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What climate wars? The Coalition’s ship is changing tack

The other key point is there are growing signs the Coalition’s ship on climate change is turning.

The seas are shifting. Mounting climate disasters are undeniable, seared into our consciousness with the bushfires as we are painfully reliving with the findings of the royal commission. Global climate action and technologies are accelerating. Witness China’s seismic commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060, quickly followed by Japan and Korea committing by 2050. Consider the International Energy Agency’s 2020 World Energy Outlook hailing solar PV as now consistently cheaper than new coal or gas-fired power and offering some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen.

Illustration: Simon Bosch

Illustration: Simon BoschCredit:

Successful governments shift course amid such evident sea-change, and our Prime Minister is nothing if not pragmatic. While he is never going to be a climate champion, he is nevertheless quite adroitly managing a changing tack. From once brandishing coal in Parliament he has moved to now banishing any thought of government support for new coal-fired power – something which may have ripped the Coalition apart even two years ago.

Around the bushfires I was struck by his framing climate action as part of sound economic management and strong national security – resilience in the face of natural disasters. These are the two areas the Coalition persistently out-polls the Labor opposition. It sounds a very purposeful link.

It is a link that the government has underlined on the economic front throughout its recent announcements on the Technology Investment Roadmap for lower emissions and the refunding of the highly successful Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Jobs and growth. Something which chimes perfectly with Biden’s mantra that, when he thinks of climate change he thinks of jobs, from all the opportunities of the new economy.

Just what a significant shift the road map represents has been under-appreciated. Having digested Australia’s world-leading renewable energy performance, the government will now invest in areas once disparaged: hydrogen, green steel and aluminium, low carbon industrial materials and soil carbon.

The Coalition is shifting its language around climate change policy.

The Coalition is shifting its language around climate change policy.

Distractingly, much critical commentary has focused on support for carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) technologies – seen as retrograde genuflection to the base and fossil fuels. There is an undeniable element of politicking, but more significant – as underlined by an International Energy Agency special report on CCUS last month – is that these are vital technologies for achieving net-zero emissions; that’s not so much for coal as gas and hydrogen and sectors such as steel and cement which the road map itself makes clear. Biden certainly thinks so as he has been expansive on CCUS, including related to gas.

Finally, despite the Coalition’s rhetoric of a gas-led recovery, in substance the measures announced are tellingly modest. They recognise gas has some role in our economy but also the constraints of its high costs and shrinking shelf life as renewables and battery storage take over. Many elements will not see the light of day, such as the government underwriting a major new gas-fired power station.

Indeed, the most significant investment is bolstering east coast electricity transmission lines. This is all about better managing record amounts of renewables coming onto the grid, which the government is abetting through accelerating the second link from Tasmania, Snowy 2.0 and partnering with NSW renewable energy zones. Biden might call all this bait and switching.

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Beyond the political bullpit, and some notable recalcitrants, the Coalition is crossing the Rubicon. While there is a long way to go, the direction of travel is increasingly clear. A Biden administration will work with this grain – including harnessing the climate agenda to pursue other significant shared interests such as buttressing our fraying multilateral system and getting to a better place with China.

As this occurs, consistent with the turning ship, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the government finding more ballast. An obvious candidate is ditching its controversial proposal to carry-over old surplus emissions reductions from the Kyoto Agreements to help meet our Paris Agreement target, which most other countries consider against the spirit of ambition of the Agreement. Another would be running up the sail toward net-zero emissions by 2050.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, in recent days the Prime Minister’s language is discernibly softening and you may have heard minister Angus Taylor on the ABC on Thursday saying – in a real tilt on the tiller – the government is committed to the Paris Agreement and that it is committed to net zero “as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile the group you may have thought Biden had more common cause have just thrown their anchor overboard on climate change with the Fitzgibbon-Butler bust up creating serious drag. Notwithstanding, Labor’s divisions, I’m sure when the issue of climate change came up during the Prime Minister’s congratulatory phone conversation with President-elect Biden last week, it was perfectly fine.

Patrick Suckling a former Australian ambassador for the environment. He is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and senior partner at Pollination (pollinationgroup.com), a specialist climate investment and advisory firm.

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