climate criminals. 

When this native tree fell in the forest it was always going to raise questions of whether Labor would back down on native wood waste to ‘return investor confidence’.

Personally, I think they would have. Not happily, and not definitely, but they’re in the same position as before. We’re all held ransom, and there’s little to lose because if they do nothing, investment will continue to suffer. 

They voted for it in the house, they will move an amendment to exclude native wood waste in the Senate, but to defeat the agreed 33,000 gigawatt hour target embedded in the government’s bill would be a final proof of Australia’s risky policy divisions to investors.

The government knows Labor and the industry want to avoid relying on crossbench support, because relying on it for policy vital to its prospects is never going to sit well with investors. In his interview with Jones, Abbott exploited this and spoke to the interests of Senators Leyonhjelm, Madigan, Day, and Lambie. 

They all take a pretty dim view of windfarms, and Guardian Australia has revealed that following meetings on Wednesday, the day of the government’s Renewable Energy Target bill’s second reading, Environment Minister Greg Hunt drafted a letter to the wind-hating crossbench.

He offered them a “wind commissioner” and a fresh scientific committee to look, once again, for negative health impacts from windfarms. The deal was to be “subject to the passage” of the wood waste reclassification. 

The government needs six votes to get wood waste past the Labor-Greens block. If they manage it, they will have pulled off what really amounts to a 35 per cent cut to the Renewable Energy Target, while at the same time creating mechanisms for future slurs on clean energy. 

The Australian Forests Products Association forecasts wood waste could make up 15 per cent of the ‘renewable energy’ under the scheme if the government’s bill gets through; added to the 20 per cent cut Labor will be forced to support to secure an uncontested (33,000) gigawatt hour target, it’s basically a 35 per cent cut.

Even if you believe native forest wood waste is renewable – and Labor, the Greens and basically no environmentalists do – allowing it to be subsidised under the Renewable Energy Target will reduce the funds available for crucial wind and solar infrastructure.

Wood waste can’t be sustainable in any real sense, because to produce more of it we’d have to chop down more of our forests, and knock out more carbon sinks.

For the government, the “windfarm commissioner” and scientific committee to investigate “the impact on the environment and human health of… windfarms” will no doubt prove useful avenues for sowing confusion and doubt. 

In February this year, the National Health and Medical Research Council again found no evidence that windfarms harm human health, but the government’s assault is not about evidence.

To quote David Suzuki shortly after the Abbott government abolished the independent Climate Change Commission, which provided impartial scientific advice to the public, and Australia became the first country to remove a carbon price:

“If you have people who stand up to take positions of leadership and they deliberately suppress or ignore information vital to making an informed decision, I think that’s wilful blindness. 

“Wilful blindness, I understand, is a legal entity that you can sue people for. 

“I throw it out as something that ought to be brought up.”

* David Leyonhjelm’s existing government-sponsored Senate Inquiry into windfarms is ongoing.

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