Renewables Can Save the Debate To Save the Climate at COP17

The UN’s climate negotiations in Durban are stuck in the same morass as the carbon price was for us in Australia for so many years. Both the Australian and the international climate debates have been focused on abstract carbon price schemes that no one understands.

A poll in Australia confirms what I have come to believe after watching the global warming issue for 20 years; renewable energy is the only way to save the debate about saving the planet.

If the UN wants to make progress in the climate negotiations and closer to home, if Julia Gillard wants to win the next election, then the debate should be couched in terms of the tangible benefits of today’s solar and wind technologies.

A poll by Essential Research during Australia’s recent, vexatious carbon price negotiations shows that there’s overwhelming public support for investment in solar and wind, and that this support might just win the politics of a carbon price.

The poll shows that the public loves renewables, but that this sentiment is vulnerable to attacks from the polluters. Solar and wind have been politicised and companies need to step in and vigorously defend their interests.

Renewable energy is the consensus issue

The central question of the poll was “Does that fact that the carbon pricing scheme includes a $10 billion investment in renewable energy make you more supportive or less supportive of the carbon pricing scheme or does it make no difference?”

Results indicated that 43 percent said the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) makes them more supportive, 10 percent said more negative and 41 percent said it made no difference.

If wind and solar firms, along with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Australian Greens, can shape the national narrative around the progress of renewable energy technologies, then that 41 percent who said the CEFC $10 billion makes no difference can likely be convinced to support the package.

The poll also asked whether or not renewable energy appeals to people’s basic values. In answer to the proposition, “Investing in renewable energy is good for people and the environment,” a startling 89 percent agreed while only six percent in disagreed and five percent were undecided.

Fourty-five percent of Australians strongly agreed with the value proposition and two percent strongly disagreed. That is a level of support that neither fossil fuels nor nuclear power will ever have.

If this is not a consensus then I don’t know what is.

So almost everyone thinks renewables are a good thing, but how many actually want to see money spent on them? It turns out that 87 percent agree that “There should be more investment in renewables like solar and wind.” If you understand the value of renewable energy, then you want to see more investment.

The polluters know that they cannot easily shift basic values so they have attacked solar and wind at the next level of understanding, around jobs, prices and the electricity industry. In reaction to the statement, “Investing in renewable energy is good for the economy by creating jobs,” we again have a consensus, with 80 percent in agreement and only 10 percent in disagreement.

After two years of campaigning for coal and against renewables, the polluters, the Australian newspaper and opposition leader Tony Abbott, have done minimal damage to the perceived value of renewables as an industry.

When asked to respond to the statement, “Renewable energy can be as reliable as other sources of energy,” 68 percent are in agreement — and we begin to see where the antis have been effective.

Busting the baseload myth

The next issue to mine is the question of so-called “baseload” electricity. At the Labor national conference, a disconcerting number of delegates chose to run the rumor that only coal and uranium can power our electricity grid.

In response to the statement, “Renewable energy like wind and solar can provide enough energy for all of our needs.” 56 percent agreed and 17 percent said “don’t know.”

This question is so important that it was asked in another formulation: “If we invest in sufficient renewable energy it will be able to replace coal and other sources of fossil fuel based energy.” This had the same result, with 56 percent support (and 17 percent undecided).

Tony Abbott and the Australian say they are concerned with policy but all they are really interested in is creating personal income fears, so the politics largely hang on the question of prices. This is where people are very confused: 57 percent agree with the statement, “With sufficient investment in renewable energy, the costs of power for households would decrease.” When the question is posed differently, the result shifts. In response to the statement, “Renewable energy will increase the costs of households’ cost of living through increased power prices,” 40 percent agree and 24 percent are undecided.

This is where the carbon price becomes an electoral liability, only 44 percent support the statement “I am prepared to pay a little more for renewable energy.”

Renewables are of course cheaper in the long run than fossil fuels, because they internalise the environmental costs of carbon pollution. That is the whole point of the debate. Unfortunately however, the false economics of our energy market means that there are up-front costs to be borne in the transition to renewable energy, and people are not yet prepared to pay these costs.

Extremist elements in the liberal party have expanded their conspiracy theory from climate change to renewable energy and are convinced that windmills and solar panels are virtually weapons of mass destruction. Electorally, this would appear to be dangerous ground and should be seen as ripe, juicy and low hanging fruit for campaigners to go after.

Simply, it is a moving front in the battle against reason and facts. When asked to consider the proposition, “There are legitimate concerns about the safety of renewable energy like wind and solar,” only 28 percent of people actually agree with the safety question and almost as many (25 percent) are undecided.

The renewable energy industry has done almost nothing to defend itself, when compared to the energetic campaigns run by coal, banks, pokies, retailers, CSG, fishermen, tobacco, alcohol retailers, superannuation funds, pornographers and just about anyone else who isn’t already on the dole.

So why is renewable energy held in such high esteem?

Firstly, although people might be grossly misled and apathetic, they are not ignorant. Anyone can see that solar and wind are excellent technologies and the way of the future.

Secondly, it is because of the effort of two organisations that I donate my time to: Beyond Zero Emissions and 100% Renewable Campaign. Both organizations have given more constructive momentum to the climate debate in Australia than the government or its friends in the traditional environmental NGOs.

But more must be done to protect the CEFC and the Renewable Energy Target. It is necessary to present the electorate with the real world choice we face. The constantly dropping costs of renewable energy must be showcased frequently and clearly. With the right campaign effort, killing off renewables will come to be seen as a crazy form of political suicide.

Saving the debate

Renewable energy is the technological core of the transition to a healthy, post-carbon economy. This fact has seemingly been forgotten by the thousands of well-meaning climate NGOs and experts who have been drawn into the vortex of the UN climate process.

Thanks to Beyond Zero Emissions, 100% Renewable Campaign and the Greens, Australia is moving the conversation away from the carbon fetish and towards renewables, where it should be. The core of the CEF agreement is renewable energy and that is what will power most of the emissions reduction. The carbon price starts at $23, which is not high enough to bring on solar and wind by itself, so it should be seen as a support mechanism. The carbon price provides a small but important economic signal and raises funds for RE acceleration.

This technology-centred approach could save the UNFCCC, which is far too broad, slow and unenforceable. The climate treaty being negotiated in Durban was written in 1992. It is clear that we would have been better spending the last 20 years accelerating the progress of proven solar and wind renewables, rather than the toothless, complex climate agreement we have today.

If we had simply focused on renewables, they would now be cheaper than coal and gas and we could let the market solve the problem. This would free up the UN to address complex issues of industrial production and agriculture and how to protect our forests and oceans.

The opposition in Australia likely won’t wake up to this anytime soon, but it could. A sensible opposition would look to today’s wind and solar technologies for new financial opportunities, cleaner power, innovation and climate security.

A carbon price should not be seen as the only response to the global climate disaster we’re heading for, otherwise the garbage put out by the polluters will crowd out reason and responsible action.

(These poll questions were asked in the weekly omnibus conducted by Essential Research from 27th to 31st July 2011 and is based on 1,019 respondents. The survey was conducted online. You can download the results from my Consultant Dan blog.) 

Previous articleThe Potential of Hydroelectric Power
Next articleChampion Advocates of Photovoltaics
Dan Cass is strategist at The Australia Institute and an honorary associate at Sydney Business School. He has advised international and Australian energy companies, and is now on the advisory board of Solar Head of State and was a director of Hepburn Wind. @DanJCass

No posts to display