In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, the Australian Government has made a significant change in its energy policy by announcing it will contribute AUS$ 75 million [US$ 57 million] towards the building of the world’s largest solar energy plant as part of its recently unveiled renewable energy package.The 154 megawatt solar power station — to be built as a private/public partnership in the southern state of Victoria — is the first component of a total AUS$ 125 million [US$ 96.7 million] Government package to clean carbon emissions on two projects in Victoria. The Federal Government has hailed the allocation of public funds for the station as a major step forward in its support for alternative energy. “These are exciting projects. These are practical projects,” said Treasurer Peter Costello announcing the package to reporters last week. “[The solar power station] will power 45,000 homes, it will cut carbon emissions by 400,000 tons, and it will make sure that solar energy becomes mainstream and commercial for the first time.” The package is a distinct shift in policy from a Government known for its long-standing scepticism on climate change. Australia, along with the United States, was one of two Western nations not to sign the Kyoto Protocol — the 1997 accord designed to set targets to reduce carbon emissions. Prime Minister John Howard has consistently refused to ratify the agreement on the grounds of the damage such an agreement would do to Australia’s coal powered economy. Criticized domestically and internationally for its indifference to tackling climate change, the Government has been slow to acknowledge the role that carbon emissions have played in global warming and consequently hesitant to encourage alternative energies. However with a Federal election due next year, and polls consistently showing Australians are concerned over the reality of climate change, the Government has measurably reshaped its energy policy. Victorian premier Steve Bracks — a long time advocate for alternative energy whose state will be the first to benefit under the new scheme — alluded to Canberra’s sudden conversion to renewable energy. “I think it’s an important shift [to support renewables] and a welcome shift,” said Bracks to reporters. “I think we are seeing from the federal Government for the first time a recognition that there is such a thing as global warming.” The change in emphasis to support renewable energy has come as a raft of scientific data is released supporting the theory that excessive carbon emissions from traditional power sources such as coal have contributed to the potentially catastrophic warming of the planet. A comprehensive report written by former World Bank economist Sir Nicholas Stern and commissioned by the British Treasury, has warned of dire economic consequences for the world should climate change continue. Describing the report, Britain’s chief scientist Sir David King said, “if we don’t take global action…we will be faced with the kind of downturn that has not been seen since the Great Depression and the two world wars.” “If you look at sea level rises alone, and the impact that will have on global economies where cities are becoming inundated by flooding…this will cause the displacement of hundreds of millions of people,” said King. Prime Minister Howard though, when questioned over his Government’s new apparent commitment to renewable energy, remained equivocal in his support, preferring to talk up nuclear power as the energy future for Australia. “Solar power will never be able to provide base load power or solar resources in the way that, say, coal and I believe in the long run nuclear power can, but it’s part of the response [to climate change],” said Prime Minister Howard to reporters. “There’s no one single response to global warming. You need renewables, you need cleaner coal, you need, in the long run, nuclear energy,” he said. While welcoming the Government’s change in strategy on renewable energy, Don Henry, chairman of the leading environmental group the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) called on the Federal Government to do more to combat climate change. “Public concern about global warming has made a huge jump forward in recent months. It’s time Government policy and funding made a corresponding leap,” said Henry in a media release following the Government’s announcement. “While money for research and development is useful, on its own it is not enough. We desperately need strong laws and targets that require big polluters to cut emissions.” “Ultimately, any climate change policy will be judged on whether it manages to reduce emissions to a level that avoids dangerous climate change,” said Henry. Rich Bowden is an Australia-based freelance journalist specializing in political, environmental and human rights with an emphasis on the Asia/Pacific region.