Julia Gillard’s domestic spinners will work overtime this week to gain good domestic coverage of her forays to Mexico (for the G20 meeting) and Rio de Janeiro (for the latest UN talkfest on the environment).
It is the latter – the “Rio+20” conference, marking the 20th anniversary of the meeting in the Brazilian capital that kicked off the long climate change march to Kyoto, Copenhagen and Durban – to which the spinners will be looking for positive publicity back home.
Rio is where the Prime Minister can strut her “clean energy future” stuff.
Before we get on to that, it is worth noting, I think that, at the time of the original Rio conference, global carbon dioxide emissions were estimated to be 22.7 billion tonnes annually. Today they are somewhere north of 33 billion tonnes a year and climbing.
The “glass half full” types will point out that the industrialised countries collectively are on track to meet and even beat the commitment made at Kyoto for their emissions.
However, this is largely due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the manufacturing slump in developed countries created by the economic crisis of the past four years.
Between 1992 and 2010 (the latest data), developing nations doubled their emissions and now account for 54 per cent of the global total.
The fact that Rio 2012 will follow Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban in achieving two-fifths of three-quarters of you-know-what in terms of developing a post-Kyoto emissions agreement is not the point so far as Team Gillard and federal Labor (or the Cash For You Party, as it is apparently now to be known).
The tenor of what the Prime Minister will be spruiking, amid applause from the large Rio audience, can be found in what her Cabinet Secretary and Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, Mark Dreyfus, has been out-and-about saying in recent weeks.
Australia is “putting in place policies to transform our economy and to disconnect economic growth from carbon pollution.”
The “clean energy future plan will transform Australia in to a world leader in energy efficiency and sustainability.”
The Australian government is “committed to reducing energy costs for households, to reducing market barriers for businesses and to reducing greenhouse gas emissions for the entire country.”
Read the “reduce energy costs bit” against another speech in which Dreyfus told the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia that the carbon price will “make higher-cost renewables and gas-based electricity more competitive relative to high-polluting but cheaper coal-fired electricity.”
Australians, Dreyfus last week told the Property Council (the people from whom his government whipped away the $1 billion “tax breaks for green buildings” program in the May Budget), “can be confident that we now have in place a comprehensive, coherent, evidence-based approach to reducing the risks of climate change which provides business with certainty about the future.”
(When I read something like this I am always reminded of that illustration of chutzpah as being the fellow who murdered his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan.)
In the context of some of this weekend’s media coverage, it is interesting to note that Dreyfus made the point to CEDA that renewables-based generation would expand under the “clean energy future” program from 10 per cent of power supply today to 40 per cent in 2050.
What he did not add is that, on the government’s own modelling, 10.5 per cent of generation in 2050 would still be from conventional coal plant, 17 per cent from conventional gas plant and 25.7 per cent from coal and gas plants fitted with carbon capture and sequestration technology.
This will involve, my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest, the burning of several billion tonnes of coal and about 25,000 to 30,000 petajoules of gas over the next 38 years.
The government’s target of cutting 2050 emissions by 80 per cent from where they would be without abatement measures is critically dependent on CCS being commercially available – and the advice it is getting from its modellers and agencies is that this will not be the case, under present policies, before 2030-35.
This is what makes Lenore Taylor’s article “The burning questions that won’t go away” in this weekend’s edition of the “Sydney Morning Herald” such interesting reading.
Taylor reminds us that Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, promised to “lead the world” in the development of CCS, but most of the $1.7 billion allocated to promoting the technology in Australia remains unspent.
She reports that Dick Wells, chairman of the government’s expert advisory committee on the technology, wrote to Gillard last year to warn that pursuit of CCS here would fail without a policy to bridge the gap between the $23 per tonne carbon price and the $80 per tonne support it actually needs to achieve traction in our energy market.
CCS, of course, is specifically excluded from support by the new Clean Energy Finance Corporation Team Gillard is currently taking through Federal Parliament because the Greens hate the technology and it being snubbed was part of their price for supporting the carbon tax bills.
Christine Milne says the dichotomy between what is actually happening and the government’s “clean energy future” projections for 2050 is Gillard’s problem.
“It’s all about legitimising ongoing coal mining and expansion of coal exports,” declaims Milne in the “Herald” interview. “Carbon capture and storage is a figleaf for the government.”
She describes a policy of aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also maintaining coal exports (worth $44 billion in trade earnings this year, helping to cover an import bill for transport fuels of about $15 billion annually, heading towards $30 billion later this decade) as “a complete obscenity.”
Dreyfus has been telling audiences that the “clean energy future” policy will drive investment to “retool Australia’s economy to help ensure national prosperity in a low-pollution world.”
As late as 3 May he was talking about the impact of the carbon tax on “500 of our largest polluters” – although it now appears that the government has been able to identify fewer than 300 companies to be caught in the tax web – but not mentioning the importance of CCS in achieving the long-term targets.
Responding to Lenore Taylor, Climate Change Minister Greg Combet argued that the coalminers should be doing more to support CCS – the industry in fact is raising $1 billion over 10 years from 2006 to help develop the technology and has committed $289 million to support projects so far – but his attitude overlooks something important: CCS is as much an issue for gas generation as it is for coal-fired power.
The government’s own modelling out to 2050 reinforces this.
There was no mention, however, of CCS in the keynote address Resources & Energy Minister Martin Ferguson made to the APPEA conference last month.
The most recent development in the field at a local level is the $54.3 million agreement between Ferguson, New South Wales Energy Minister Chris Hartcher and the Australian Coal Association to assess geological storage opportunities for carbon dioxide in NSW.
The two governments and the association are sharing the cost.
The sum involved may not seem much, but the issue is important: NSW has the largest electricity-based emissions in the country and, to date, the least viable storage prospects, a point that will impact on future gas and enhanced coal generators as well as existing conventional coal plants.
Obviously, we need not hold our breathe waiting for Gillard to talk up CCS and the government’s support for it in Rio this week, but she can’t boast about its 2050 target there or here without explaining how she is going to facilitate achieving one of the central planks in its achievement.