A dreadful week for the climate

This week’s events illustrate Australia’s rush to expand the fossil fuel industry is matched only by its rush to cut climate change and renewable energy policies.

In Saturday’s Queensland state election, a major issue was coal seam gas. Both of the two major parties, Labor and the Liberal National Party (LNP), seem happy to let the industry devastate Queensland and watch the profits flow in. Only two minor parties, the Greens and Katter’s Australian Party, supported the community campaign for a moratorium on coal seam gas development. The election result was a bitter disappointment for me. True, one in five Queenslanders voted for parties opposing coal seam gas. Yet the Greens lost votes, and an almost-majority voted for the LNP. Because of the state’s unicameral single-member electorate system, the LNP was able to win almost all the seats in the Queensland Parliament and will face no significant parliamentary opposition for at least the next three years, a critical period for mining investment. I look forward to seeing whether voters will turn on the LNP when they realize the party is not so different to Labor on coal seam gas.

Prior to the election, Clive Palmer, the mining magnate who is the LNP’s biggest donor and arguably most enthusiastic supporter, accused the Greens of being part of a CIA conspiracy to undermine Australia’s coal industry. Palmer’s company Waratah wants to build the world’s largest coal mine and port, due to be approved by the federal Government in December and opposed by the Greens. On Monday, after the election, Palmer retracted his bizarre accusation, all but boasting that he had made it up to distract attention from the LNP. “It took a great lot of attention off some of the negative aspects of the election,” he said. “Who knows where the attention might have been in the last weeks coming up to the election? So it’s wonderful that you [journalists] could play a small role in having Campbell Newman elected as Premier of Queensland. […] I don’t regret having made that statement.” Environmental activist Drew Hutton has announced his intention to sue Palmer for defamation. I think Palmer’s actions are despicable. Hopefully nobody will take anything he says seriously anymore.

In the Queensland election, I presumed there was not much difference between Labor and the Liberal National Party because Labor was already so much under the thumb of the mining industry. I was wrong. The day before the election, the LNP had announced its policy was to cancel all of Queensland’s climate change policies. This includes withdrawing state funding from a federal Solar Flagships project, which could cause federal funding to be withdrawn also. The LNP spins the appalling move as “ending 20 years of Labor waste and mismanagement”, arguing these policies are “redundant” because of the federal Government’s emissions trading scheme (which is sort of true, but that’s an argument for fixing the federal policy, not dumping other ones). On Tuesday, Premier-elect Campbell Newman ordered departmental staff to begin dismantling those policies – it sounds like it will be his first action in government. Is this what Queenslanders voted for? On the bright side, Newman also announced his intention to veto some specific coal mines.

Also on Tuesday, the (also Liberal) Victorian Government announced it is cutting its own 20% emissions reduction target (despite having supported it when in opposition) and breaking an election promise to introduce emissions standards for power plants. I notice that when a Labor government breaks an election promise, Tony Abbott calls them “a government based on a lie”, but he doesn’t bat an eyelid when a Liberal government does the same thing. Unbelievably, these policies were cut on the same day the state government released a report about the impacts of climate change on Victoria!

Meanwhile, AGL (a big electricity generator and retailer who recently bought Australia’s largest coal-powered plant) has stepped up its campaign against feed-in tariffs, complaining they accelerate the growth of the solar PV industry and transfer wealth from generators to consumers! Governments are listening: State governments have been cutting their feed-in tariffs, and the federal Labor Government has consistently refused to countenance a national feed-in tariff, despite feed-in tariffs having delivered the majority of renewable energy globally.

On Wednesday, a court rejected a legal challenge to a new coal mine at Wandoan. If it is also approved by the Queensland Government, it will be larger than any existing mine, producing about 30 million tonnes of coal each year, or 49 million tonnes of CO2 per year (and potentially more). Yet the court, in its unfathomable wisdom, decided climate change was “irrelevant” because Queensland environment laws only apply to the Queensland environment and only to the impacts of extraction, not usage. This reasoning makes no sense: if coal is extracted then it will be burned, and climate change will impact the Queensland environment. I’m not a lawyer, but I wonder if environmental protection laws need to be changed to add a climate change “trigger” (as the Democrats tried and failed to achieve in negotiations with the Howard Government in 1999).

On Thursday, another court ruled on whether HRL can build a new coal power plant in Victoria. Environmental groups challenged the EPA approval of the project, rightly arguing new coal-fired plants should not be built. HRL also challenged the EPA because they wanted approval for 600 MW, not the 300 MW which the EPA approved. The court ruled in favor of not only the approval, but HRL’s preferred 600 MW plant. The decision was made on the grounds that “best practice” does not necessarily favor the technologies with lowest emissions! It is now up to the federal government to withdraw funding from HRL.

Meanwhile, climate scientists are gathering at the “Planet Under Pressure” conference in London to discuss whether climate change is already beginning to pass tipping points. Ice sheets are beginning to shrink; the ocean is acidifying faster than any time in the last 60 million years; drought is hurting the Amazon rainforest’s ability to absorb carbon; and scientists are nervously eyeing permafrost which could potentially release vast amounts of carbon. As Australian scientist Will Steffen put it: “There’s much more at stake than just a bit of warming and maybe a bit more heavy rainfall in parts of Australia. The whole system itself is showing signs that it might be destabilizing.” Steffen warns the 2010s decade is critical. We knew all this already, but the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in.

All in all, the fossil fuel industry had a lot of wins this week. This is how they operate: quietly lobby government behind the scenes, gradually chipping away at any policies that might threaten their future. They don’t have the high profile of the Greens who are supposedly “holding the Government to ransom”, but they have far more influence. It has been clear to me for many months that their current strategy is to argue against non-market climate change policies as “inefficient” and “redundant” now there is a carbon price (even though Clive Palmer and the Liberals may succeed in stopping that policy too). Those who care about action on climate change must respond by exposing the greenwash so the public understands what is going on.

I hope next week brings some good news for a change!

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