The Politics    Thursday, April 19, 2018

A NEG-ligible achievement

By Paddy Manning

Image of Black Thursday 1851
Australia needs a real fix, not a political fix, on climate

Could someone please explain how a National Energy Guarantee that tackles one quarter of one third of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions problem – that’s one twelfth, or about 8 per cent – is going to end the climate wars? If that’s all we’re going to do, then we might as well declare victory for the climate sceptics. We’re not exactly doing nothing, but it’s eleven-twelfths of nothing, which is much the same thing. On a typical 9 to 5 workday, it’s like knocking off at 9.40am. If only!

We need to get to net zero emissions, ASAP, which is what the United Kingdom is now considering. British emissions are currently lower than at any time since 1890. Then we need to go into carbon drawdown, to restore a safe climate, which is the debate we haven’t even started yet.

Bear that in mind tomorrow when the false-balance merchants in the media declare a win for the Turnbull government and for the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, who apparently told Alan Jones that “all that global warming stuff is rubbish”. We can then look forward to dialled-down climate coverage for the short-to-medium-to-long term because anyone still worried about that boring, unfinished eleven-twelfths business will be pegged as a pesky alarmist. Climate fatigue, anyone?

It would be misleading to say there is absolutely nothing else going on beyond the NEG. The minister’s office cites programs including the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (negligible, percentage-wise), the Emissions Reduction Fund (most of the money is spent and there’s no more going in) and the National Energy Productivity Plan (which gets us a quarter of our 26 per cent by 2030 target, or one sixteenth of the real task of eliminating emissions altogether). There is a lot of talk and consultation going on about reducing vehicle emissions.

Nevertheless, the climate wars can’t be over for two reasons. First, the deniers are still warring: today’s example comes via acting prime minister Michael McCormack, who used his first National Press Club outing as Nationals leader to denounce the Queensland government’s veto of Adani’s Carmichael mine, and declared he was proud to join the “fight for coal jobs”.

Second, and more importantly, the climate problem is not solved. An illustration: in the book Sunburnt Country: the history and future of climate change in Australia, award-winning climate scientist Joëlle Gergis looks beyond Dorothea MacKellar’s “droughts and flooding rains” to attempt a reliable account of this country’s climate before the beginning of official weather observations in the 1900s, to find out how unusual recent extremes are. What she found was a wealth of colonial weather records from farmers, explorers and seafarers including data on rainfall, temperature, air pressure and wind conditions. Lo and behold, the historically collated weather record matches beautifully with the data that scientists get from natural archives in ice cores, tree rings and coral skeletons. At her launch last week, Gergis showed beautiful artworks and detailed eyewitness accounts of awesome extreme weather events like Victoria's "Black Thursday" bushfire in 1851 that covered 20 per cent of the state, 10 times more than the catastrophic Black Saturday fires of 2009. “Which suggests to me that perhaps we have not seen the full extent of our natural variability,” Gergis said at the launch, “meaning our estimation of future risks might be underestimated.” That’s scientist-speak for: as Australia hots up, things could get terrifying.

Gergis rang the bog-standard alarm bells we’ve almost become inured to – more heatwaves, sea level rise, longer bushfire season, hotter droughts followed by harder deluges – except there was an audible intake of breath in the audience when she said that after two years’ unprecedented successive mass-bleachings, 50 per cent of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef are now dead. News today bears that out: the reef is near collapse and we need a dramatic, not gradual, reduction in emissions to save it.

We have a climate emergency: that’s the problem we need to fix. The state and territory energy ministers who will sit around the table tomorrow are wise to the federal government’s lack of ambition: Western Australia’s Ben Wyatt [$], Victoria’s Lily D’Ambrosio and the ACT’s Shane Rattenbury have all raised concerns this week. If anything, the NEG actually slows the renewable energy transition.

In an important speech yesterday, Richard Flanagan called our politics a “dreadful black comedy” with leadership nowhere in sight. Over the 25 years since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, if we were to grade the performance of Australia’s politicians in tackling climate change, under both Labor and Coalition governments, it would have to be an F for fail. As of today, we have made very little progress, or, where we have, it’s been one step forward, two steps back. Our emissions are on target to be about the same in 2030 as they were in 1990 (i.e., just below 600 million tonnes a year), and at the moment are rising. While the politicians have dithered, the market has shifted; the real game-changers in this story have been the brilliant scientists and engineers – like Australian solar pioneers Martin Green and Shi Zhengrong – who have given us the technological breakthroughs, and made them cheap enough, to give us a fighting chance.

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

since this morning

Commonwealth Bank financial planners charged clients fees after they died, in some cases for more than a decade, the banking royal commission heard today. But the planners involved were let off with a warning and were not reported to the corporate watchdog.

Also on the banking royal commission, The Guardian’s Katharine Murphy writes that “if [the Turnbull government] has any sense of right and wrong, and any remaining shred of political judgment, [it] should say to voters, without dissembling or weasel words: ‘Sorry, we got this one badly wrong’”.

The Australian reports [$] that a senior Liberal minister told Greens treasury spokesperson Peter Whish-Wilson that the government’s royal commission terms of reference were lifted straight from the Greens’ proposed bill for a banking inquiry.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has called for [$] the suspension of live sheep exports while a review into the industry is underway, while Nationals leader Michael McCormack has rejected the push for a ban.

in case you missed it

From New Matilda: “It’s that time of year again, Anzac Day, when mainstream media, politicians and shock jocks find a whole new expression of honesty to be outraged at.”

In RenewEconomy, Simon Holmes à Court writes that “Chris Uhlmann’s windy ‘truthiness’ adds to policy fog” on renewables.

Buzzfeed reports that it has been two years since 18-year-old Joshua Park-Fing died from head injuries sustained on a government-sponsored Work for the Dole site. Jobs minister Michaelia Cash promised to conduct an investigation and publish a report within a month, but nothing has been released.

The Australian reports [$] that Victorian Labor could follow the state’s Liberal Party and scrap full-scale campaigns in inner-city seats deemed to have been lost to the Greens, ahead of the state election.

by Anwen Crawford
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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.

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