Starting the renewable energy revolution

The shelving of the CPRS until 2013 is a good thing—and not just because the scheme was hopelessly flawed. It means there is now space for a real debate about solutions to climate change, explains James Supple

Through 2009 the debate was defined by the CPRS—and whether it deserved support or rejection. The government defined the debate around the question of the “main mechanism” to tackle climate change. It still tries to insist that this must be a carbon price, through an emissions trading scheme. Now that the CPRS has been discredited, and postponed for so long, it looks like they may never introduce it. But the debate remains focused around what the one main mechanism to tackle climate change should be. The Greens’ are promoting a carbon tax as the main policy mechanism. Most of the climate movement has backed this or pushed for modifications to the CPRS. But neither of these policies, both versions of a carbon price, will see any shift towards government spending on renewable energy – the most effective and straight-forward solution to climate change.

Modest improvements will not be enough to solve climate change. Scientists describe climate ‘tipping points’ which—if reached—will lead to rapid warming and sea level rises in the space of perhaps 20 years. This would create an unstoppable global disaster where cities are flooded, rainfall patterns rapidly shift and large areas of the planet become uninhabitable deserts. We either stop this happening or we fail.  There is no use simply settling for pragmatic and more “achievable” solutions—whether a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme—that are incapable of stopping rapid warming.

Renewable technology

We need large and rapid cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. The easiest way to do this is by changing how we produce energy. Stationary, coal dependent, energy production in Australia, accounts for 54 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, far more than any other sector. The technology to power the country through 100 per cent renewable energy already exists. Spain is already using solar thermal power stations that run 24-hours a day, even at night.  These huge power plants consist of fields of mirrors two to three kilometres across which heat tanks of molten salt to 650oC using sunlight. At night heat stored in the molten salt is used to power generators.

This storage technology has been in commercial operation at the Andasol solar power plants in Spain since 2008, after being developed by the US Department of Energy in the 1990s. Spain has eight solar thermal power plants operational and over 30 more being constructed. Last year 20.8 per of Spain’s energy came from renewable sources.  They plan to produce 42 per cent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020. By contrast renewable energy excluding hydro made up just 2.4 per cent of Australia’s electricity use in 2007-08.

Climate advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions estimates 12 large solar thermal plants spread across Australia could provide 60 per cent of our electricity needs. In addition, wind turbines could supply another 40 per cent. If dispersed across a wide geographical area wind power can be a reliable 24-hour a day energy source, as strong wind conditions are usually present somewhere in the country. Many countries already rely significantly on wind power—it produces 20 per cent of Denmark’s power and is set to increase to 50 per cent by 2025, in Spain it produces 14 per cent, Portugal 13 per cent, and in Germany and Ireland 7 per cent of electricity.

Transport emissions are Australia’s second highest source of greenhouse gases. The solution is a massive program of spending on public transport. Australian commuters are among the lowest public transport users in the world. The highest rate is Sydney’s 23 per cent compared to 52 per cent in Paris and 80 per cent in London. High-speed rail lines between major cities would also discourage driving and air travel. They began in Japan in 1964. High-speed rail now operates in most European countries, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US. Yet Australian investment in public transport has been pathetic—in the 20 years to 2001, the federal government spent $43 billion on roads and just $2.8 billion on rail.

Government investment
Since renewable power stations remain more expensive than fossil fuel power, only direct government investment will see them built. This was standard practice worldwide for decades— the Australian government built all our existing coal-fired power stations.

The response of governments to the global economic crisis shows that massive spending programs are perfectly possible. The Labor government poured $57 billion into its stimulus measures—which included school buildings, housing and council projects. It is also spending $43 billion on its national broadband network. Spending on renewable energy and public transport of this scale is essential and should be the central demand of the campaign against climate change.

Australia’s energy needs are growing—so over time more power stations need to be built. Complicated market schemes like the CPRS or a carbon tax will not stop the building of new coal-fired power stations. Instead the government should simply ban any new coal power—and plan to transition all power generation to renewable energy.

This transition requires planning on a grand scale—which only government is capable of doing. Plans will include decisions on which coal power stations to shut first, what technology to replace them with—and importantly how to ensure workers in coal dependent communities still have jobs as the transition unfolds. Leaving these decisions to the market means a multitude of different companies installing new generating capacity in a chaotic, unplanned fashion. It could see dead-end technologies introduced in order to make short-term profits and see thousands put out of work. Unless there is a government plan to ensure manufacturing and other work in the new renewable energy sector are based in coal dependent areas there will be huge resistance to change.

Demands to build a movement
Solutions to climate change need to be capable of winning broad popular support. The only way we can force action is through building a mass movement big enough that it becomes more powerful than the fossil fuel corporations. This requires involving hundreds of thousands if not millions of ordinary people in demonstrations, civil disobedience and strike action—as the great mass movements of the past have done. Currently the polluters are more powerful than the forces demanding action. The CPRS negotiations—where they extracted billions in free permits and cash compensation—were a perfect demonstration of this.

We can’t win the millions of ordinary people we need to the movement by demanding they make sacrifices to stop climate change—which carbon pricing demands through increasing power bills. We live in an increasingly unequal society. The top 1 per cent of Australian taxpayers today receive 10 per cent of the nation’s income—the highest share since the 1950s. The rise of neo-liberalism since the 1980s has seen people forced to work longer hours for less pay as well as cutbacks in social spending that have increased the price of basic services. At the same time corporate profits have skyrocketed. Working class families who struggle to balance household budgets will not support calls to pay more for their power and basic goods—and certainly will not join a fight for it.

The responsibility for paying should be put on those who have created the problem of climate change—the big polluting corporations.

Demanding that we tax polluting corporations to pay for renewable energy would be popular. There is also plenty of wasteful government spending on areas like defence that could be redirected. Annual defence spending is $26.9 billion this year—and growing. Last year the government announced spending of a mind boggling $100 billion over ten years on new military equipment, including 12 new submarines at a cost of $3 billion each. For that amount the government could build seven enormous solar power plants—enough to supply a third of the country’s power needs.

Paying to transition our energy sector to renewables will be expensive—Beyond Zero Emissions estimates it would cost $35 to $40 billion a year for ten years. But Labor’s new superprofits tax on mining companies alone will raise $9 billion a year, about a third of the sum necessary. Restoring the tax on the profits of all corporations to its level of 1987 would raise $50 billion a year—which is more than enough to fund the transition.

Progressive taxation like this is much harder for companies to pass on to consumers than a tax on inputs like carbon emissions. This is because it is harder for companies to calculate whether the price increases they would pass on to cover their lost profits would be higher than their competitors, and would therefore harm their sales.

The climate movement needs to demand serious money from the government to fund renewables. The money they have currently allocated for demonstration plants, through the Solar Flagships program and its new renewable energy fund is less than $500 million a year. If we can ensure they make any new power stations built use renewable energy that would be a good start.


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