The Coalition's tech roadmap is a strategy based on an old and discredited argument | Tristan Edis

There are useful elements in recent policy announcements but what we really need is a clear financial incentive to deliver emission reductions

Stationed here in Victoria under Covid lockdown and working from home day after day it can begin to feel a bit like groundhog day.

But when the Morrison government unveiled its low-emission technology roadmap – outlining its plan for how technology, not taxes, will lower our climate change emissions – I never thought I’d be reliving the same day from 2006.

Back in January 2006 then prime minister John Howard and US president George W Bush launched what they labelled the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

Don’t remember it?

That’s understandable because it didn’t achieve much and seemed to be best defined by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t about setting clear, legally enforced targets for reducing emissions. Also it definitely wasn’t about putting any kind of price on carbon or some other mandate or financial incentive for businesses to deploy abatement technologies in the near term.

As part of the launch of this partnership the Howard government released economic analysis from a Dr Brian Fisher and also his long-time collaborator Anna Matysek, who were both employees at the time of a government agency called Abare. This report asserted that the Asia-Pacific Partnership could substantially reduce emissions.

How would it do this? Well, the authors warned that this shouldn’t be done through a carbon price or other policy measure that created demand to deploy low-emission technologies until “the necessary technologies to substantially reduce emissions actually exist”. Instead the government should focus its efforts on research and development of new technologies which would then deliver miraculous cost reductions such that they could be rolled out en masse some time in the future.

In Fisher and Matysek’s analysis they envisaged that growth of wind and solar would be pretty much inconsequential in the globe’s future energy supplies. Instead major breakthroughs would be achieved in capturing and storing emissions (often referred to by the acronym CCS) from coal and gas power plants. This would then lead to their widespread deployment from 2015 across Australia, the US and Japan and from 2020 for China, India and Korea. By 2050, these authors projected, CCS would have been fitted to 60% of coal-fired generation and 70% of gas generators.

Yet over the subsequent months the Howard government came under increasing criticism from a range of stakeholders across both industry and environmental groups that this “technology, not taxes” approach was not sensible. Instead, a carbon price was required. Fisher and Matysek leapt to the government’s defence, arguing in the Australian Financial Review that a carbon price would just punish consumers because options to decarbonise energy, like renewable energy, were too expensive. The Howard Coalition government echoed the same argument until a few months later it eventually agreed that yes, a carbon price was a sensible idea.

Fast-forward to today – we are being told by a subsequent Liberal-National Coalition government that we shouldn’t put in place a carbon price or some other kind of incentive to deploy renewable energy to replace emitting fossil fuels. Except apparently the reason now is because these technologies are so cheap.

At the same time they are still saying we must focus on research of technologies that aren’t capable of affordably reducing emissions in the near term but might help in 10 years time. And again they are pointing at cleaning up fossil fuels via CCS rather than getting rid of them altogether as our best option.

Yet something has become very obvious over the intervening almost 15 years. Policy instruments that have driven widespread deployment and immediate emission reductions, not research, have delivered us the breakthroughs in the cost and scale of wind and solar energy. Meanwhile the assorted programs focused on directing funding to hand-picked research and demonstration projects in carbon capture and storage have achieved very little. Except perhaps to confirm the technology is extremely expensive (this is actually quite a useful outcome).

Fisher and Matysek were clearly wrong on both policy and technology choices. Yet it seems the government still thinks they should be guiding our approach to lowering emissions. As recently as the 2019 election Angus Taylor was telling us that Labor’s plan to use an emissions trading mechanism to reduce emissions and achieve 50% renewables would drive electricity prices through the roof. His primary support for this claim was a paper authored by Fisher. Yet just a few months later Taylor himself was inadvertently making the point that Fisher was wrong. Taylor proudly proclaimed that Australia was on track to reducing its emissions in line with its 2030 emissions target and it would also lower electricity prices while doing so. Yet this claim was based on his department’s emission projections which also showed Australia was going to achieve 50% renewables.

Meanwhile, Matysek has been appointed to the board overseeing the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. This is one of the primary agencies charged with implementing the government’s low-emission technology roadmap.

It’s worth pointing out there are many useful elements within the government’s recent climate change policy announcements. However, the best way to get progress on emission reduction technologies is to provide a clear financial incentive made available to anyone who can manage to deliver emission reductions, irrespective of the technology they might use. It isn’t about trying to pick technological winners. And certainly not picking emission reduction winners based on the advice of people who don’t seem to have been much good at it.

• Tristan Edis is director of analysis and advisory at Green Energy Markets


Tristan Edis

The GuardianTramp

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