The sense of crisis gripping Australia’s outlook for renewable energy and electricity security underscores the extent to which we have lost sight of the longstanding bedrock of the nation’s climate change response: that it pass the national interest test.
For more than three decades the bipartisan compact has been that actions be measured against those taken by competing nations. They should be “no-regrets” and designed to safeguard the competitive position of Australia’s trade-exposed industries.
What good are actions taken at home if the carbon emissions saved are simply moved offshore?
While the varying sides of the climate change debate may have disagreed on the detail of how to get there, all have generally supported some sort of national interest test for action.
Fading energy security in the wake of a statewide blackout in South Australia in September has been a wake-up call on whether everyone has really been on the same page when it comes to a managed transition.
Energy anarchy may please those who are most keen to campaign against fossil fuels. But Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and the success of One Nation domestically are clear warning signs that overshoot will inevitably produce a correction.
And the evidence of overshoot on demands for action on climate change through a renewables-only strategy are becoming more obvious.
Exploration for lower-emissions gas — which has allowed the US to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions — is now banned across much of Australia on both ideological and environmental grounds.
State governments are attempting to wrest control of the renewable energy rollout from the commonwealth, with higher targets and little planning on how to get there.
And a loss of energy security in the wake of a forced closure of coal-fired generation in South Australia has started to affect significant industrial projects.
The signs are that this is starting to force a rethink.
The election of Trump as US president has up-ended many of the assumptions on which several of the most recent climate action calculations have been based.
Trump has foreshadowed an overhaul of America’s climate change positioning and response.
He may not abandon the Paris accord on climate change, but he will greatly widen the policy divide with Europe.
Trump is all about cheap and secure energy as the engine to drive US economic revival.
His plan is to supercharge a transition to lower-emissions gas through a shale revolution that has already transformed the US energy equation, giving local manufacturers a massive boost over their European competition, most notably Germany. Australia has a chance to follow Trump’s lead with energy security as a foundation of its lower-emissions transition.
Or it can continue down the European route of greater government mandate, under which taxpayers and electricity users pick up the tab to cover inefficiency and energy-intensive industry ultimately votes with its feet and leaves.
Households may turn to battery storage and better managed micro grids but for industry and heavy electricity it is a recipe for managed decline.