The ferocity of conflicts over coal still throws spanners in the works of Australian politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s removal as chair of the NSW Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board is a stark example of the difficulties Australian governments have in dealing with climate change and the transition to clean energy. And yet, the momentum in the shift to a cleaner economy will ultimately sweep aside the adverse politics.
The NSW government has shown deft footwork developing forward-looking climate and energy policy, including an electricity strategy with renewable energy investment at its core. It has a strategy that maps out first steps towards a net zero goal, and commissioned a stocktake of innovation opportunities in decarbonisation. In Matt Kean, NSW has an Environment Minister who understands the economic upside of the shift to low emissions, and who often leads on the issues nationally.
So how can it be that barely a week after having announced the former prime minister as chair of the new Net Zero board, the NSW government makes an about-turn and reverses the appointment? Clearly it is about the byelection in the Upper Hunter, where the future of coal is an important factor. The byelection reflects a groundswell of ongoing change in Australia’s attitudes towards gender. There is a similar groundswell on climate change too. Political parties ignore such societal changes at their peril. Or embrace them to the advantage of many.
The reality is that coal mining does not have a long-term future. Longer-term continued use of coal is incompatible with any tolerable scenario for climate change. And even without carbon policy, technology will gradually push coal to the sidelines. Where new power generation is needed, wind and solar is already cheaper than new coal plants in many parts of the world, and much cheaper in Australia.
And that is before including the costs of carbon emissions or the financial risk that coal plants might shut down early because of emissions constraints. Carbon capture and storage was once the hope for the survival of coal, but that is no longer cost-competitive with zero emissions alternatives. We will see demand for coal fall away.
Rather than sticking our collective heads in the sand, we need to have honest conversations about this. How are we, as a society, to go about supporting the regions, communities and workers in those few parts of the country where coal plays a big role in local economies? What are the industries that could rise in Australia’s other coal mining regions, and what can governments usefully do to support them?
These are questions that Malcolm Turnbull engaged with before, during and after his spell as PM. A focus on innovation was part of the answer. But ideology, sectional political interests and the micro-politics of “the way things have been done around here” stymied much of his vision then, as now. But there are alternatives.
There are countries where climate and energy policy questions are not so toxic. Germany’s decision to stop using coal is supported by the major political parties. It is underpinned by a consensus process where all major stakeholders hammered out an agreement. In Britain, there is bipartisanship in favour of ambitious climate policy, despite oil and gas interests.