Renewable Energy Target review confirms influence of coal and climate sceptics

The Renewable Energy Target represents another shift towards fossil fuel power. Brian Yap (葉)/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The release of the Renewable Energy Target review last week is yet another indication of the disproportionate influence of the fossil fuel industry and climate sceptics on governments in Australia.

Many experts have said that, if the recommendations are implemented, they would have a serious impact on the renewable energy sector.

The review follows the repeal of Australia’s carbon “tax” (read: fixed price period of an emissions trading scheme) with government bills to abolish the independent Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency put before the Parliament.

Review process was not consistent with legislation

The legislation which established the Renewable Energy Target states that the independent Climate Change Authority, now facing abolition, must review the operation of the Act. Yet this statutory task was given to a “panel of experts” chaired by Dick Warburton, a well-known sceptic of human-induced climate change.

Not only that, but the panel’s terms of reference were not consistent with the legislation and were skewed to require consideration of the government’s agenda of “reducing business costs, cost of living pressures, cutting red and green tape, and the Direct Action plan”.

It seems that not even those wealthy people who the government is levying 2% for budget recovery can afford any climate change impost on their electricity prices. Certainly not AUD$550 a year for the carbon price and probably not any short-term increases to electricity prices resulting from the Renewable Energy Target. What’s more, the Direct Action plan has not even been approved by the Parliament.

And now the recommendations weaken the target in favour of coal-fired power. Although Warburton states publicly that he brought an open mind to the review, in a democracy we expect those who exercise public functions to “be seen to be” impartial.

We have already witnessed the Prime Minister and Treasurer ordering the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to stop disbursing funds contrary to its statutory mandate. Again, our democracy requires the repeal of the legislation by the Parliament to achieve this, not orders barked from the executive.

Coal lobbying in NSW

In New South Wales, the Independent Commission against Corruption has been investigating corruption associated with the opening up of land for coal mining, the granting of coal licences, the construction of coal terminals, and the taking of illegal developer donations.

What is also of great concern is the political influence of the coal mining lobby. In October 2012 the NSW Minerals Council lobbied the NSW government to cut funds to the Environmental Defender’s Office of NSW. The council objected to the EDO bringing applications, on behalf of communities, for judicial review and merits appeals against mining approvals granted by the government.

Yet these remedies are essential to a functioning democracy and are indeed protected legal rights in Australia. That month, the O’Farrell government cut the Environmental Defender’s Office’s funding by 25%. The Federal government has since cut funding of A$10 million to EDO offices around Australia.

Last year when a NSW court refused consent for a coal mine on the grounds of ecological sustainability, the O’Farrell government amended a NSW mining environmental planning policy to make the economic significance of coal the principal factor in assessment.

Environmental and social factors must now only be considered proportionately to the economic significance of coal. This was ostensibly to give “certainty” to the coal miners and the community.

Yet public submissions on the changes showed that over 84% of individuals and over 66% of organisations were opposed to the amendment.

Climate change off the agenda

Meanwhile the Federal Government has said that climate change will not be on the agenda when the G20 meets this November in Brisbane. The Prime Minister only wants to talk about “economic security and private sector-led growth for a strong prosperous future” — and does not consider climate change part of that agenda, despite evidence to the contrary.

Instead, the Abbott government enthusiastically celebrates the repeal of the carbon price mechanism, for which it claims it had a democratic mandate, as a win for the economy. But a question remains whether those who voted for the Abbott government really understood that the government intended to abolish the emissions trading scheme as well, leaving the fossil fuel industry free to emit greenhouse gas emissions.

Also, instead of building a scientific citizenry to fully engage with climate change, the Climate Change Commission was axed on the Abbott government’s second day in office. There’s also now no longer a Minister for Science. Funds to the CSIRO have been slashed, impacting their climate change programs. Yet an informed and engaged public discussion is essential to democratic participation in decision-making around climate change.

Australia going against the grain

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report tells us with high confidence that from 2000-2010 greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were the highest in human history with CO2 accounting for 78% of the total.

Energy supply contributed 47% of total increases in emissions during this decade. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the energy supply sector must reduce its emissions by 90% below 2010 levels between 2040 and 2070 if we are to have a reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous global warming.

The EU’s growth strategy Europe 2020 aims to “absolutely decouple” economic growth from the environmental impacts of energy use, while reducing greenhouse gases by 20% below 1990 levels, enhancing competitiveness, and promoting energy security.

Jobs growth is key to the “green economy” with the renewable energy sector alone expected to generate more than 400,000 new jobs by 2020 .

Yet the Abbott government keeps attempting, sometimes successfully, to deliver knock-out punches to controls on fossil fuel energy sector emissions and Australia’s potential to move towards smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

Governments in Australia should govern to protect the interests of all sectors of society — not just a business sector that wants to free itself from the tangles of “green” and “red” tape. What’s more, Australian governments should stick to the rules and democratic conventions which protect all of our rights and interests. There are too many instances which suggest that many of those who govern don’t even know, or care, that the rules exist.

Something is rotten in the state of Australia and that something is the disproportionate influence of the fossil fuel industry and climate change sceptics over government in Australia.