Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Baillieu on target for risky brown coal push

A lot can be politically "justified" amid the fear of an economic downturn - cuts to spending, services and public sector jobs, the sale of assets, the short-sighted expansion of the brown coal industry, and now the abandonment of an emissions reduction target legislated with bi-partisan support under the former Brumby Labor Government.

Unfortunately, ideas that are bad even in good economic times remain bad in a downturn, especially when there is much more at stake than a resources windfall and the interests of powerful coal and energy companies heedless of their impact on a climate we all share.

On Tuesday, The Age reported the Baillieu Government's plan to greatly expand brown coal in this State. It is a move now cynically complemented by the announced scrapping of the legislated target to reduce emissions in Victoria by 20 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020.

The coal expansion is to be sold with a publicly funded "communications" strategy seeking to convince us of "the continued relevance of brown coal in a carbon-constrained environment". With the abandonment of the target, it seems even the constraints are now to be shed - at least in law, if not in terms of our global climate, where they are relentlessly tightening.

A big part of the "sell" of these changes is the protection of Victorians in an economic downturn, and the promise of future shared prosperity on the back of a brown coal boom. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to share the claimed benefits, but we are certain to share the risks.

Those risks are not confined to the threat to our climate - a threat already manifest in more frequent and extreme weather events and bushfires in Victoria. Also to contend with are the health impacts of particulate and chemical pollutants released by the mining and burning of coal in the Latrobe Valley, the contamination of the water table in coal-seam-gas extraction, and the potential loss of prime agricultural land we depend on for our food.

To these we must add the economic risks, of which it must first be said that the employment of Victorians in unsustainable, dying industries offers no formula for the future prosperity of local communities.

In July this year, Australia will have a modest but urgently needed carbon price. With at least the stated aim of reducing Australia's carbon emissions, such a carbon price, if it is to be at all effective, will need to rise over time to a level that precludes the very activities the Victorian Government now seems determined to encourage.

It can therefore make no sense to increase the dependence of any community on jobs that will disappear sooner rather than later. Instead, there is a moral obligation that rests largely with government to plan for the transition of those communities, and to create alternative employment in renewable energy industries that can also meet our power needs without the dangerous carbon emissions.

Moving away from an energy source so centrally implicated in dangerous climate change is admittedly hard. Our most emissions-intensive fossil fuel, brown coal currently provides over 95 percent of electricity in Victoria.

Instead of confronting that necessity, however, the Victorian Government has chosen the path of what may be termed "effective denial".

Such a term seeks to capture the phenomenon of governments that make statements - and even laws - purporting to address climate change, but in reality promote activities that render effective climate action impossible.

With its paltry 2020 target of a five per cent reduction in emissions on 2000 levels - on which the Premier seeks to rely - the Federal Government itself suffers a form of effective denial, but the disease has now clearly taken hold with the Baillieu Government.

We may suspect it has long been merely dormant. Effectively, the Premier's brown coal plan and the now-abandoned 2020 State target constitute a denial of climate change. They represent the policy equivalent of Tony Abbott's infamous description of climate change as "absolute crap".

Attempting to soften this stark contradiction is a baseless appeal to carbon capture and storage, a technology that is not only currently economically unviable, but technically unworkable at the scale or within the timeframe required. A question mark also hangs over the safety of buried carbon dioxide, while the energy required to drive the process is prohibitive and existing coal-fired power stations cannot be retro-fitted with the technology.

It's true that renewable technologies require incentives, including a higher carbon price, to become economic. There is no question, however, that a range of low or zero emission technologies is already available to safely deliver baseload power - as shown by the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan.

Victorians must call on Premier Baillieu to have the honesty and integrity to own the inherent contradiction of his claim to believe in climate action as he engages in the headlong pursuit of brown coal free of any real constraint on its emissions.

Like a burning coal in his hands, he surely cannot hold that contradiction in the face of sustained media exposure, and should then have cause to drop his disastrous plans.

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