On Monday, as Malcolm Turnbull launched his successful strike against incumbent prime minister Tony Abbott, a sigh of relief could be heard right across the land. In one fell swoop, gone was the stridency and sloganeering of the Abbott-Credlin supremacy, and a real government with a flair for communication and the promise of responsible behaviour was ushered in.
Few would have welcomed the change at the top more than those working in Australia’s long-suffering renewable energy industry. For reasons that still remain obscure, Abbott got it into his head that wind and solar power were the enemy and had to be crushed, while the fossil fuel incumbents, particularly coal exporters, had to be glorified.
Never mind that around the world, renewable energy industries are emerging as real industries of the future, while coal seems to be in terminal decline. Facts like these had no impact on Abbott’s apparent loathing of renewables.
All this can now change. Of course we all understand that Turnbull had to give certain undertakings to the conservative right of his party to secure the numbers needed for the changeover. So his comments in his first Question Time offering continued support for the much-maligned Direct Action proposals of Abbott’s environment minister Greg Hunt (an agenda which Turnbull has previously described as “bullshit”) may be viewed as a holding position until a fresh cabinet goes to election on a new platform, perhaps including some form of emissions trading.
All of this is understood. But the rhetorical war on renewables unleashed by Abbott, treasurer Joe Hockey and their colleagues over the past two years had the desired effect: investment in the industry dried up. It’s easy to see why: you can’t invest in building wind farms if the government refuses to give any indication that these investments will be encouraged to earn their expected return.
Winds of change
Now the opportunity presents itself to change all that. Australia, the land of almost unlimited sunshine, wind and geothermal treasures, might finally be allowed to build tomorrow’s industries around these incomparable resources, rather than treating the land as little more than a gigantic quarry.
Turnbull, in his post-victory media conference on Monday evening, gave an effective, off-the-cuff summary of the opportunity:
The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves. We have to recognize that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change, is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.
The good news is that securing a future for renewables won’t be very hard at all.
Nothing more is needed than a phrase, or even just a sentence, indicating that the war on renewables is over. “We welcome investment in a solar and renewables future” would do the trick. It would set loose the animal spirits of the renewables industry and create a new flow of investment, once the government makes it abundantly clear that renewable energy is one of the industries that can contribute to Australia being agile, innovative and creative.
It doesn’t need any new policy. It just requires a statement of intent – the prerogative of an incoming leader. Turnbull might add that under his leadership, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – targeted for abolition by the Abbott government but protected by its legal mandate – would be safe, and allowed to get on with its important work. A further plus would be the appointment to the new cabinet of an industry minister who is sympathetic to renewables.
There is time between now and the next federal election for the Turnbull team to fashion a new energy platform to take to voters. This would be expected to match – as a minimum – the target already set by the Labor opposition of 50% of electricity coming from renewables by 2030. Wouldn’t it be great to see the two main parties fighting the next election over who would have the strongest support for an Australian renewables industry?
Experience around the world indicates clearly that the way to clean up energy systems and move beyond the era of fossil fuels is to encourage investment in renewables. Given the chance, they can demonstrate over the next decade or so that they can provide all the power needed by our industrial civilization – and particularly in the rising industrial powers of China, India and Brazil. It is no secret that renewables, unlike fossil fuels, are based on manufacturing not mining, meaning that this industry could generate local jobs and exports for the future as well as generating clean power.
This is an energy revolution that is already under way globally – precisely the kind of upheaval that Turnbull was referring to in his comments about technological disruption. It is a revolution of which Australia needs to be a part – and it can be, once the artificial barriers to investment erected by Abbott and his cohorts are cleared away.
To join this revolution you don’t need carbon emissions targets or endless debates about carbon taxes and trading. You just need a business environment that favours investment in renewables, which deliver the only feasible post-carbon energy system available. And in Australia’s case, in this first week of the new Turnbull premiership, all you need is a simple declaration: “The war on renewables is over.”