Our Minister for the Environment seems to have come down with a bad case of amnesia at the Paris climate talks. Thom Mitchell reports from Paris.
Yesterday was an awkward day for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who faced tough questioning at the United Nations climate summit in Paris, an event which aims to secure a legally binding international agreement to limit the rise in average global temperatures to less than two degrees.
Appearing on a panel at a side event run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Hunt faced tough questions over his approval of the massive Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, his successful campaign to slash the Renewable Energy Target, and the Coalition’s cornerstone policy for reducing carbon emissions.
His answers were awkward, duplicitous, and downright delusional.
The Non-Sequitur: Greg Hunt, Anti-Colonialist
The Minister became quite animated at one point in the discussion when a young student from Oxford University asked him if approving a mine which will help release more carbon than New Zealand’s annual emissions wasn’t somewhat against the spirit of the negotiations Hunt was in town to attend.
In defence of his approval the Minister pointed out it is not the government’s project, but that of an Indian billionaire. “I thought we were over the neo-colonial moment where the wealthy decide what happens to the poor,” he said, presumably alluding to the much vaunted moral case for exporting coal to impoverished countries.
Hunt said he hoped the questioner would agree that “the poorest countries should be able to decide their own energy future” and argued that his decision was justified because he is “not a neo-colonialist”.
“As an Environment Minister,” he said, “you act as a judge against certain determined criteria, [and]anything else would be a breach of the law”.
“That law doesn’t deal with greenhouse gas emissions, it deals with a set of issues around national environmental standards,” he said.
It’s an interesting defence, considering Hunt’s bungling of the original approval led government solicitors to concede earlier this year that the minister had failed in his responsibility to properly apply national environmental law. Of course, as we reported last month, he has since reinstated the project with a fresh green tick.
The Paradox: Minister for (Cutting) Renewables
Hunt found himself on firmer ground when he was asked by an OECD policy analyst about the “mixed signals” his government is sending when it comes to Australia’s transition towards a cleaner economy. Approving huge coal mines, slashing the Renewable Energy Target (RET). What’s a voting public meant to think?
The crash in renewable energy investment, which we explored in some depth here, was not the government’s fault, Hunt said. He reframed the situation quite heroically.
Bypassing more than 12 months of bitter opposition to cutting the RET from Labor and the Greens, Hunt boasted his government had secured ‘bipartisan support’, thus saving the industry. He omitted to explain that this took place after the government squeezed the agreement out of Labor by setting up the standoff in the first place. As Hunt et al tried to cut the target, the uncertainty caused havoc in the industry. Labor was eventually forced to agree to a new, lower target in order to provide some certainty for investors.
Hunt also didn’t mention the fact that under Coalition rule Australia has slid from being the fourth most attractive place to invest in renewables to the tenth, or that investment in clean energy tanked by nearly 90 per cent in 2014 in the midst of a global boom.
He didn’t mention former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s admission, at a time Hunt was also the Environment Minister, that he wanted to “R-E-D-U-C-E, the number of [wind turbines]that we are going to get in the future”.
Here, instead, is how he spun it:
“Within Australia I think it’s very clear that we had a pause in renewable energy investment in renewables, largely because of a disastrous phantom credit scheme which created credits for renewable energy that didn’t exist, and then at the same time there was also a reduction in our overall energy consumption.
“So, you had new renewable energy being put into a system which had a reduction in overall capacity and a surplus of phantom credits. We had an expectation that it would be at about 27,000 gigawatt hours, [and]that was lifted to 33,000 with bipartisan support.
“That’s actually created the impetus for a genuine kick-start, and only a few days ago I approved a new 200 megawatt wind farm in north Queensland.”
Good on you, Greg.
The Three Word Slogan: ‘Tax? What Tax?’
In the Turnbull era of innovation it’s out with the old and in with the new and Hunt’s finally found confidence enough in his government’s policies to stop dancing on the grave of Labor’s.
In a discussion about carbon pricing – which, as I’ve noted, there’s quite an appetite for in Paris at the moment – the Minister forgot to mention even once that he had done away with the Carbon Tax. Which is a shame, because it’s quite a world-beating achievement considering we’re thought to be the only country in the world to have removed a price on carbon.
It might have had something to do with the fact that another globally significant voice – in this case Paolo Frankl, the Director of Renewable Energy at the International Energy Agency – had some pretty nice things to say about pricing carbon.
Frankl was asked if a country can achieve the economy-wide emissions reductions needed to tackle climate change without a negative price signal on carbon. Of course the government’s ‘reverse action’ process – which uses taxpayer money to buy emissions from polluting companies that promise to abate theirs at the lowest cost – does not send a price signal to the economy as a whole, but only to those companies that choose to participate.
“It can, but it would be not very useful,” Frankl said. “I mean, if you look at Brazil and Australia, that’s exactly what they’re doing now, but in addition to that, there should be a carbon price which would give an additional signal,” he said.
The government may create a legitimate signal, it should be said, when the policy comes up for review in 2017 and the option of tightening a baseline on emissions currently allowed to go on unperturbed is revisited.
On the sidelines of the event, Frankl told New Matilda that “there’s something that the Minister at one point hinted at which I think would deserve some attention”. “He said the reverse auction was ‘a very cost effective market mechanism where we very cost effectively reduced emissions’ and then he said two thirds of this came from land management, okay.
“Now, I have two problems with that. One is that maybe some of these things should have happened anyway, and it’s a failure that they did not happen. Second, if you only go this way you will have the cost effective solutions but you may not produce the necessary technology revolution that you need to be on a two-degrees path.
“Someone else may do that for Australia, of course, the Chinese may do it, but if you apply this worldwide you’ll never get there. And this is why I spoke about hybrid approaches, because market approaches [of the sort the government’s deploying]can work extremely well for mature technologies but they don’t if you have to trigger massive transformation.
“I’m just saying that buying abatement is not enough. Here we have a long-term objective which will only come through a massive technology transformation and just buying the cheapest option will not work.
If you want to encourage specific technologies, he said, you need to devise ways specifically to encourage them. The government would no doubt argue that it’s doing that through the Renewable Energy Target, which it strangled then trashed. Or the Australian Renewable Energy Agency or Clean Energy Finance Corporation, bodies that support technology development for, and the bankrolling of, renewables in Australia.
The Minister for the Environment didn’t mention, either, that this week Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed that even after Abbott’s demise it’s still government policy to abolish them.
C’est la vie, eh?
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