Our energy policy still stuck in coal country
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.