Abbott opens new front in climate war

By Leigh Ewbank

ABC The Drum reports: This week Tony Abbott and the Coalition opened up a new front in their ideological war against climate change action and carbon pricing.

In a move reminiscent of the US Tea Party, renewable energy has become the new target of Australia's conservative party.

Not content with the 'blood pledge' to repeal the carbon price, Abbott lieutenants Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb announced that a Coalition government would scrap the Clean Energy Finance Council (CEFC). If well designed and administered, the body is a potentially useful aid for Australia's transition to a 21st-Century clean economy. The plan to abolish the CEFC threatens $10 billion of investment: $5 billion exclusively for renewable energy and the remainder available for cleantech manufacturing, energy efficiency and enabling infrastructure.*

The announcement confirms suspicions that the Coalition is becoming an anti-renewable energy party. This unwarranted position has implications for the domestic renewable energy industry, decarbonising the economy, and the political landscape.

The Coalition's decision to caution investors will have immediate impacts for the nascent renewable sector. Andrew Robb foreshadowing the dismantling of the CEFC and Joe Hockey's pledge to repeal loans inject fresh uncertainty into the cleantech sector that is already dealing with unfavourable policy changes in Victoria and the threat of additional anti-wind measures being adopted in NSW.

Perhaps more troubling, the Opposition's anti-renewables stance limits Australia's long-term economic prospects. Scrapping the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will undermine our ability to secure a slice of the rapidly expanding clean technology and renewable energy market, which the The Pew Charitable Trust (PDF) projects to be worth between $1.7 trillion and $2.3 trillion over the next decade.

The willingness to cut investment programs shows the Abbott-led Coalition is prepared to cede the clean energy race to our economic competitors. The advanced manufacturing jobs and investment that might have been based in Australia will instead flow to China, Germany, South Korea and the United States. Abbott, it seems, is following the pattern of the Howard era that saw leading Australian renewable energy entrepreneurs like David Mills and Danny Kennedy seek opportunities abroad.

Irrational ideological opposition to renewable energy investments threatens Australia's best hope for reversing the decline of manufacturing, which has been in the national spotlight with BlueScope Steel announcing mass layoffs just a few months ago.

When it comes to decarbonising the economy, Coalition policy increases the difficulty of the challenge we face. In the absence of a national Feed-in Tariff for large-scale renewables like Concentrating Solar Thermal and nation-building investments in enabling infrastructure, the CEFC is the Commonwealth Government's main renewable investment initiative. As such, it will be a critical driver for renewable energy deployment in Australia in the foreseeable future.

Measures that develop a strong domestic renewable energy sector and reduce carbon emissions are in the national interest, but for a political animal like Abbott, electoral interests trump all else. Yet Abbott's calculation might be wrong. The Opposition leader may have bitten off more than he can chew by adopting an aggressive anti-renewables position. While polls show lukewarm public support for the carbon price and the Labor Government championing the reform, renewable energy is a political winner.

The CSIRO's 2011 report Communication and Climate Change: What The Australian Public Thinks (PDF) found:

"Most Australians… exhibit a strong preference for renewable energy."

An astonishing 80 of those polled support government action to increase renewable energy research and development. Another strong result can be seen in an EMC poll from November last year. EMC found 79 per cent support government assistance for the renewable energy sector and 56 per cent support direct subsidies and grants for renewable energy technologies.

If the Australian public's strong support for renewable energy R&D and industry development is any indication, the Coalition's plan to scrap the CEFC may burst Abbott's polling bubble. Voters who support renewable energy across the political spectrum must now account for the Coalition's backward anti-renewables position. Scrapping what is possibly the most popular element of the Government's Clean Energy Future package may lead voters to rethink support for the Liberal and National parties.

Abbott's colleagues and advisors should take stock of the political and practical disadvantages of abolishing the CEFC and encourage the Opposition leader to roll back the ill-conceived policy. If he doesn't, PM Gillard might seize on Abbott's gaffe and work with The Greens and independents to champion a strengthened renewable energy deployment policy. Labor now has the opportunity to translate strong public support into a political and policy win. Such a move might just be the circuit breaker the Gillard Government so desperately needs.

* The CEFC has the mandate to invest in so-called 'low emissions' technologies. Amending the legislation to exclude such investments can improve the ability of the CEFC to encourage the rollout of zero-carbon technologies.

Leigh Ewbank is Director of Public Policy for Beyond Zero Emissions.

Source: