In the latest Australian Book Review, Professor David Schlosberg explains how the Abbott government's attack on renewables undermined its very work.
‘Pathetically inadequate’ was probably the most frequent description of the government’s voluntary emissions proposal for the United Nations Climate Change Conference; the description fits their climate and energy policies more generally. Clearly, the wholly inadequate aspects are deliberate – but the problem is much broader.
Members of the government have used the term ‘sabotage’ to describe the actions of environmental groups when they use the law to slow something like a proposed new coal mine. But the term more accurately describes the government’s own approach to environmental and energy policy, which is nothing less than a form of economic sabotage of the renewable energy industry. It is also an abdication of the basic roles and tasks of government.
Everyone knows that the resistance to changing Australia’s coal-based energy production (and export) must be short-lived, given the impacts of climate change and the technical evolution of renewables. It is all but certain that we will eventually see a fundamental reworking of electrical power. That, in itself, may also assist in bringing some important political change.
It is surprising that the Abbott government was not more directly called out for actively and purposefully sabotaging a promising domestic industry. It was criticised for dismantling the carbon price, the cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency; creating uncertainty in (and then radically lowering) the Renewable Energy Target (RET); and directing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation not to invest in solar and wind.
These critiques, however, did not more broadly question and challenge a national government that undermined an industry which has the potential to drive and expand technological development, employment, investment opportunities, economic growth, and continued energy security. In 2014, investment in renewables in Australia dropped by eighty-eight per cent, and in two years the industry has lost more than 2,500 jobs – a direct result of the attacks on the RET, and the resultant uncertainty in the industry.
The Abbott government pursued these measures while adopting the language of the coal industry – parroting the spurious notion that coal is ‘good for humanity’ or the best answer to ‘energy poverty’, while advocating more mines and fewer renewables.
The government approved projects that are clearly environmentally and economically damaging, at the potential expense of farming (in the Liverpool Plains, for example) and tourism (Adani’s inevitable impacts on the Reef). Bad as these are, with risks for both established industries and their contributions to food and economic security, the Australian case goes a quite a bit further.
This destructive obsession of the Coalition government not only sabotages and undermines new forms of electrical power, but it is more broadly symptomatic of a breakdown of proper political power and the function and legitimacy of the government itself.