Can’t see the environment measures for all the smoke
So, “clean energy” stands as one of the infrastructure centrepieces of the Federal Budget. It’s an investment intended, we’re told, to both pull the economy out of recession and get us on the pathway to a low carbon economy. A princely sum of $4.5 billion is directed to renewable energy, infrastructure for climate-observing systems, and funds for low emissions technology development.
It sure sounds impressive, but under scrutiny, it turns out to be mostly just smoke and mirrors.
Breaking down the numbers, we find that $1 billion is a rollover of existing funds, while $2.4 billion has been directed towards research, development and demonstration of low-emissions coal technology, or “carbon capture and storage” to us scientists. A little under half a billion will go towards establishing a body to support research into renewable energy.
I’m ambivalent about the billions of dollars handed to coal. It’s a gamble. There are severe technical and logistical constraints on “clean coal”, which mean that it can never be a major global solution to reducing carbon emissions.
Yet the technology, if developed to maturity, has the potential to be used to drag carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it away underground. So in a future “geoengineering” role - using the technology to alter the balance of the world’s climate for the good - carbon capture and storage remains a promising approach worth supporting.
The trouble is, it can be so easily used to defend and the rampant expansion of coal use today, while the climate system becomes increasingly, and perhaps irreversibly, hostile to our modern society and the planet’s biodiversity.
As to the investment in renewable energy such as solar power, I’m honestly not sure what value add we’re getting out of this Budget. The mandatory renewable energy target (MRET), which will commit Australia to produce 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, is already going to drive major investment in renewables through carrot-and-stick incentives. What is this Budget doing that the MRET legislation won’t already do? Almost certainly nothing.
One practical measure, which I support, is the commitment of $228 million to double the capacity of Adelaide’s Port Stanvac desalination plant, giving it an annual output of 100 gigalitres. In my view there is no real prospect that Australia’s major cities will ever again break their chronic water stress – and restore some decent quanta to environmental flows – unless a technological solution like desal is adopted across the country. Desert states in the Middle East have been doing it for years.
The key climate consideration is to have that desalinated water produced from low carbon energy sources. Unfortunately, the paltry commitment to low carbon energy rollout in this and previous budgets, coupled with the flawed design and inadequate targets of the Government’s carbon pollution reduction plan, means “carbon-friendly” desal remains a pipe dream.
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