Changing climates

Changing climates

How baffling is the Abbott government’s assault on windfarms?

AAP/Alan Porritt

The confirmation by Trade Minister Andrew Robb that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) has been ordered to cease future investments in wind power is a major setback to renewable energy, investment and delivery. It also further isolates Australia as not only having abolished a price on carbon, but one that has scaled back its renewable energy target and now is winding back the wind power sector.

The directive, which was revealed by Fairfax Media only this weekend, was jointly issued by Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann late last month. It rediverts funds from the A$10 billion “green bank” away from wind and into long-term research and development (R&D).

The move is the Coalition’s next-best scenario to actually abolishing the CEFC, which it has sought to do twice now only to be blocked in the Senate. This constitutes a genuine trigger for a double dissolution if it is needed.

Labor, which was party to downsizing the size of the Renewable Energy Target, labelled it as an attempt to sabotage the renewable sector altogether. Labor leader Bill Shorten commented that the CEFC would now be limited to investing in “flying saucers”. This is because, he says, the directive cannot fund an initiative through to completion, as by definition it would then be considered mature or “established”.

The Abbott government’s decision to effectively cease all new investment in the “mature technology” of wind power in favour of “emerging technology” comes straight from the policy vault of Bjorn Lomborg.

Lomborg, whose influence over the Abbott government’s climate policies is well known, has tried to find asylum for his climate-belittling “Copenhagen Consensus Centre” in Australia. He is also an occasional columnist for The Australian.

In October 2013, Lomborg wrote a column titled:

The world is warming but there’s no need to panic.

Lomborg declared:

In the Copenhagen Consensus for Climate, economists found that the smartest long-term solution is substantially to increase funding for green energy research and development. In other words, we shouldn’t subsidise today’s hugely inefficient green technologies but focus on innovation to reduce the cost of future versions of wind and solar energy and the many other amazing possibilities.

Making future green technology cheaper than fossil fuels would mean that everyone would switch, not just subsidised, well-meaning Westerners.

In an earlier column in April 2013, Lomborg admitted that R&D alone is full of uncertainty:

Of course, R&D holds no guarantees. We might spend billions and still come up empty-handed in 40 years’ time. But it has a much better chance of success than continuing the futile efforts of the past 20 years.

Since Lomborg wrote those articles, renewable energy technologies have already become price competitive. They easily beat fossil fuels if we price in the cost of health to future generations. The improvement has largely been found in the cost of production, not the technologies themselves.

Nevertheless, Lomborg’s recommendations of two years since seems to have prevailed in the comments Robb has offered over the CEFC intervention. Robb was not able to elaborate on exactly what the “emerging technologies” even are – only that wind power has already matured to the point of not requiring further investment.

No-one is going to deny the merits of ongoing R&D. But when it is put up as a replacement for subsidising the manufacture of existing technologies rather than alongside them, it is very easy to become sceptical.

Witness the US$1.5 billion of American taxpayer money wasted by Republican administrations on R&D for Hydrogen–fuelled cars. It became a gigantic technocratic hoax designed to kill off investment in the production of the electric car – which it succeeded in doing for more than 20 years, much to the delight of oil company lobbyists in Washington. But, we don’t have coal lobby groups in Canberra? Do we?

Yet there appears to be a split within the government between advocates for dead-end R&D and simply moving the funding from wind to solar. On the same day that Fairfax reported Environment Minister Greg Hunt being angered by the intervention of his fellow ministers a few weeks earlier, he took to Twitter to deny the claim. He also revealed in a further tweet yesterday that his own preference is to focus on solar and emerging technologies.

But Tony Abbott’s soundbite on the same day under the cover of the not-so “visually awful” or “noisy” presence of military helicopter turbines at a war game exercise in Darwin did not mention solar, but only “new and emerging technologies”.

It is too early to gauge the complexity of the crossbench deals needed to endorse the changes being made to the CEFC’s mandate. But certainly, appeasing the three conservative senators – David Leyonhjelm, Bob Day and John Madigan – who are strident anti-wind campaigners is a major objective.

In a piece he wrote for The Saturday Paper at the same time as the CEFC was just getting its directives, Mike Seccombe had researched the backroom Senate powerplays in considerable detail. He demonstrates how the tobacco lobby tactics of old have been used in the 21st-century wind politics in denouncing medical expertise on windfarm safety.

But the important detail is the workings of the most recent Senate Select Committee on Wind Turbines. It has six members, half of whom are the above named senators, who also now hold the largest crossbench power block in the Senate. Seccombe charts the connection of two of the senators, Day and Leyonhjelm, to the Institute for Public Affairs, as well as the background of Madigan’s chief-of staff, whose previous work in anti-wind journalism earned him windturbinesyndrome.com’s “journalist of the year award” in 2011.

The importance of pandering to these senators may explain the mercenary assault on wind power that we have seen from Abbott’s inner cabinet. This includes Abbott’s baffling comments to Alan Jones last month that wind turbines were “visually awful” and “make a lot of noise”.

Abbott’s comments are baffling on so many fronts. For someone who is so poll- and audience-driven, he might well consider that Volkswagen has used wind turbines in an ad campaign. The car company researched that they appeal to people and spent money on advertising with them.

But more baffling is that, as coastal winds intensify around the world as a result of climate change, we are going to need wind turbines – not just for energy, but for our protection. Modelling in 2014 published in Nature Climate Change found that wind turbines can cut wind speeds and storm surges by life-saving magnitudes.

In a climate-adaptive future, it is possible to imagine large cities ringed by wind turbines to save them from storm damage. In this case, what would unfold is that the most baffling comments from Australia’s prime minister are actually referring to the greatest baffle that human beings have ever made – to protect themselves.