Renewables inquiry leader vows ‘open mind’ on target’s future

Environment Minister Greg Hunt has announced a review of Australia’s renewable energy target. AAP/Alan Porritt

The head of the Abbott government’s new renewable target review says he is going into the inquiry with “a very open mind”, despite his scepticism about humans' contribution to global warming.

Former Reserve Bank board member and business leader Dick Warburton told The Conversation that while people probably knew his position on global warming, they should not assume he had a pre-determined plan to undermine the renewable energy scheme.

In 2011, Mr Warburton co-wrote an article The Intelligent Voter’s Guide to Global Warming, criticising “the groupthink of climate scientists”.

“But I’ll be going in [to the Renewable Energy Target review] with a very open mind on the outcome because there are a lot of issues other than global warming,” Mr Warburton said this afternoon. “There are economic issues and financial obligations already there.”

The new renewables review, due under existing law, will consider the contribution of the target to reducing emissions and its impact on electricity prices and energy markets, as well as the costs and benefits for the renewable energy sector, the manufacturing sector and Australian households.

Announcing the review, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said it would be “extensive. It won’t be a desktop audit.”

The target at present is for 20% of Australia’s electricity to come from renewable energy, such as wind, hydro and solar power, by 2020.

There have been calls from within the government and from industry – particularly large energy and manufacturing companies – to water down or scrap that target to reduce power costs.

The last review of the Renewable Energy Target was completed in December 2012 by the federal government’s Climate Change Authority. It concluded that the government should retain the current Renewable Energy Target, and that scrapping it would save an average household only $15 a year.

The new review will be finished by the middle of this year and feed into the government’s energy white paper.

The announcement of the review came after United States Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Sunday that:

we have to invest in new technology that will help us bring renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydro power, not only to the communities where those resources are abundant but to every community and to every country on every continent.

Rethinking Australia’s energy mix

In Canberra today, the Industry Minister said that Australia’s diversity of energy sources was one of our greatest national strengths. “Renewable energy has contributed to the energy mix, but we must ensure that the program is operating effectively,” Mr Macfarlane said.

Outlining the review’s scope, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said: “Our goals are very simple: to maintain investment certainty, to review progress and to ensure we can take the pressure off electricity prices.”

The government was “committed to easing the pressure of electricity prices for families and business. That’s why we’re getting rid of the carbon tax.”

The head of the review panel, Mr Warburton, came under fire after his appointment was announced because of his previously expressed view that “the science is not settled” on the cause of climate change.

Asked about it today, Mr Warburton said he firmly believed there was climate change going on “but there are many issues and things that can cause climate change”.

“As far as global warming is concerned, I’m not a denier but I am a sceptic about whether man-made carbon dioxide is a principal cause of global warming”.

The other members of the review panel are Matthew Zema, the chief executive of the Australian Energy Market Operator; Brian Fisher, managing director of BAEconomics and a former senior federal bureaucrat; and Shirley In’t Veld, a CSIRO board member and a former energy company CEO.

‘Weapon of mass destruction’: Kerry

Meanwhile, speaking in Jakarta at the end of his three-nation visit to Asia, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared climate change is “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction”, and dismissed its deniers as flat earthers.

In an extremely strongly-worded speech, Kerry said “a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and extreme ideologues” should not be allowed to compete with scientific fact.

“Nor should we allow any room for those who think that the costs associated with doing the right thing outweigh the benefits,” he said.

“We certainly should not allow more time to be wasted by those who want to sit around debating whose responsibility it is to deal with this threat, while we come closer and closer to the point of no return.”

He said that US President Barack Obama and he believed very deeply “that we do not have time for a meeting anywhere of the Flat Earth Society”.

The Abbott government is committed to reducing emissions by 5% on 2000 levels by 2020, but the repeal of the carbon tax is one of its central planks. It plans to replace this by a “direct action plan”, which critics argue will be less effective.

Kerry said that this week he would be instructing all the chiefs of missions of American embassies all over the world “to make climate change a top priority and to use all the tools of diplomacy that they have at their disposal in order to help address this threat”.

“In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” he said.

The science of climate change was “leaping out at us like a scene from a 3D movie”, with 97% of climate scientists confirming that climate change was happening and that human activity was responsible. Scientists agreed that “if we continue to go down the same path that we are going down today, the world as we know it will change – and it will change dramatically for the worse”.

Scientists predicted that by the end of the century, the sea could rise by a full metre – enough to put half of Jakarta under water.

He said he would be the first to acknowledge the US’s responsibility to tackle the problem. But the US could not solve the problem or foot the bill alone. A global solution was needed. “That is why the United States is prepared to take the lead in bringing other nations to the table.”

He said that he was pleased to say the leaders of China – which he has just visited – “agree it is time to pursue a cleaner path forward.”