Magic thinking vs the hard truth of climate change

Clive Hamilton and George Wilkenfeld

Can Australia become a renewable energy superpower and help the world limit global warming? Across Australia, citizens rightly anxious about the changing climate are cautiously optimistic; after all, the alternative is grim.

The federal government is building an economic strategy for the nation’s future around the idea, with Treasurer Jim Chalmers proclaiming in the recent budget that making Australia a renewable energy superpower lies at centre of his growth agenda.

The superpower plan, put forward by Ross Garnaut, is similar to those advanced in recent times by former chief scientist Alan Finkel and solar power entrepreneur Saul Griffith. They promise to electrify everything using clean energy and make Australia safer and more prosperous in a warming world.

If only it were true. We have each been advocating sharp reductions in carbon emissions, including a large carbon tax, for close to thirty years, and we have no time for those who still try to cast doubt on what the climate scientists are telling us; in fact, the situation is worse than most of the scientists are willing to admit in public.

But Garnaut’s proposal has deep flaws. One is the eye-watering cost of the investments in renewable energy and new production processes to make green metals. We support his proposal for a Carbon Solutions Levy on fossil fuels that would raise $100 billion each year. But rather than using it to subsidise speculative technologies there is a better way to spend it that would far more effectively protect our future (as we’ll explain).

The superpower pathway would be gambling Australia’s future on growing global demand for ‘green’ steel, aluminium, nickel and other materials made here with renewable energy, or at least with their emissions ‘offset’ by carbon capture and storage projects (using unproven methods).

Yet, climate change is now unstoppable. In our main markets, national energy security is likely to take priority over buying premium-priced green metals from Australia. Should we be betting that China will buy our expensive ‘green’ commodities just because its government says it is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2060?

China’s commitment to net zero is weak. It’s true that the country is installing record quantities of solar, wind and hydro power; but the other half of the story is that it continues to maintain and even expand its consumption of fossil fuels. China is building two new coal-fired power plants every week.

While peak coal in China has been predicted for some time, the fact is that its carbon dioxide emissions rose by 12 per cent between 2020 and 2023, and are now greater than those of the United States, Europe and Japan combined. However spectacular the growth in renewable energy, for as long as global fossil fuel emissions increase or plateau (the most realistic scenario for some time) climate change will worsen. The Earth has almost certainly passed through the 1.5⁰C warming barrier and limiting warming to 2⁰C appears almost out of reach.

Some point to the surge in China’s electric vehicle production as a positive sign. It certainly is – for China. Combined with the growth in coal power generators, the country is effectively shifting its transport energy needs from imported petroleum to electricity from burning coal, of which it has unlimited domestic reserves.

To manufacture the EVs, solar panels, batteries and so on needed for the clean energy transition, China is prepared to import metals made with the blackest of energy, provided they are cheap and their supply is under the control of Chinese companies, as we have seen in the nickel market. Mining analyst Tim Treadgold said, ‘It’s a fool’s errand to think we’re going to somehow become a green metal producer because the world wants green metal. It doesn’t — it wants cheap metal.’

Green hydrogen is even more speculative. At least there is a genuine market for the metals needed for batteries, motors and other electrical equipment. Hydrogen would have to compete with well-established steel-making, transport and industrial technologies, and may well end up locking in fossil fuel generation if the ‘green’ part (renewable electricity supply) fails to keep up with the many demands on it. If the private sector wants to take the risk, fine. The public should not underwrite it.

Protecting what we still have

The superpower plan risks sacrificing much of what we aim to protect because of the environmental damage caused by the accelerated expansion of renewable energy generation. Alan Finkel calculates that to fully decarbonise our electricity supply, and to replace natural gas and petroleum use with clean electricity, and to replace our fossil exports with clean hydrogen, we would need to build 100 times as many solar and wind farms than we have now.

Today, the roll-out of renewable energy infrastructure is causing lasting damage to elements of the natural environment that will become ever more imperilled and valuable as our climate shifts. Snowy 2.0 is a case in point. So is the proposed Robbins Island wind farm off northwest Tasmania.

Expanding decarbonisation infrastructure also jeopardises the food security that Australians will need and value ever more highly as the world enters a long era of climatic transformation. The area of arable land is shrinking due to climate change (winegrowers are decamping to Tasmania) and farm productivity is expected to decline.

We have been staunch advocates of rapid decarbonisation since the 1990s. But with severe climate change on the horizon, in fact already here, if protecting our increasingly precious landscapes, seascapes and ecosystems means a slower roll-out of renewables, then so be it.

Our ageing coal-fired power plants are on the way out, and should not be replaced. Keeping them limping along until we replace them with nuclear is not an option. Setting aside the cost, it would take at least 15 years before the first reactor was switched on. And no investor would commit if Labor said it was opposed.

The best option is to expand renewable energy at a pace that does not threaten its social licence and accept that natural gas will be the backup fuel for some decades. Labor’s recently announced gas strategy has this part right at least. But it could have been achieved by reserving a share of existing gas projects for domestic use, as Western Australia has successfully done. The encouragement of new gas projects shows how superficial is the commitment of governments, our own and the buyer countries, to reducing global emissions.

Preparing for the inevitable

Even if the world moves more quickly than expected, elevated levels of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere – up from 270 parts per million before the industrial revolution to 420 parts per million today – will keep global temperatures high for centuries. Slow processes like melting ice masses, thawing tundra and rising sea levels are in effect irreversible once they begin. There are signs that some tipping points may have been crossed by now.

Common sense tells us that this is the future Australians must prepare for. The climate we are familiar with – the one that has shaped the way we live and work in cities, towns and the bush – will be transformed in the next decades into one more alien, chaotic and dangerous.

Australians have always lived with heat, fire, flood and drought, but climate change is multiplying and supercharging extreme weather events to the point where they are beginning to overwhelm our accustomed ways of coping.

And yet debate in Australia over climate policy is built on an implicit belief that what we do in this country to reduce our emissions will affect the climate Australians will be living through in fifty and a hundred years’ time. The Labor government’s climate policy, for instance, is promoted as ‘a plan to secure our nation’s future’.

The public is being lulled into a false sense that enough is being done to make a difference to our future climate, which is preventing us from coming to grips with the one thing that really could ‘secure our nation’s future’ – implementing a far-reaching national program to prepare Australia for life in a hotter climate.

Once we face up to fact that the pace of Australia’s decarbonisation will have no appreciable effect on the global climate, we can craft a climate change strategy that will best serve the nation as the world heats up.

In July 2023, the CEOs of peak bodies for the planning, building and insurance industries called on state governments to change their land use planning to ‘ensure no new homes are built without regard for flood risks’. In light of everything we know, and have known for a long time, it is scarcely believable that in 2023 industry leaders should feel the need to tell governments not to allow building on floodplains.

In preparing Australia for life in a hot world, governments have been dragging their feet. Almost all emphasis is on reducing our emissions and emergency response; there’s much less interest in readying ourselves for the stresses and disasters that are surely coming, in fact, that are already upon us

We like to pat ourselves on the back about how good we are at disaster response. Preventing the damage in the first place is barely on the radar. Australia spends 97 per cent of disaster funding on clean-up and recovery and only 3 per cent on measures to prevent the damage in the first place, according to the Productivity Commission.

Making the nation resilient to the changing climate means transforming everything, from where we live and the dwellings we live in, to city planning, transport infrastructure, water management, farming, coastal management and biodiversity conservation, to mention the more obvious elements.

And it means changing the way we govern the nation because at present local councils have most of the responsibility without having the money to invest in resilience or the power to change the laws in the ways needed.

China is preparing

If Australia is reluctant to prepare for the future, China is not. Beijing understands that China is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of a warming climate. The brutal summer of 2023 saw catastrophic droughts, floods and heatwaves, with temperature records obliterated across the country. A leading expert remarked: ‘There is nothing in world climatic history which is even minimally comparable to what is happening in China.’

While China’s impressive investments in renewables attract headlines, the hidden story is the vast sums China is pouring into turning the nation into a fortress against an increasingly hostile climate.

China’s national climate adaptation plan describes bold measures to ensure that by 2035 ‘the risks of major climate-related disasters will be effectively prevented and controlled’. Think about that: China’s government expects that within eleven years it will have completed construction of ‘a climate-adaptable society’.

The plan includes ‘the largest water transfer system in human history’, writes China climate policy expert Eyck Freymann, aimed at diverting enormous volumes of water from the country’s flood-prone south to its parched north. Beijing is also overseeing the construction of thousands of kilometres of seawalls and is surrounding its metropolises with wetlands to create ‘sponge cities.’ Obsessed with food security, President Xi Jinping has ordered a huge increase in China’s grain stockpile and Chinese companies have been acquiring arable land around the world.

So Beijing may not be willing to move rapidly to net zero emissions, but it is fortifying the nation to survive the extreme climatic scenarios that are increasingly probable; in fact, it is engineering the nation to become a ‘climate-adapted society’ by 2035.

If all this is true, it poses a profound question for us. If the country with the world’s highest carbon emissions is not planning to cut them fast enough to curb warming and is in fact readying itself to cope with extreme climate change, shouldn’t we in Australia be doing the same? Shouldn’t we be emulating China’s national planning approach to building our resilience against what we know is coming?

It is to prepare the nation for climate extremes that we should devote the annual $100 billion from Ross Garnaut’s carbon levy, because building an Australia resilient against the ravages of a warming globe will demand massive investments over decades. It’s the only way for us to give the next generations of Australians a good chance of surviving, and perhaps even thriving, in a hot world.


Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. George Wilkenfeld is an energy policy consultant who helped set up the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. Their new book, Living Hot: Surviving and thriving on a heating planet, is published by Hardie Grant on 3 June.

(Published in The Australian, 1 June 2024)


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