Our en­ergy pol­icy still stuck in coal coun­try

The Weekend Australian - - BUSINESS REVIEW - ALAN KOHLER

Aus­tralia’s lithium and cobalt min­ers, as well as the price of lithium it­self, went for a solid run this week af­ter China flagged it was mov­ing to­wards ban­ning in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines and hav­ing only elec­tric cars, like France and Bri­tain have said they will do by 2040.

In­ter­est­ing that the two big listed Aus­tralian sup­pli­ers of the elec­tric­ity to put into the lithium bat­ter­ies that will drive the cars — AGL and Ori­gin — didn’t move at all, in fact they went down.

Apart from the hot breath of politi­cians down their necks, that’s prob­a­bly be­cause they don’t ex­port power to China, France or Bri­tain, and in their home mar­ket in­vestors might

be in­clined to think that by 2040 Aus­tralian cars will be pow­ered by minia­ture coal fur­naces, choof­ing along the road like so many steam trains.

It’s be­com­ing clear glob­ally that the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine is ap­proach­ing its use-by date af­ter more than a cen­tury of ef­fi­cient and prof­itable ser­vice — not be­cause of cli­mate change but the more press­ing is­sue of pub­lic health, and the cost of that to fis­cal bud­gets. That’s why France, Bri­tain and China are mov­ing to­wards a ban — air pol­lu­tion from ex­hausts, es­pe­cially diesel.

Hap­pily, the Lucky Coun­try has abun­dant lithium for the bat­ter­ies and a fair bit of the cobalt needed for the cath­odes, so we should be able to join the boom in the usual way — as a quarry.

But any thought that Aus­tralia might par­tic­i­pate through de­sign, in­no­va­tion and tech­nol­ogy in the com­ing tran­si­tion to elec­tri­fied per­sonal trans­port, or even par­tic­i­pate at all by hav­ing elec­tric cars, has been made ques­tion­able by the 10-year sham­bles of en­ergy pol­icy.

So while the rest of the world pre­pares for the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of trans­port and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing shift to re­new­able en­ergy, all sup­ported by bat­tery tech­nol­ogy, the na­tional po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion in this coun­try is about how to ex­tend the life of a 45-year-old coal-fired power sta­tion and how the pol­icy rec­om­mended by the Chief Sci­en­tist to pro­mote re­new­able en­ergy might be twisted around to sub­sidise coal in­stead.

But at least we’ll be quar­ry­ing some of the lithium and cobalt, and ship­ping it to those coun­tries that are ac­tu­ally mak­ing bat­ter­ies, which might re­place some of the rev­enue that is go­ing to be lost in coal ex­port rev­enue.

The idea of an Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment ban­ning petrol and diesel cars to pro­mote pub­lic health seems es­pe­cially re­mote right now: we can’t keep the lights on as it is, hav­ing closed a few fos­sil fuel power sta­tions.

In any case, we don’t have the air pol­lu­tion prob­lems of Bei­jing and London yet, al­though we’re work­ing on that.

But you can bet that the Coali­tion gov­ern­ment and its me­dia sup­port­ers will ar­gue that the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of trans­port makes it even more nec­es­sary for there to be more “baseload power” from coal-fired power sta­tions — how could we pos­si­bly charge mil­lions of cars, and run mil­lions of air­con­di­tion­ers and fridges if we let Lid­dell close in 2022?

And they might have a point — if you thought, as most Coali­tion MPs ap­par­ently do, that global warm­ing is a lie. Oth­er­wise you would think that elec­tric cars make it even more im­por­tant to switch from coal to re­new­ables.

This is the un­der­ly­ing re­al­ity of Aus­tralia’s en­ergy de­bate: a ma­jor­ity of the gov­ern­ment does not ac­tu­ally be­lieve the science of cli­mate change. Not re­ally.

They might say they do for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons (that is, votes), but if they be­lieved, or even heard, the pre­dic­tions of al­most all of the world’s sci­en­tists, there would be no ques­tion of keep­ing Lid­dell go­ing, or build­ing new coal power sta­tions, or do­ing any­thing than what­ever it takes to stop global tem­per­a­tures ris­ing.

Politi­cians are gen­er­ally in it for the pub­lic good. If they all be­lieved in global warm­ing, there would be a bi­par­ti­san en­ergy pol­icy. Con­ser­va­tive politi­cians are not alone in not be­liev­ing of course. Broad­caster Alan Jones called cli­mate change “rub­bish” this week, and I’m pretty sure many of the com­ments be­low this ar­ti­cle will be ex­press­ing sim­i­lar views, more ve­he­mently and more per­son­ally.

And the gulf be­tween rightwing pol­i­tics and science is not con­fined to Aus­tralia, al­though it seems to be wider here than in most coun­ties, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of the US.

In fact sci­en­tists have been mod­er­at­ing what they say about the im­pact of cli­mate change for fear of be­ing ig­nored as too ex­treme, or of caus­ing panic.

But oc­ca­sion­ally what sci­en­tists re­ally see as the ter­ri­ble truth emerges, such as a re­cent piece in New York mag­a­zine in July, re­sult­ing from dozens of in­ter­views with sci­en­tists.

It starts: “It is, I prom­ise, worse than you think. … ab­sent a sig­nif­i­cant ad­just­ment to how bil­lions of hu­mans con­duct their lives, parts of the earth will likely be­come close to un­in­hab­it­able, and other parts hor­rif­i­cally in­hos­pitable, as soon as the end of this cen­tury.”

Most of those in the Coali­tion gov­ern­ment would ei­ther laugh at that as ridicu­lous, or too far off to worry about, or they would per­haps in­tone: “Yes, but for us af­ford­abil­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity are more im­por­tant than emis­sions re­duc­tion.” Ac­tu­ally cli­mate change de­nial is de­mol­ish­ing Aus­tralian pol­i­tics, and has been for 10 years.

The re­fusal of about half the na­tion’s politi­cians, and much of the me­dia, to be­lieve what sci­en­tists and busi­ness lead­ers say on this sub­ject — while be­liev­ing them on other sub­jects — has brought the nor­mal func­tion­ing of pol­i­tics and sen­si­ble pol­icy grind­ing to a halt.

It’s go­ing to be a long and dif­fi­cult re­build, but with the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of trans­port now hap­pen­ing, time is run­ning out.

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