Time to fight for renewables, not carbon tax

Tony Abbott is taking every opportunity to cast doubt on climate change. He called attempts to link climate change and the NSW bush fires “complete hogwash” and said that Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN’s climate change negotiations, was “talking through her hat” when she did so.

Rightly, Greens MP Adam Bandt insisted on bringing climate change into the debate.
But his argument to defend the carbon tax will get us nowhere. In an article in The Guardian, he even accused Abbott of adopting “a radical anti-market position”.

Similarly, 30 out of 35 “prominent” economists surveyed by Fairfax newspapers, championed keeping carbon pricing because it was the “cheapest” way to cut emissions. But “cheapest” is about putting market needs ahead of the planet.

It means prioritising the small and easy ways to make cuts suitable to business, but delaying the spending necessary for a serious transition to renewable energy. Whether or not the carbon tax is repealed will make no difference. We need real action.

If current fossil fuel emissions continue, the world is on track for catastrophic warming of over four degrees.

The two biggest sources of emissions in Australia are electricity and other stationary energy (51 per cent) and transport (17 per cent). To achieve mass emissions cuts, we need a rapid transition to large scale solar power stations alongside wind. We also need a massive expansion of public transport. The market can’t deliver this change; we need government spending programs.

Climate movement

GetUp! and environment groups will host nationwide rallies for climate action on November 17. These rallies are about defending the carbon tax, though it is referred to indirectly, because of the tax’s unpopularity.

The demonstrations have no actual demands.
Any attempt to rekindle the climate movement is welcome. But the carbon tax has been useless in reducing emissions.

Effectively calling for price rises in an essential service like electricity has been a disastrous strategy for the climate movement, cutting us off from the support to drive the change we need.

The Australia Institute recently found that the cost of electricity increased by 170 per cent from 1995 to 2012, four times more than CPI. This helps explain why the carbon tax is hated.

Higher electricity bills for those on lower incomes can mean going without heating, or choosing between paying rent and bills.

Labor and The Greens should be campaigning against electricity price rises and privatisation and calling for regulation.

But their support for carbon pricing has allowed Abbott to get away with posing as concerned about electricity bills.

Climate activists should argue for more ambitious and popular climate demands instead of defending the carbon tax and market schemes.

The transition

According to Guy Pearce, in 2010 “replacing the nearly 30GW of existing coal fired electricity in Australia with 115GW of renewables, would cost around $316 billion”.

In 2011, Beyond Zero Emissions argued that a transition to 100 per cent renewable energy in Australia in a decade would cost around $37 billion a year.

It sounds like a lot, but when Labor caved in to the mining companies, it forfeited $60 billion in tax that would have been collected between 2012 and 2020. The government also spends over $10 billion a year subsidising fossil fuel use that should be ditched to help pay for renewable energy.

The money is there. According to the World Wealth report in 2012 Australia had 207,000 high wealth individuals (each with over one million of spare cash to invest) collectively worth $625 billion. Their wealth had increased by 15.5 per cent from 2011. This is where the money can come from—taxing the profits of big business and the rich.

The Snowy Hydro scheme is a great example of what could be done. It cost around $9 billion in today’s dollars and was funded by Commonwealth Government advances. It remains Australia’s most spectacular engineering feat. It also meant jobs. Over 100,000 people worked on the scheme, with a peak of 7300 at any one time. It took 25 years to complete; we need to move faster today, but it can be done.

In Germany, solar panels have produced as much as 23.9 gigawatts of power during the sunniest parts of the day this year, equivalent to around 20 large coal or nuclear power stations. That’s about three quarters of Australia’s total electricity generating capacity, and Australia only uses about half of that capacity in practice.

One hundred per cent renewable energy is technically and financially possible.

We need to move beyond carbon pricing market failure and demand direct government funding of renewable energy instead.

By Chris Breen


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