Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Victoria's renewable energy quotas: how much is enough?

"The Victorian Greens point out that the government’s policy does not necessarily mean any reduction in greenhouse emissions. The Greens’ energy spokesperson and lead candidate for the Eastern Victoria upper house region, Louis Delacretaz, told media that, despite the 2016 target, “the Victorian government continues to increase power generation from fossil fuels, including dirty brown coal”."


Victoria’s Labor government announced on July 17 a plan to increase the share of renewable energy generation in the state from 4% to 10% of total energy production by 2016.

Under the plan, companies that sell electricity to the public will be required to purchase 10% of their power from renewable sources, such as wind turbines. Power bills are expected to rise as a result. The government has also flagged almost $12.5 million for the development of new renewable energy technologies.

Mark Wakeham, an energy campaigner with Greenpeace Australia Pacific, told the Melbourne Age newspaper that any government assistance to “break our addiction to burning coal is a good thing. But obviously it is important to be deploying existing renewable energy technologies as well as funding research for future projects.”

Renewable energy technologies, principally wind turbines in rural areas, have been controversial. Local resident groups have alleged that turbines threaten endangered bird species, preventing wind farms from being built in some areas. Federal MP for Gippsland, Coalition member Peter McGauran, has expressed another reason for the opposition, saying that the Victorian government’s plan will mean more wind farms and will have a “devastating” effect on the value of adjoining properties.

Environment Victoria’s Marcus Godhino said, “Governments in Australia have been full of waffle and empty promises on greenhouse and now we see a government taking steps in the right direction ... we’re calling on other states to follow the [Steve] Bracks government’s lead”. McGauran claimed a more cynical motive: the government’s “manic desire to erect wind turbines and to snare green preferences at the forthcoming state election”.

Environment groups do need to carefully scrutinise the plan, given that it has been announced in an election year. Alison Caldwell pointed out on ABC radio’s AM program that “at the last election, the Bracks government promised 10% [renewable energy sources] by 2010".

The Victorian Greens point out that the government’s policy does not necessarily mean any reduction in greenhouse emissions. The Greens’ energy spokesperson and lead candidate for the Eastern Victoria upper house region, Louis Delacretaz, told media that, despite the 2016 target, “the Victorian government continues to increase power generation from fossil fuels, including dirty brown coal”.

Victoria’s shadow energy and resources spokesperson, Philip Davis, is advocating a market-driven approach: “It is the investment by the private sector, based on assessment of commercial applications, which will eventually bring these technologies to market.” This comment only highlights the fact that electricity generation in Australia is marked by large government investment and that the mild regulation of energy retailers’ purchasing that is being proposed by the Victorian government is comparatively insignificant.

Environmentalists ought to question not merely the sincerity of the government’s plans, but also whether they are sufficient to address global warming. Earlier this month, Stanford University professor Robert Dunbar told the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will inevitably double in the next few centuries, to the highest level in 20 million years. Dunbar said ice sheets in western Antarctica will be particularly vulnerable in the resultant warming. “When that part melts, and many people think that we are going to see that melt over the next several centuries, sea levels will rise about six to seven metres.”

The use of alternative technology to address greenhouse pollution (or oil dependence) is the main measure advocated by governments worldwide. In his 2006 State of the Union address, US President George Bush said: “America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”

The G8 pledged on July 17 to promote and pursue what they called “alternative energy sources” and have singled out nuclear energy as an “important component” of their “energy security” strategy. PM John Howard has jumped on the bandwagon, declaring his aim to make Australia an “energy superpower” based on nuclear power and “clean coal technology”. “Clean coal” technology involves removing some of the environmental pollutants from coal before burning it, but does not stop greenhouse gas emissions.

The simplest and at times most effective measures to reduce greenhouse emissions are often logistical, not technological; that is, reducing energy use by avoiding wasteful use on an industrial (not household) scale. Bad building design leads to high heating and lighting costs; bad transport design encourages overuse of inefficient private motor vehicles, which in turn fuels a massive overproduction of cars, by a highly energy-intensive set of industries. Yet detailed plans for effective upgrading of energy-efficient public transport (developed by the Coalition for People’s Transport, for example) are ignored by the Victorian government, which is building a new freeway in Melbourne’s outer east.

In the lead-up to an election, there is a real danger of “greenwashing” policy announcements — designed for public relations rather than environmental impact — and environmentalists must be ready to expose them.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 676, 26 July 2006.

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