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Australia’s secret emissions target

Feb 6, 2020 • 13m 56s

Every state and territory government in Australia has a target of net zero emissions by 2050. What are the benefits, and the risks, of the states defying the federal government?

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Australia’s secret emissions target

157 • Feb 6, 2020

Australia’s secret emissions target

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

With Scott Morrison refusing to budge on reducing emissions, Australia does actually have a net zero target - it’s just been set by the states. Today, Mike Seccombe on how Australia has committed to meeting global emissions targets without the Prime Minister.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Mike, we hear so much about Australia’s failures on climate change, but that’s not the full story?

MIKE:

No, no, it's not. It's true that as of now, the federal government has no plan beyond a target of cutting greenhouse emissions by 26 to 28 per cent by 2030. And no goal beyond that.

But, looked at another way, Australia does have a target of zero emissions by mid century. It's just that it hasn't been set by the federal government, it's been set by the states.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

Every state and territory in the country now has the same target, which is that in 30 years time, by 2050, we will have net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

So really, you know, if the states meet their promised goals, then Australia meets those goals. And what the federal government says is kind of irrelevant.

RUBY:

That’s kind of a big deal.

MIKE:

Yeah, it is. It changes, I think, the way we think about climate action, which is, you know, at the moment, so much of the focus is on the federal government and its actions or inactions. Maybe instead of that, we should be looking at what the states are doing.

As of this year, the Australian Capital Territory gets its electricity from 100 percent renewable sources.

Archival Tape --Canberra advertisement:

“Canberra will be powered by 100 percent renewable electricity by 2020, but there's still more to do!”

MIKE:

It signed onto a process of reverse auctions with power suppliers, and it rode the cost curve down and now it has entirely renewable energy. And what's more, some of the cheapest in the country.

And now that they've done that, they're moving on to the next phase, which is to use that energy to power their transport and other infrastructures.

Archival Tape --Canberra ad:

“And we’ll stop needing a car all the time, instead using light rail, buses, bikes and good old fashioned feet.”

MIKE:

Electric cars, electric light rail, taking gas out of people's houses so that they use all electrical appliances. And the ACT is on track to be totally carbon neutral by 2045, ahead of the 2050 imposed deadline.

RUBY:

Okay. And so, what about the other states?

MIKE:

Well, the other stand up is South Australia. It's a Liberal government, which is what makes it particularly interesting.

The previous Labor government set South Australia on a course to become very renewables-heavy, and a lot of investment went into wind in particular and, more recently, solar there. But when the government changed a couple of years ago, the policy didn't change and the Liberal parties kept right on with it. And and in some ways has actually made it more ambitious.

You might recall that a couple of years ago, South Australia installed the world's biggest battery provided by Tesla and installed very quickly. And at the time, the federal government, Scott Morrison in particular, ridiculed it.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“By all means have the worlds biggest battery, have the world's biggest banana, have the worlds biggest prawn, like we have on the roadside…”

MIKE:

In fact, it's been wildly successful. It's driven down prices. It's stabilised the grid, not only in South Australia, but all across the place.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“The naysayers said it was a waste of money but this big battery is already playing a key role…”

MIKE:

When a power station falls over in Queensland, the big battery in South Australia plays a role in stabilising the grid. And it's made a lot of money. So much so that the government has just announced that it's increasing its size by 50 per cent.

And just last week, we heard that yet another big battery, there's a few of them across the country now, is about to be built in Wandoan in Queensland.

So there's a lot happening and, even bigger than this battery announcement, there was another largely unreported news event that the Australian Energy Regulator ticked off a proposal to build a new 1.5 billion dollar, 900 kilometre interconnector between South Australia and New South Wales.

RUBY:

And is that a big development?

MIKE:

Yeah, it's a very big development. As it is, South Australia already generates some days, and increasingly frequently, more renewables than it can use itself. So what will happen as a result of this is not only will they be able to potentially become 100 per cent renewable electricity themselves, but will effectively have an export industry of sending it off to the rest of the country.

RUBY:

So Mike, if the states and territories will likely meet a net zero emissions target by 2050, which they've set themselves, why is the federal government and Scott Morrison so committed to talking about a much lower target than that?

MIKE:

You tell me. Actually, seriously, I can think of a few reasons, but my suspicion is that underpinning all of this, all this government reluctance to move on the domestic front is its concern about maintaining and growing Australia's big fossil fuel export industry.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment

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RUBY:

Mike, we're talking about climate change and the fact that Australia kind of has a net zero emissions target because of the commitments that have been made by states and territories. Can you tell me a bit more about why the federal government doesn't talk about this kind of de facto target that's been set?

MIKE:

I think to put it bluntly, it's not seen as being in our economic interests to set a good example to the world, even though we are uniquely placed to do so.

We are the biggest exporter of coal and the biggest export of methane, to give the proper name to what they rather romantically called natural gas.

The government wants the rest of the world to keep buying our coal and our gas. It’s become a very negative presence internationally at climate conferences. Domestically, it sort of runs the corollary argument, which is this myth that Australia is doing its share on climate with its modest federal targets and that it's very hard to do any more because it would cost jobs and growth. It's not in their interests to be successful to a certain extent.

The government tries to sort of present this argument that no one's doing very much at all. And that's not true. Across Europe, they have very ambitious targets. The fact is that many other places have much more ambitious targets for the rollout of renewables than we do.

And in many ways, it should be easier for us to do it because we have abundant sun, abundant wind, plenty of space to put them, we’re an advanced economy. And instead, we continue to make this somewhat bogus moral case for selling coal to India, for example...

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“There are about 300 million people in India who do not have access to any electricity”

MIKE:

Saying it's lifting living standards of Indians by providing electricity.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“We have pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty across our globe.
The only way we maintain that is through access to cheap and affordable electricity which, right now, means fossil fuels.”

MIKE:

Well, in India, as is here, renewables are already cheaper. And of course, India's reliance on coal also chokes millions of its people in air pollution and causes vast illness and death. And if the forecasts for unabated climate change are followed through 50 years from now, large parts of India will be literally uninhabitable.

RUBY:

Mike, returning to Australia, you’ve laid out the politics of our response to climate change. But how about business?

MIKE:

A couple of months ago, Mike Cannon Brookes, the tech billionaire, the co-founder of Atlassian, convened a gathering of 125 odd business leaders to encourage them to join in something called RE 100, which is a collection of corporates who are promising to make themselves carbon neutral over various timeframes.

And the argument that he used was simply that this is about profitability. You know, it's good for the bottom line.

Archival Tape --Mike Cannon Brookes:

“I would content it would be good for our profitability in the long term.”

MIKE:

And at that meeting, those gathered heard from people like Unilever and IKEA, who've already committed. In the past year, the five big Australian banks, Westpac, Commonwealth, ANZ, NAB and Macquarie have already signed on with this RE 100. So has Bank Australia, which has already 100 per cent renewable. There's a bunch of others. And they're talking to more companies all the time.

Archival Tape --Mike Cannon Brookes:

“Anything that makes our business more sustainable economically is going to be good for our shareholders in the long term...”

MIKE:

But, there is a bit of a storm cloud on the horizon in as much as Australia's existing coal fired fleet of generators is getting very old, up around 50 years in some cases. And I spoke to Professor Andrew Stock, he's a 40 year veteran of the energy industry. He used to be a general manager with Origin and he now sits on the Climate Council.

And he says that that's going to be a big concern.

Archival Tape --Andrew Stock:

“The technologies are old or obsolete, and the power stations are unreliable. We are seeing these power stations fail more frequently, more often, and that's really the biggest risk for the system…”

MIKE:

The drop off in new investment in renewables means that we're not as prepared as we might be for the potential closure of one of these big coal fired generators.

The point that he made is that we hear Morrison and others run this argument about the intermittency of renewables, saying that, you know, we need base-load power because when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, it can't be relied upon. In fact, Stock says, the greater concern for Australia's energy market operator is that these old fossil fuel plants are inclined to just fall over.

Archival Tape --

“If you lose a little bit of wind generation, generally that's not so dramatic as if you lose maybe a thousand megawatts of coal fired generation in an instant. Blackouts are almost always assured when that sort of thing happens.”

MIKE:

So increasingly, that's where the big risk is in the system.

RUBY:

So, Mike, we're in a position where the federal government's lack of action on renewables isn't stopping state governments or big corporations from going carbon neutral, but it is still creating problems. And right now, the federal government is facing more pressure, especially given the drought and the bushfires. Can you envision a moment where it will just say, okay, well, you know, we're going to hit net zero by 2050. Let's just align federal policies with state policies and, you know, and then they're off.

MIKE:

Well, that would make a lot of sense. But let's not forget what happened to Malcolm Turnbull when he tried to bring a bit of rational policy into the matter of climate change. I mean, they dumped him, they knifed him and they put Scott Morrison in place instead. And there are still powerful forces in the federal government who don't even believe climate change is a thing.

And there are a lot of others who subscribe to the view that it is a thing, but there's nothing we can do about it because we're a small country in a big world, and change is hard. And that's why I think at the end of the day, the economic argument, which is to say an argument based on self-interest rather than altruism, might be the most persuasive.

Households know they save on their power bills by having solar panels on their roofs. Businesses are realising that they save by using renewables. State and territory governments, likewise. So I suspect the day is fast approaching, particularly after this summer from hell that we've just had, when the federal government will come to realise that its self-interest lies in getting more serious about climate issues.

RUBY:

Mike, thanks very much for your time today.

MIKE:

Thank you very much.

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RUBY:

Also in the news today:

President Donald Trump has given his annual state of the union address, during which he made his case for re-election. In his speech, Donald Trump railed against “criminal illegal immigrants”. When he finished speaking, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripped up a copy of his speech, later calling it a “manifesto of mistruths”.

And two Australians are among 10 people who have tested positive for coronavirus on a cruise ship which is docked in Japan. Health checks began after an 80-year-old Hong Kong man tested positive for the virus.

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. See you tomorrow.

The federal government is refusing to adopt stronger climate-change policies, but it turns out that might not matter. In this episode, Mike Seccombe reveals the de facto target set by all states and territories — to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

States defy Commonwealth on emissions in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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auspol climatechange zeroemissions renewablenergy




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157: Australia’s secret emissions target