Energy double standard: Australia subsidizes coal, but not solar

Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson today announced the extension of the Government’s $100 million grant for the proposed new coal power station HRL in the Latrobe Valley, despite a petition signed by 12,667 people urging the Government to withdraw the $100 million and spend it on renewable energy instead.

The grant was first awarded by a Liberal government in 2007 and continued by Labor. Five years later, HRL has failed to meet conditions for the grant, failed to get environmental approval for a commercial-scale project, failed to secure private finance, and missed a string of deadlines (most recently 31 December 2011). Today the Government decided to extend the deadline by yet another six months (apparently to 30 June 2012).

The Government claims the HRL power station is “clean” because it lowers the emissions of brown coal, but that still makes it as polluting as black coal. If the Government is serious about climate change, the least it should do is stop supporting new coal power plants (indeed if they were really serious, they would ban new coal plants, start closing existing ones, and start phasing out coal exports).

The Government does not seem to have the courage to say no to HRL. However, it decided earlier this week to withdraw a $307 million grant for a solar farm in Moree. Today, Ferguson also announced $100 million for carbon capture and storage.

This is illustrative of a broader double standard in energy policy: subsidies are considered okay for fossil fuels but not renewables. When renewables are subsidized, everyone makes a big song-and-dance about “market distortions” and suchlike; yet when fossil fuels are subsidized, everyone pretends it isn’t happening.

Ferguson today said in the very same statement “the Government is absolutely committed to a technology-neutral approach”, and “I hope today’s announcement takes us one step further [to] shoring up the value of Victoria’s brown coal resource”. Somehow I don’t think Ferguson would see “shoring up the value” of renewable energy resources as technology-neutral.

Maldivian President Nasheed overthrown

The first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, President Mohamed Nasheed, has been overthrown in a dictatorial coup. Nasheed’s climate change advisor Mark Lynas writes in the Guardian:

Using violence and then taking over the TV station, as well as recruiting converts among the police, the anti-democratic opposition faced Nasheed with a choice – to either use force or resign. Ever the human rights activist, he chose the latter option and stepped down to avoid bloodshed. Even as I write, his whereabouts are still unknown, and though he is supposedly in the “protection” of the military I fear desperately for his personal safety and that of his family. I have heard that he is currently being held against his will under military house arrest, in which case he must be immediately released. All I can do is take comfort from the fact that the struggle can only continue for a man famous in the west for his outspokenness on climate change, but whose real lifelong cause has been his commitment to bringing democracy to his Indian Ocean island homeland.

Over two decades of campaigning against the Gayoom regime, Nasheed set up the Maldivian Democratic Party in exile, and was imprisoned 16 times. He spent six years in jail, and 18 months in solitary confinement in appalling conditions, also suffering torture at the hands of Gayoom’s thugs. Nasheed’s resignation speech says a lot about the man: “I don’t want to run the country with an iron fist,” he said. I can only imagine what he must be going through now, and what he has gone through already in the past. He was declared an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience in 1991. I don’t think I have ever met a braver or stronger person.

I was lucky enough to work for president Nasheed over the last two years, as his climate change adviser. His commitment to turning the Maldives into the world’s first carbon-neutral country was typically ambitious, and – although all bets are now off – serious progress has already been made. He personally stood up to bullying by China at the ill-fated Copenhagen talks in 2009, helping secure a better deal for vulnerable island nations like his own.

I just sent this email to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard:

Dear Prime Minister,

The first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, President Mohamed Nasheed, has been overthrown in a dictatorial coup. Nasheed was forced to resign and is reportedly now being held under house arrest.

In addition to being a champion of democracy, Nasheed has led the world on climate action, committing to make the Maldives the world’s first carbon-neutral country. I urge you to do everything you can to support Nasheed.

Yours faithfully,
James Wight

You can help by signing the petition at http://act.350.org/sign/help_nasheed/

The conspiracy to capture the Australian media

If you’ve paid attention to the news recently then you may know Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart has been buying up shares in TV channels (Network Ten) and newspapers (Fairfax Media). What you may not be aware of is a video of Christopher Monckton and other climate change deniers plotting how to “capture” the Australian media to promote their views.

The video has to be watched to be believed. It’s surreal, almost like something out of a conspiracy thriller: a cabal of crazy people plotting how to control the media, and thus control people’s thoughts. Though Monckton may be prone to delusions of grandeur (this is coming from a man who believes he’s found the cure for AIDS), the things he says in this video are actually plausible. Continue reading

Durban Part 4: Conclusion

Also see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17).

Grenada said in an opening statement: “AOSIS will not and cannot accept a deal here in Durban that does not provide a means to bring in more ambitious legally-binding commitments for Annex I Parties well before 2020.” But the final outcome looks to me like it has exactly the same fatal flaw. Delegates did not agree any new emissions cuts, let alone binding ones.

The headline result of COP17 is a non-binding agreement to agree in four years on unknown actions in an unknown framework with unknown legal force, with no indication of how it will apply differently to rich and poor, to be implemented when it will be too late to preserve a safe climate. The product of Kyoto negotiations is a non-binding agreement to agree in 12 months on a possibly voluntary commitment period of unknown length, covering an unknown set of countries expected to total less than 15% of global emissions, with unknown but apparently politics-based emissions targets and unknown but likely fraudulent accounting for those in it, and benefits without responsibilities for those outside it. And the outcome of LCA negotiations is a non-binding agreement that doesn’t do much except administrate existing voluntary pledges, open the door to further dubious offsets, and establish a fund without any money in it.

Probably the best part of the whole package is the Durban Platform’s workplan to raise ambition, and it’s far from certain to lead anywhere. Continue reading

Durban Part 3: The outcome

Also see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17).

After the conclusion of the Durban climate talks, EU negotiator Connie Hedegaard proclaimed that “the European Union’s strategy worked”. But did it?

Durban Platform

Legal form – binding or not?

Let’s look at the text of the agreements from COP17, beginning with the central Durban Platform. After all the haggling described in Part 2, the final wording of paragraph 2 “decides to launch a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”. This has been widely interpreted as an agreement that all countries must accept legally binding emissions targets.

But what exactly is “an agreed outcome with legal force”? According to an European lawyer on the scene, it means effectively “a legally binding agreement”. But according to another analysis, the third option appears to allow for a UNFCCC agreement that is not one of the Convention’s recognized types of legally binding instruments (protocols, annexes, and amendments). A third analysis points out that the text does not specify the amount of legal force the outcome will have, or whether all countries will be equally bound, or even whether it will include emissions targets. Finally, the Durban Platform is itself non-binding.

Timeline – a decade of delay

What about the timeline for this nebulous future agreement? Paragraphs 3-4 decide negotiations on the Durban Platform will begin “as a matter of urgency in the first half of 2012”, and conclude “as early as possible but no later than 2015”, and that it will “come into effect and be implemented from 2020”.

On the bright side, the EU succeeded in setting a 2015 deadline for agreement with negotiations beginning almost immediately, thwarting the attempts by the US and BASIC to delay even the negotiations until 2015. Yet the US succeeded in delaying legally binding action until 2020, in spite of AOSIS initially refusing to support such a move. Ultimately everyone loses, because humanity cannot afford to wait another decade for serious action. We need rapid emissions cuts starting now, preferably yesterday. Continue reading

Durban Part 2: The drama

Part 1 of this series about the significance of last month’s Durban climate talks (COP17) can be found here.

TIME magazine’s Person of the Year 2011 was “the protester”, and protesters certainly made their presence felt and their voices heard in Durban. As 350.org put it: “There is a story of hope from Durban—it’s the story of the youth and their allies who refused to remain silent.”

The drama began on Thursday 8 December, when US delegate Todd Stern’s speech was interrupted by SustainUS youth delegate Abigail Borah:

“I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait! We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty.”

Though Borah was thrown out by security and banned from the rest of the conference, she was applauded by other delegates. Shortly after, Stern told a press conference it was a “misconception” that the US advocated delaying until 2020, and the US did not oppose the EU’s push for a legally binding agreement. However, his office later clarified that actually the US do oppose a legally binding agreement. Continue reading

Too late to wait on the Durban Platform, Part 1

Over the summer, I have reflected on the significance of the climate talks last month in Durban, South Africa. Officially known as COP17, it was the longest UNFCCC conference. See my previous post for more background on the talks (though my views have become slightly more nuanced since I wrote it, particularly on the issue of justice).

The battlelines

There were four major sides in Durban:

The United States (US), supported by its usual cheer squad of other rich polluters including Canada, Russia, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia, campaigned strongly to delay any new action indefinitely. The US has since 1997 been opposed to any legally binding agreement unless it also imposes targets on poor countries. Having won a global regime of insufficient, voluntary pledges through bilateral negotiations in Copenhagen, the US argued in Durban there was no need to strengthen those pledges before 2020, and refused to accept binding emissions cuts until sometime after 2020, if ever, or even to start negotiations before 2015. Despite having signed the Cancun Agreements in 2010 to “take urgent action” to “hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” (a target which the latest research says is still “a prescription for disaster”), US negotiator Todd Stern told the media in Durban that the US sees 2°C as a mere “guidepost”, not “some kind of mandatory obligation”. Meanwhile, Canada, Russia, and Japan helped sabotage Kyoto while refusing to continue being part of it; Australia and New Zealand colluded on creative accounting rules. Continue reading

What Should Happen in Durban

“We have shown that phase out of fossil fuel emissions is urgent. CO2 from fossil fuel use stays in the surface climate system for millennia.”

NASA climate scientist James Hansen and 16 co-authors

“We would be quite open to a discussion about a process that would lead to a negotiation for the thing, whatever it turns out to be, that follows 2020, and we are also fully willing to recognize that that might be a legal agreement.”

US climate delegate Todd Stern

So here we are again, at the height of humanity’s annual cycle of talking about our response to the escalating climate crisis. This time around the stakes are higher than ever: the crisis has never been more pressing, yet the procrastination has never been more blatant.

I am, of course, referring to the 17th Conference of Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa, where world leaders are currently gathered. I use the term “leaders” to refer to the people who are in charge, rather than to imply they are demonstrating any actual leadership. On the contrary, by all indications the conference is heading for a catastrophic failure of leadership.

The only real leadership in Durban has been the protests from the reasonable voices who are being ignored: a broad coalition of the poorest countries (African and small island states), young people, the Occupy movement, and environmental groups. Collectively they form the “climate justice movement”.

They argue, fairly convincingly, that the talks are dominated by rich countries, in turn controlled by polluting corporations, who are attempting to dismantle the Kyoto Protocol and replace it with an even weaker voluntary regime. While Kyoto is weak, is riddled with loopholes, and has so far failed – global emissions have risen by half since the reference year of 1990, and by a record-breaking 6% in 2010 – it remains the only existing international treaty with a framework for legally binding emissions targets. And rich countries want to carry over from Kyoto the offsets and other loopholes which have made it ineffective. Continue reading

Clean Energy Bill only the beginning

Today the Australian Parliament passed the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee’s Clean Energy Bill. Despite my reservations about the bill, I am pleased to see it finally made law. It is also satisfying to see the Liberal-National Coalition defeated (at least for now) in their crusade against climate action. However, the work of the climate movement has only just begun.

The bill establishes a carbon price which will later become an emissions trading scheme. The policy is admittedly pretty awful and riddled with flaws, but unlike Labor’s old Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme I can at least say it is better than nothing. As before, Labor intends to “reduce” Australia’s emissions mainly by switching power generation to natural gas and buying carbon offsets from overseas, both of which I consider extremely dubious. However, the Greens and independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott have worked hard to tangibly improve the policy, to the point where it can be considered a first step towards a renewable energy future. These farsighted crossbenchers have won unprecedented, independently-managed renewable energy funding; and built in regular independent reviews which provide opportunities to lift Australia’s ambition later on.

Now we need to work on building support for that greater ambition. As I was drafting this post, I was encouraged to notice a post by Christine Milne on the Greens website titled “The carbon price is law. Now begins the campaign for serious climate action!” which mentions several things the Greens intend to lobby for in 2012 and beyond. Here are some of my own ideas.

Although the first independent review of the carbon price is not until February 2014, there is plenty more that can be achieved in the current Parliament. Continue reading

Top 10 Flaws in Government’s “Clean Energy Future”

Yesterday the Australian House of Representatives passed the Clean Energy Future legislation, but it doesn’t feel like much of a victory.

A carbon price is a first step in Australia’s necessary transition away from its current fossil fuel economy toward the renewable energy one of the future. The Clean Energy Future includes significant improvements on the 2009 version – the creation of the independent Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) should provide some certainty for the renewable energy industry; and the built-in cycle of independent reviews provides opportunities to improve the policy later on. However, the legislation still has many fundamental flaws which we should not be reluctant to point out.

#1 Gas Is Not Clean Energy

The policy risks driving investment in gas-fired electricity generation. As a fossil fuel, gas is part of the problem, not the solution. The only realistic solution is to phase out fossil fuels. A two-staged transition, from coal to gas to renewables, would waste precious time.

For businesses, gas investments carry the risk of eventually being shut down to mitigate climate change. For humanity, the far worse risk is that we build a fleet of polluting gas power plants and run them for their full lifetime of up to 60 years. It is questionable whether gas is even a low-carbon fuel; when “fugitive emissions” (methane leaks) are taken into account, gas may be comparable to coal on a 100-year timescale, and far worse on a 20-year timescale.

#2 Free Permits for Polluters Guaranteed

Australia’s onshore emissions are ~1.5% of global emissions, but our fossil fuel exports account for ~3% of global emissions, and they are planned to double in the next decade. Australia’s carbon price will not cover the emissions from actually burning those exported fossil fuels, only emissions released to the atmosphere before they leave Australia’s ports. Yet the Government sees fit to compensate exporting industries for the majority of their covered emissions. Continue reading