RenewEconomy's Giles Parkinson reports from Paris on Australia's embarrassing stance at the COP21 talks and finds the international expert view of our Direct Action policies is that they are "not very useful".
IF COAL is good for humanity, then someone has forgotten to tell the world’s poorest countries. In a strongly worded statement that came out on the first day of talks at the Paris climate summit, the leaders of 30 of the world’s poorest countries said they wanted the world to be 100 per cent renewable by 2050.
The level of ambition on renewable energy and the climate target will be a key theme of these talks. There is a major push by poorer nations for their – and the world’s – energy needs to be supplied by renewable energy, as part of their insistence that the climate target be tightened to prevent average warming of more than 1.5C degrees.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said it was part of the push for a “fairer”, more “climate-proactive world.” The basic message is that they see themselves as most vulnerable to climate change, and don’t want more coal fired generation that could worsen their prospects.
This, of course, is in stark contrast with the marketing campaign of the global coal lobby – and its echo chambers in governments like Australia’s – could not be more profound.
Indeed, when Environment Minister Greg Hunt was challenged at an OECD event about the approval of the controversial Carmichael coal mine, a project that could emit more than many country’s total emissions, he retorted:
“I am not a neo-colonialist. I think the poorest should be able to make their own decisions.”
And some of them have. The call by the 30 developing countries was followed by a separate announcement on Tuesday that African countries intended to install 10GW of new renewable capacity by 2020, and up to 300 GW by 2030. The majority of this will come in solar and wind, rather than hydro. France is contributing a total of nearly $10 billion.
“Island boy” Barack Obama meets island states
The push by poorer countries for renewable energy is part of their campaign to have “full decarbonisation” written into the Paris text – but by 2050 rather than 2100 favoured by the U.S. and other developed nations.
Tied in with this, is a hope that a target of 1.5C global warming can also be written into the text. Oil rich OPEC nations don’t even want a 2C target, but some compromise over the wording is likely to be found.
Curiously, one of the opponents of the 2C appears to be India, who despite their strong support for solar energy is emerging as the most likely spoiler of an ambitious deal, or a deal of any kind, in Paris.
Interestingly, U.S. President Barack Obama stayed an extra day, offering concessions over the legal nature of the treaty, not so much as to risk rebuttal from the Republican dominated Congress but particularly over the periodic reviews, which are likely to be held every few years to take the country pledges from a collective target of between 2.7C and 3.5C, down to the agreed 2C target.
This has pleased the Association of Island States, who dubbed Obama “Island Boy” — an acknowledgement of his childhood in Hawaii, when he met them and proposed a compromise on “risk insurance risk” as a certain breaker on the thorny topic of “loss and damage”.
It certainly impressed Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak:
"After what President Obama said to me today, I am more confident than ever before that we can secure the ambitious agreement we need.”
Hunt on the spot on coal and carbon pricing
Australia’s climate and clean energy policies finally came under some scrutiny when Hunt was challenged at the OECD function – by an OECD researcher – about Australia’s approval of new coal mines.
More embarrassing for Hunt was the suggestion by a senior executive from the International Energy Agency that his government’s reliance on reverse auctions – the principal mechanism of the Direct Action Plan – rather than a carbon price was “not very useful”.
Privately, most experts are not impressed with Australia’s decision to dump a carbon price, nor its reliance on its Direct Action program. Few are convinced, despite Hunt’s hard sale, that it can meet longer term and more ambitious targets.
Most keep those thoughts to themselves. But Paulo Frankl, the head of the IEA’s renewable energy division, said emissions reductions required more than a single mechanism, and ones that could provide both a long term and a short term price signal.
Asked if it was a good idea to rely on reverse auctions, Frankl told the audience:
“It can, but it it would be not be very useful. If you look at Brazil and Australia that is exactly what they are doing now, but in addition to that there should be a carbon price, which would give an additional signal.”
Fact Check: Hunt’s claims on energy efficiency
On the subject of Hunt, it has to be said that sometimes he can’t help himself.
"Look, in particular we are very, very good at energy efficiency,” he told ABC Radio National’s Breakfast Program this week, in response to a question on how Australia could spend an extra $100 million on new technologies.
Actually, Australia is pretty lousy at energy efficiency. The prime minister’s report on energy efficiency in 2010 was scathing in its assessment, noting Australia trailed the OECD so badly it was hard to imagine it could ever catch up.
Successive governments have been sitting on its recommendations ever since, and nothing much has changed, despite the excellent work of some very smart energy efficiency experts. The country has weak or no controls over its power stations, ditto on vehicle fuel efficiency and its building stock trails badly. Some governments have even repealed laws to build energy efficient houses.
Which is not to say that Australia should not be focused on energy efficiency. It should. It has an innovative “White Certificate" scheme, despite the best efforts of some conservative state governments to kill them off, and the Coalition is looking to a 40 per cent lift in “energy productivity”, even if some think this should be more ambitious.
Energy efficiency, in any assessment, should play a key role in emissions reduction, along with renewables. But Australia shouldn’t pretend to be preaching to the world about it — and neither on renewables, based on recent evidence.
Direct Action, or Direct Inaction?
Hunt spends a lot of time talking up the Direct Action policy and the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), and he was giving his spiel at an OECD function – going head to head with Chile’s Environment Minister on an explanation of each country's policies.
Hunt insisted that the ERF had been more successful than many analysts have predicted. But Murray Griffin, from the subscription website Footprint, produced an interesting article, suggesting it had been a lot less successful than Hunt himself had suggested when the policy was designed.
He noted that new figures show the government now expects the ERF to deliver 92 million tonnes of total abatement by 2020. This compares to the promised 140 million tonnes per year by 2020, when the policy was first released in 2010.
Little wonder then, that the Climate Change Authority repeated this week that new policies were needed. Carbon price anyone?
Incidentally, the OECD have put together a very useful little website called Compare Your Country. This illustration, for instance, compares Australia (red) with Germany (brown) and Denmark (green), along with OECD (blue).
Shorten on the loose
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has been at Le Bourget [the COP21 location], trying to seize any opportunity to make Labor look good, and the Coalition poor on climate policy. Shorten’s big picture policies are much more ambitious that the Turnbull government’s – 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and 45 per cent emissions reductions. But on the details, Shorten – and the Labor Party in general – struggle to differentiate themselves.
That is true of approval of new coal mines. Labor is an enthusiastic supporter of the Galilee Basin (or, at least, its energy spokesman Gary Gray is) and on the crucial item of the first day of the talks (Australia’s refusal to sign up to a deal to end fossil fuel subsidies) Shorten was on the same page as the Coalition, saying he wouldn’t dump the fuel excise duty, worth $5.5 billion, either.
Shorten spent much of the second day talking to, or rather listening to, environmental NGOs and (green) business groups, whose principal message was that Labor could comfortably go further on its targets. Just look at what the rest of the world was doing.
Reneweconomy would have taken a solar plane to France, if there was one available and it had a lot of time on its hands. But we didn’t. We have, where possible, taken advantage of one of the pedal powered charging stations at the Le Bourget conference centre where the talks are being held.
At least there is space to be had and desks to be found. Now that the 150 leaders have parted, a good two thirds of the media have left too. Once over lightly was plenty enough for them. The negotiations resume in earnest — there are 10 days to reach an agreement but in reality France wants a draft text on the main points completed by this Friday. There will be a few long nights.
Giles Parkinson is in Paris for COP21. This story was originally published in RenewEconomy on 2 December 2015 and has been republished with permission. You can follow Giles on Twitter @GilesParkinson.