Coalition's NEG: A less powerful word for 'stupid'

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons.

The National Energy Guarantee is Turnbull's attempt to fend off the far-right climate deniers led by Tony Abbott, barking madly, demanding $5 billion for new coal and denouncing renewables. Giles Parkinson reports.


And so too are the rest of the crew — Senator Matt Canavan, Judith Sloan, Nick Cater and the endless cast of malcontents in the Murdoch media and the Coalition back-bench and ministry.

For months, we have lamented the stupidity of the debate around climate and energy, and the extraordinary push-back from conservatives against any new technologies such as wind, solar, battery storage, demand management and electric vehicles.

Surely, we said, the debate could not get any dumber. We were wrong.

The volume is being dialled up to the maximum as the weeks count down towards a meeting of state and Federal ministers, that will discuss and vote on the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

The simple message coming out of the Abbott and Murdoch camp: How could anyone be so stupid as to take climate change seriously, or advocate for a single wind or solar farm? Or battery? Or load management? Why not just burn coal?

They are not happy. And they are barking madly.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shouldn’t be surprised.

Having promised never to lead a party that didn’t take climate change seriously and then doing exactly that, he and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg embraced an improbable and complex idea: the NEG, and its reliability and emissions “obligations”.

The idea was to give the impression they were doing something and nothing at all at the same time, to different constituents.

Too clever by half. Frydenberg’s attempts to portray this as a sensible compromise are rapidly coming unstuck.

On one side, because no one trusts a government that votes, en masse, in support of a Senator Pauline Hanson motion to build a new coal-fired power station, or that is reportedly putting together a $5 billion fund to do exactly that.

On the other side, because the far right will push back at anything that looks like something.

Abbott, in a speech to the Australian Environment Foundation – a “think tank” whose main platform is to deny climate science and preach against wind farms – will claim that the NEG is all about emissions. And that, therefore, must be bad.

Except that it is not. The Coalition’s emissions target, signed off by Abbott when he was Prime Minister, requires a reduction of just 26 per cent in electricity sector emissions from 2005 to 2030.

That target will probably be met by 2020, or soon after, thanks to all the wind and solar farms being built to meet the renewable energy target — the mechanism that the Coalition tried to kill, but couldn’t.

Turnbull has been careful not to offend Abbott and his mates any further, and while he could do nothing to stop the wind and solar investment boom and ensuing emissions reductions, he has taken care not to introduce any other policy to cut emissions in other sectors.

That leaves Australia in no position at all to get anywhere near its modest and low-ball Paris climate commitment, let alone the increased targets it will be under pressure from the international community to produce in 2019.

The strategy? In the age of Trump, it is okay to be an international pariah. And to spout nonsense.

Even in transport, where some exploratory noises have been made about ending Australia’s position as the only developed economy that allows its vehicles to emit and pollute at will, any moves towards fuel or emissions standards have been brandished as a carbon tax on wheels.

That’s enough to frighten Frydenberg, who pointed last year to the front page of the Daily Telegraph to explain why no policies had been enacted. This is being interpreted by many as the actions of a man whose eyes are on the long-term goal of being PM, not to resolve energy or climate policy in a meaningful way.

But Abbott and his team have made it clear. There can be no compromise.

Abbott, in excerpts of a speech reportedly due to be delivered on Tuesday night, and reported on the front page by (who else?) The Australian, says it is impossible to address energy reliability, prices and emissions at the same time.

He also does not like the idea of consensus.

He says:

“It’s not a circle you can square with the Labor Party. It is a fight that has to be won. There can be no consensus on climate change …. you either win or lose …. and at the moment we are losing.”

Hey, we know the feeling. Anyone who has taken climate science seriously, and is vaguely literate on economic and technology issues can see the multiple benefits – environmental, engineering and economics – of the clean energy transition.

But Abbott and his fellow pot-holes are not budging. While the former PM charged headlong into the trenches, his conga-line of supporters were defending the flanks, attacking those who would challenge the right wing.

Nick Cater, the head of the Menzies Research Centre (about as much an insult to the legacy of Robert Menzies as the Monash Forum is to John Monash), made himself and his readers feel good with a spray against Tasmania’s Greens. Something about pumped hydro and wind power.

Economist Judith Sloan turned her arrows to the new head of the National Farmers Federation, Fiona Simson, who in an interview with The Guardian last week, dared to admit that she took climate change seriously.

In a piece titled 'You’re fashionable Fiona, but get a grip on the facts', Sloan said she was appalled that the NFF should decide it should act on climate change.

Sloan wrote:

'My advice to the NFF and Simson is to stick to your knitting. Getting into bed with climate change enthusiasts is a quick route to the introduction of a raft of new policies that will damage the farming community.'

Farmers are tough, she said, and would deal with any changing weather patterns, just like they always had:

'It’s time the NFF began to stand up for the farmers rather than take fashionable positions on topics that are poorly understood by its leadership.' 

And she threw the NEG in for good measure.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Energy Security Board and an army of “experts” imported from the energy industry – many from the incumbents trying to defend their turf – are racing to cobble together the biggest rewrite of the National Electricity Rules since they were created two decades ago.

This will happen in the space of four weeks, with no time for reflection, analysis or fine-tuning. All in the name, we are told, of a “bipartisan” solution to the climate and energy debate.

But Abbott and his team have made it clear. There can be no compromise. What we need is another more powerful word for stupid — NEG doesn’t quite cut it.

This article by Giles Parkinson was originally published in Renew Economy and has been republished with permission. You can follow Giles on Twitter @GilesParkinson.

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