Federal Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen believes that reaching 82 percent renewables in the power generation industry and delivering a 43 percent reduction in emissions would be “arguably” the biggest Australian economic development since before World War Two.
Labor’s climate agenda is certainly receiving positive coverage in the liberal press, praise from union officials, increasing public support and little opposition from the left. This is bad news for the future of our planet.
Since the ALP took office in May, it has been difficult to keep up with the announcements of new power projects around the country, including solar and wind farms, transmission lines, battery storage and pumped hydro.
Bowen wants us to believe that this is all down to his government’s commitment to the “strongest possible action” on climate change. But the reality is that the changes to electricity generation taking place are being driven by economics more than by political will. Coal is fast becoming uncompetitive in the Australian energy market, and the unprecedented rise of residential solar is shortening the lifespan of coal-fired power plants.
The Australian Energy Market Operator’s 2022 Integrated System Plan (ISP) predicts that up to 60 percent of coal-fired capacity could be retired by 2030—four times faster than predicted two years ago.
There is actually nothing left wing about Labor’s climate agenda. The powerful fossil fuel industry is largely in favour of decarbonising domestic electricity production, rather than transitioning to gas, because gas companies such as Woodside, Santos and Beach Energy can make bigger profits selling gas on the international market.
Indeed, Labor is planning the largest expansion of fossil fuel extraction projects in Australian history and has accommodated the Business Council of Australia’s request not to force emissions-intensive industries to decarbonise if that undermines their “competitiveness”.
Solutions to the climate crisis must be seen in a global context. Australia is wealthy, developed and solar and resource rich. The people who run the country have a moral responsibility to export green energy, infrastructure and critical materials to poorer countries, with no strings attached.
Instead, Labor is helping the coal and gas barons export the apocalypse to the rest of the world while it celebrates marginal emission cuts at home. If all of Labor’s 114 planned coal mines and gas extraction facilities are approved, the combined carbon emissions from them will be nearly 67 times greater than the 180 megatonnes of carbon dioxide to be cut from the power sector by 2030—a figure calculated from Labor’s own climate modelling data by RepuTex Energy, a consultancy, and the Australia Institute, a think tank.
Even if we consider only domestic emissions, the new projects will release almost six times more emissions than Labor claims to be cutting in the power generation industry. Reputex’s modelling assumes that fossil fuel companies can offset emissions rather than eliminate them. But, as I explained in a previous Red Flag article, “The politics behind climate models”, carbon offsets at this scale are a sham.
If offsets are excluded from calculations and the projects go ahead, Labor’s policies have little chance of preventing a rise in national emissions this decade. Even if Labor meets its inadequate 43 percent emissions reduction target, Australia—being the third highest exporter of fossil fuels in the world—will remain a disproportionate contributor to global greenhouse emissions.
Labor’s prized target of 82 percent renewables in the power grid does not go far enough anyway. If the government sticks to the 2022 ISP, it will double gas-fired plant capacity from five to ten megawatts. Already, two additional gas plants are being built in NSW. Labor wants gas in the power grid beyond 2030 because it is cheaper at grid firming than hydropower or battery storage charged by renewables. Once again, profiteering comes before our planet.
Further, Labor’s “green” power grid will be primarily owned and run by companies that want to profit from our essential services. To entice investors, billions of dollars in public money are being used to subsidise privately owned power generation, storage, transmission and distribution. The rational alternative—a planned and publicly owned and run national energy grid that puts people and planet before profit—is not even part of the ALP’s discussion.
Yet reliance on the private sector risks dragging out the transition because its profits-first approach cannot be relied on to respond to the looming green infrastructure bottleneck. State intervention could expand supply through public works and develop cradle-to-grave recycling systems for critical materials. But Labor has no such plans.
Despite the federal government’s climate crimes and its gifts to big business, it is winning sympathy from organisations that have historically played an important role in the environmental movement.
These include our unions. Australian Council of Trade Unions President Michele O’Neil, for example, issued a nonsensical media release that claimed: “With the Albanese government and a new parliament, we can finally work towards the future”.
School Strike 4 Climate, which has led the climate movement since 2018, is another example. Since Labor was elected, the group (like a number of other organisations) has shown little interest in organising against the new government’s betrayals on the environment.
Then there’s the Greens. The party criticises Labor’s new fossil fuel projects, yet Greens MPs nevertheless backed pro-fossil-fuel legislation in the parliament, including hundreds of millions of dollars in wholesale energy price cap compensation for coal-fired plant owners. Outside of parliament, the Greens appear to spend more on ink for press statements than they do on trying to rebuild a grassroots movement.
The Albanese government has packaged its plan to partially decarbonise the power grid as a historic moment for climate action. This greenwashing presents a challenge for activists determined to rebuild the climate movement. However small the movement may be, the need to challenge Australian capitalism’s love of fossil fuels has never been more pressing.