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The Northern Myth

Sep 8, 2017

A perfect storm. An insider’s view of failure of climate change policy in Australia

This is a guest post by lawyer and climate policy specialist Peter Shaw.

It seems like a lifetime ago and I suppose it was. The year was 1989 and full of hope I joined the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL). In those distant, salad days AGL only sold gas (we will skate over a questionable foray into property development) and the electricity sector was still largely owned by state governments.

Things started to change with privatisation of the networks that kicked off in the 1990s and the election of the Howard Government in 1996. At that time electricity generation was dominated by coal fired power stations, especially the brown coal stations in the Latrobe Valley.

Not much has changed—coal fired power stations till dominate the electricity market—and the impending closure of Liddell coal fired power station in the Hunter Valley has brought the issue of electricity prices versus greenhouse gas emissions to the fore again. As a big energy company AGL dived into the newly privatised electricity sector in the early 2000s.

Good luck to them. The blame for the current policy vacuum lies elsewhere.

At the time of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 AGL was still mainly a gas company and was supportive of the drive to limit Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. AGL at that time saw natural gas as the bridging fuel from a high carbon to a low carbon economy. It was an exciting time to be AGL’s in-house climate change policy advisor.

In the early days the Howard government, despite their persistent skepticism about the science, showed real promise. They were active, albeit “hard ball”, participants in Kyoto. The deal they struck at Kyoto was a generous 1990 emission plus 8% but at least we were in the game. At about the same time Howard wanted to sell one third of Telstra and he struck a deal with the then Democrats in the Senate to use some of the money to address climate change by supporting emission reduction projects.

Bewdy!!

The reality was that the Howard government lacked the will power, ability and leadership to develop sensible policies to deal with Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

They let the Kyoto Protocol wither on the vine and as a result failed miserably when it came to energy policies needed to transition to a lower carbon future. The flip-flopping on an emissions trading scheme, killed off by Howard’s skepticism about the science and pressure from the coal lobby to the failure of the schemes established to support projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A perfect storm of a weak leader and strong vested coal interests.

Howard created a greenhouse gas emission policy vacuum. The energy companies were urging Howard to show leadership and introduce an emissions trading scheme but he squibbed it and when he did you can’t blame the companies for getting on the coal-fired wagon when it looked like the only game in town.

As the old saying goes, “You reap what you sow,” and future generations will be reaping the bitter fruits of the Howard government’s policy failures for many a long year.

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Peter Shaw has five years’ experience as a greenhouse gas emissions modelling consultant, including the development of a new methodology for estimating cradle to grave emissions from the production of ethanol and biodiesel for use as transport fuels and emissions from the manufacture of building materials. He has eight years’ experience in a key role of formulating and implementing greenhouse policy for a major Australian corporate. These activities included the development and sale of a Greenhouse Friendly product, the development of measurement and verification procedures for greenhouse gas abatement credits in Chile. 

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