The Renewable Wars Aren't Over

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I’m proud that Labor’s Climate Change Action Plan includes a target of 50 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2030. This is an achievable, sensible, emission reduction and energy modernisation policy which when implemented will place Australia at the forefront of the growing global renewable energy economy. It places Labor on the right side of public opinion, but much more importantly, it places Labor on the right side of history.

We live in one of the sunniest, windiest countries on the planet, we have top scientists and researchers in the field, and we have the capacity and desperate need for investment to create new jobs and industries. Yet support for renewable energy investment has become a major fault line in our politics.

Why the Liberal Government is so dead against supporting renewable energy investment remains somewhat of a mystery. Logic, our climate change imperative and our economic interests all point in the same direction; and away from the Government’s approach.

The Government refuses to contemplate any policy to support renewable investment once the current Renewable Energy Target is met in 2020. They have engaged in a baseless and unprincipled attack on renewable energy via the recent storms in South Australia. The Chair of their backbench environment committee even recently suggested that support for renewable energy is causing child drowning deaths to increase. If anyone thought the Government’s approach to renewable energy would become sensible with the advent of Prime Minister Turnbull, today they must admit; there is no depth to which this Government won’t stoop to attack, degrade, and demonise renewable energy. Perhaps no other issue besides marriage equality demonstrates how the modern Liberal party has placed itself squarely on the wrong side of history as its attitude to renewable energy.

The reasons Labor supports renewable energy are well known and accepted, but we can’t become complacent in assuming public support for renewable energy. We’ve learned that when we take something for granted, a sustained campaign from the Liberals can do real damage, even if their campaign is completely baseless. That’s why we need to keep making the case; Australia’s electricity generation sector is the largest source of carbon pollution in the economy and it simply must clean up its act if we’re to limit climate change and meet our Paris Agreement obligations.

But the case for renewables can’t just be environmental. Many people don’t fully appreciate the economic benefits of renewable energy investment. Labor’s 50 per cent target has been estimated to generate $48 billion of new investment, and 28,000 new jobs. In an economy that is suffering an investment drought and record underemployment, this is good economic as well as climate change policy.

In the medium and longer term, once capital costs are depreciated, more renewable energy will lead to cheaper, not more expensive electricity. Sunlight, wind and waves are free to harness, unlike coal and gas. Of course a greater reliance on renewables does throw up challenges to how our energy system operates, but none of these challenges are unsurmountable with smart technology and good regulatory and system reform. No one should believe we can’t have a stable and reliable energy system based largely on renewables. Done right, renewables, as well as storage and distributed power, will improve, not hurt the resilience of our energy system.

The largest challenge we face in this inevitable energy transition is the challenge of ensuring those communities and workers engaged in carbon intensive energy see their prosperity preserved and grow rather than be left behind.  That means a just transition for workers at coal power generators and their associated mines. It means new investment and new job creation in those communities. It means support for training where needed and coordinated, pooled redundancies and redeployment where appropriate. Fundamentally, it means a government that understands we can’t just rely on markets to deliver a just transition for workers, especially in times of unprecedented structural change. It takes a government guided by solid values of equity and economic justice for all. That is something only Labor can and will deliver. 

 

Mark Butler has been the Labor Member for Port Adelaide in the federal parliament since 2007 and in July 2016 he was appointed Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy.