The Australian government’s new climate action distraction: distant technology

After a summer of unprecedented bushfires no one anywhere else in the world could comprehend, the planet expected Australia – its people, its government and its businesses – to spin on their collective heels and say ‘Okay, we’ve stuffed around for a while now. Let’s just sort out this climate change thing’.

Australia’s people have mostly already done this, with the heel-pivot starting in late 2018-early 2019 ish. The bushfires have just nudged a long-term trend, slightly. Business is trying to make the right noises, but a recent track record of aggression towards policies that reduce emissions (like a carbon price, renewable energy, emissions controls or a 45% by 2030 emissions reductions target) suggests that at the absolute very least, we shouldn’t hand out cookies until we see how they cope, emotionally, with the possibility of real and immediate change.

The government

The government is something else entirely. After so much time spent both denying any responsibility for climate change, attacking action and crafting policies that sound effective but aren’t, an extremely minor change in phrasing on an ABC Insiders interview was perceived by pundits as the first step in a major revamp of policy:

“It is easy to dismiss this as meaningless but it is also worth remembering that Morrison can be as cagey with his language as John Howard. A small shift in his words can prepare for bigger changes to come”

The Morrison government has since announced a new policy to increase the extraction of gas in New South Wales, which they paired with funding that could be spent on “coal innovation to commercialise and employ technologies to reduce emissions from extraction, preparation and the use of coal”, and the underwriting of new transmission network lines.

“Now the dam wall certainly hasn’t broken – let’s all breathe normally and avoid ridiculousness please – but there are some visible cracks in it”, wrote the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy, after the announcement. “Friday’s deal is two Coalition governments working together on a set of proposals that will, in time, deliver lower emissions in Australia”. It is unclear how any part of the ‘green’ elements of the plan will reduce emissions, but the ‘get the gas’ parts will certainly increase emissions.

The beating drum underneath the constant manipulations to present the government’s past, present and future performance as acceptable, along with spot-fire deal-making with states, has been promises of a glorious constellation of new technologies that will reduce emissions without, seemingly, any impact on the burning or extraction of fossil fuels. 100 technologies, to be exact.

This is a very specific expression of denialism. It is not the denial of science. It is the denial of the future. It is an effort to create a fantastical world in which eye-watering fossil fuel profits remain unchanged while the soul-crushing anxiety at being the major cause of climate consequences is carefully soothed. The Australian’s press release on the ‘100 new technologies’ announcement reads:

“The government’s investment roadmap examines more than 100 technologies, including energy ­efficiency, CCS, hydrogen and ­advances in agriculture such as feed supplements to reduce methane emissions and ways to measure and track carbon seques­tration in soils. It will establish a framework for government investment priorities in emissions-reducing technologies over the short (to 2022), medium (to 2030) and long (to 2050) terms”

Many of these suggestions pointedly contribute to a high emissions future. Hydrogen, for instance, can be produced in a dangerously emissions intensive way (even the country’s Chief Scientist is a fan of this approach). Carbon capture and storage attempts to capture emissions before they’re released into the atmosphere and return them to the ground. These technologies whisper extremely important promises to anxious executives and panicked politicians: you can keep digging, and you can keep burning, but the rising panic that you feel as the country’s people begin to notice can be countered through the magic of technological promise, and a whole lot of taxpayer’s money.

Notably absent is any technology that is predicted to be a major competitor to fossil fuels in the near term. The government’s own department quietly assumed a 50% penetration level for renewables in the grid by 2030 for its future projections, despite the government having campaigned furiously against a 50% by 2030 renewables target in the May 2019 election.

03 - Gen change by tech and year
The 2019 update of Australia’s projected emissions relies heavily on the shutdown of coal and gas, and their replacement with wind, solar and hydro power.

The electrification of transport in Australia, alongside the decarbonisation of the electricity grid, would be a gargantuan cut in the country’s domestic emissions, but the country’s energy minister, Angus Taylor, spent the federal election posting memes and debunked falsehoods about EVs – hence, they don’t feature as a ‘technology’ that counts. Wind, solar, battery storage, interconnection and hydro will all need heavy investment over the coming decade, but these are not the technologies being heralded in this federal plan.

The problem is that when those advocating for ‘more technologies’ to solve climate change are faced with technologies that reduce emissions, their reactions are visceral, immediate and aggressive opposition. They like the idea of technology. They see a haze of blood-red fury when they’re faced with real technologies that threaten the income stream of fossil fuel companies.

It is a clear demonstration of how loaded the phrase ‘technology neutral” is. Deeply politicised, extremely emotional and very powerfully linked to the identity politics of a small collection of men in politics, it is hauled out whenever someone is trying to present themselves as Very Serious. It is a great tool for fabricating action on climate change while ensuring Australia’s emissions continue to rise – as those who profit from this rise have so passionately demanded. 

Paris no more

Today, there seems to be a confirmation of what many have suspected for some time. This year, signatories to the Paris climate agreement are expected to raise their ambitions and push their goals upwards. Australia’s government will not do that. They will, instead, establish a ‘technology investment target’. By my reckoning, Australia is the first country to announce they are discarding both the Paris target upwards-revision of climate targets and specifically rejecting any 2050 net zero target. The press release said:

‘Scott Morrison is expected to adopt a technology investment target to avoid Australia signing up to an internationally imposed requirement for net zero emissions by 2050, with the new ­climate change plan to be presented at this year’s UN summit in Glasgow

“I don’t sign up to anything when I can’t look Australians in the eye and tell them what it costs,” Mr Morrison said. “None of that information is before me that would enable me to give any such commitment”‘

Australians have just looked climate change in the eye, and they have seen a minuscule fraction of what inaction costs. Australians have also seen that strong clean energy and climate policy is beneficial, with the country’s renewable energy target reducing electricity bills.

But the next steps – full-scale domestic decarbonisation, a winding down of the country’s huge fossil fuel exports and global leadership on climate change are, under its current government, impossible. The game here is not goal-seeking towards the healthiest and most rewarding trajectory to a zero carbon future. The game is figuring out how to increase industrial emissions while convincing an increasingly furious public that Something Is Being Done. Business and government seem to be joined in this effort, though business understands the marketing challenges better than government.

The other key reason for ineffective climate policy replacing strong targets is soothing the real, glowing ball of fear that every politician and executive must feel inside their chest in those rare moments of clarity. When even they disbelieve their own deceptions, and they realise, properly realise, the raw consequences of their efforts.

If the goal was to use technologies to reduce emissions, the technologies with the lowest costs and greatest potential would be prioritised. They are not prioritised – they are mocked and loathed. Instead, those technologies with the highest costs and lowest potential take the fore. And they are presented instead of a solid federal climate policy – the thinnest of veneers, but, the government hopes, enough to distract all of the people who have swivelled on their heels, having been at the forefront of a firefront they will never forget.

Header image – Central coast, Nov 2019

2 thoughts on “The Australian government’s new climate action distraction: distant technology

  1. A sobering précis of the totally ineffective policies with regard to lowering Australians’s emissions in our increasingly heating world.This deliberate continuing of the expansion of fossil fuel industries in the wake of an horrific summer is driving the increase in climate extremes at the expense of the majority of the population who are not involved in the fossil fuel industry.

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