Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Renewables Targeted

By Ian Lowe

A review of Australia’s renewable energy target appears to have been established with a particular outcome in mind.

The Australian government has controversially altered the planned review of its renewable energy target (RET). There had been bipartisan agreement for the target, introduced by the Howard government, for at least 20% of Australian electricity to come from renewable supply technologies by 2020. The legislation provided for a 2014 review by the Climate Change Authority, the intention being for the latest science to determine whether the target is sufficiently ambitious. Renewables provide 18% of world electricity today, so 20% is hardly an ambitious target.

Instead of a scientific assessment of progress in slowing climate change, the Abbott government has appointed a review panel with no apparent scientific expertise and clear links to fossil fuel industries. It has been asked to examine “the economic, environmental and social impacts of the RET scheme, in particular the impacts on electricity prices”. Emphasising the slant toward short-term economic issues, the terms of reference also require the panel to assess how the renewable energy target contributes to “reducing business costs”.

The composition of the panel has caused concern among scientists, environmental groups and the renewable energy industry. It will be chaired by Richard Warburton, a professional company director whose background includes a period of management in the petroleum industry but no experience of renewable energy. He describes himself as a climate sceptic and told ABC radio that he doesn’t believe “man-made carbon dioxide is the major cause of global warming”!

Another panellist is Dr Brian Fisher, an economist who formerly headed the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Under his guidance, the bureau produced the notorious MEGABARE model used by the Howard government at the 1997 Kyoto talks to argue for Australia to have a uniquely generous reduction target. The model used creative assumptions to conclude that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would affect Australia’s economy more seriously than other nations. This was an extraordinary claim. Our unusually high reliance on coal-fired electricity and failure to implement modern efficiency standards mean that Australia has more cost-effective ways to curb emissions than most countries.

The panel also includes Shirley In’t Veld, former head of Verve Energy which has a tiny renewables component in its fossil-fuel dominated energy mix, and Matthew Zema, who is chief executive of the energy markets operator, a position that appears to give him a vested interest in the review’s outcome.

There are rumours the review is intended to justify reducing the renewable energy target or even scrapping it altogether. The Queensland government’s Minister for Energy and Water Supply, Mark McArdle, rushed out a media release welcoming the review and calling for the target to be abolished. It repeated the furphy that renewables are unreliable and claimed that the target “is increasing Queenslanders electricity bills by $81.24 a year”. Leaving aside the missing apostrophe and the absurd precision of giving the cost to the nearest cent, the claim is ridiculous. The RET accounts for about 3% of household bills, so the average Queenslander would be paying more than $2500 per year for electricity if that figure was accurate.

******

Should people get advice about which foods are healthy? State and Commonwealth Ministers agreed several years ago that they should. The food industry successfully lobbied against a traffic-light scheme that would have put colour-coded messages on supermarket shelves: green for healthy, yellow for questionable so use in moderation, red for foods that the health-conscious shopper should avoid.

Consumer groups argued that the scheme would have given every shopper clear advice. That probably explains why the food industry resisted the proposal. Sales of unhealthy products would have dropped. Instead, the Ministerial Council plumped for a web site that would allow the really determined consumer to get information on the healthiness of various food products.

A political storm erupted when the web site was taken down within hours of going public. The pressure increased when it turned out that the withdrawal had been ordered by a junior Minister whose chief-of-staff had a background working for the junk food industry. That staffer resigned when this association became public, but the underlying issue has not been resolved.

When good science shows that a product is unhealthy, shouldn’t consumers know about it.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.