The test in this election is whether Australia crafts an independent energy policy or one driven by the coal industry. That will determine whether we are leaders or laggards in the global clean energy revolution to tackle climate change and energy poverty.
Global warming is a creeping disaster. Leading British climate expert Sir John Houghton likens it to a weapon of mass destruction: "It can strike anywhere, in any form - a heatwave in one place, a drought or flood or a storm surge in another". Even small changes in temperature cause large changes in weather - for example a 1°C increase in average temperature means that extreme temperature events which hitherto occurred once every 300 years will occur once every ten years. Even more alarming is the small but finite possibility of sudden catastrophic change in the world's climate and biological systems leading to temperature increases of 10 - 12°C, perturbation of ocean currents, and massive loss of biodiversity and rapid melting of polar ice sheets.
As we in the west consume more energy than ever before, one-third of the world's population (two billion people) lacks adequate energy services and the development opportunities they bring. Energy consumption (and greenhouse gas emissions) is accelerating in industrialising countries like China and India but remains per capita at a fraction of ours. Compounding these problems is the imminent end of the oil age, which we face within the next few years as production peaks and starts to decline, bringing in its wake rising prices and increasing global tension. These are unsustainable inequities, heightening the potential for war. Renewable energy is practical peace.
Globally, the Greens are leading the push for a rapid shift to renewable energy sources that avoid harm to human health and the environment. In Australia, that means exploiting our bountiful wind, sun, hydro, wave, geothermal and biomass resources to create a diverse clean energy economy, and phasing out coal, our single biggest polluter, which generates 84 per cent of our electricity and 35 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions.
Australian environment groups and sustainable energy businesses have shown how, with existing technology and assuming no technological breakthroughs at all, Australia could halve greenhouse gas emissions from stationary energy by 2040. A key part of the plan is to build no new coal-fired power stations and to retire existing ones as they reach their use-by dates. The Greens aim for a stronger effort, reducing Australia's emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
Political will is the vital factor. Australia used to be a renewable energy leader both in research and uptake but in the last 15 years, due to lack of government support, we have slipped behind countries like Germany, Japan and Spain. Today we are nowhere in the world league. Strategic R&D funding for renewable energy has been almost entirely abandoned. Programs to promote the uptake of energy efficiency and renewable energy are piecemeal. The main market mechanism, the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) requires electricity retailers to source a small additional amount of energy from renewable generators by 2010 (the amount is equivalent to about 1 per cent of expected demand), but with no increase in the targets the renewables industry will hit a brick wall from 2007.
The underpinning premise of the Howard government's recent energy "black" paper is that coal, oil and gas will meet the bulk of Australia's energy needs for the foreseeable future. A central part of the plan is the totally uncosted option of geosequestration (burying carbon dioxide underground), which is at least ten to 15 years away and cannot be applied to any existing coal-fired power station. A key adviser to the government on energy policy is the Chief Scientist, Dr Robin Batterham, who also works part-time as Chief Technologist for coal and aluminium giant Rio Tinto.
Latham's Labor will ratify the Kyoto Protocol and set higher targets for renewable energy uptake but shows no signs of adopting a vigorous clean energy policy and phasing out coal. State Labor governments continue to promote new coal-fired power stations.
If we start now, we don't have to take heroic measures to make a big difference. The Greens would harness the enormous potential to achieve savings of 30 per cent or more through energy efficiency. For example, the best possible building design can almost eliminate the need for heating and cooling; best possible lighting in commercial buildings uses two to five watts per square meter rather than the 15 - 25 watts which is the current norm.
We would introduce a carbon tax, commonplace in many European countries, and use the proceeds to offset negative impacts on low income households, finance the transition to sustainability, provide structural adjustment assistance for workers, and reduce other taxes such as those on payrolls.
We would support the renewable energy market by lifting the MRET targets to ten per cent by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020, and reform the National Electricity Market to remove the bias favouring centralised coal-fired generation and encourage distributed generation and demand-side management.
We would shift the subsidies from fossil and nuclear sectors to energy efficiency and renewable energy. The government's latest cuts in fuel tax alone are worth $1500 million every year, including $140 million a year to make diesel used in remote electricity generation tax free, cutting the cost by one-third and slashing an important existing market for renewable energy.
We would introduce our Sun Fund Bill, first floated in 1997, which would give farmers and others using diesel-generated power the option to swap their diesel fuel rebate for an up-front grant to convert to renewable energy.
"Renew Australia" is our $35 billion ten-year plan to green Australia's infrastructure, financed by Green Bonds, part of which would modernise and upgrade the national rail system helping to shift freight from road to rail, promote public transport, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and accidents. It would also reduce our vulnerability to impending declines in oil availability.
Clean energy is job creating, sustainable, economic, practical and peaceful. It's also among the world's fastest growing industries, with wind power growing at a phenomenal 29.7 per cent per annum, solar by 21.6 per cent per annum and $20 billion of new investment in renewable energy in 2002-03. Australia should move from coal-dependent to independent, with a clean energy future.