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Clean energy bill only a beginning

By James Wight - posted Thursday, 10 November 2011

This week the Australian Parliament passed the Clean Energy Bill. Despite my reservations about the bill, I am pleased to see it finally made law. However, the work of the climate movement has only just begun.

The bill establishes a carbon price which will later become an emissions trading scheme. The policy is admittedly pretty awful and riddled with flaws, but unlike the old Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme at least it is better than nothing. As before, Labor intends to "reduce" Australia's emissions mainly by switching power generation to natural gas and buying carbon offsets from overseas, both of which I consider extremely dubious. However, the Greens, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott have worked hard to tangibly improve the policy, to the point where it can be considered a first step towards a renewable energy future. These farsighted crossbenchers have won unprecedented, independently-managed renewable energy funding; and built in regular independent reviews which provide opportunities to lift Australia's ambition later on.

Now climate activists need to work on building support for that greater ambition. Although the first independent review of the carbon price is not until February 2014, there is plenty more that can be achieved in the current Parliament. Here's what you should do if you care about climate action.


Firstly, support the growing grassroots movement against coal seam gas. In a recent unexpected development, Tony Windsor has tied his support for the Government's mining tax to funding for research on coal seam gas impacts. If the crossbenchers can get some anti-coal-seam-gas legislation through the Parliament, that would slow down the dash to gas.

Secondly, support the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and campaign for it to be ideally implemented. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition's current Repower Australia petition aims to do exactly this.

Thirdly, campaign for at least one concentrating solar power plant to be built. This more than anything will debunk the myth that renewable energy cannot provide continuous power.

Fourthly, tell the Government to remove the remaining subsidies and incentives for fossil fuel burning, and instead spend that money and effort on renewable energy. If the carbon price is the first step, then one possible next step is a national feed-in tariff for large-scale renewable energy. Australia's Renewable Energy Target (currently 20% by 2020) should be retained and increased; and billions of dollars of tax loopholes for fossil fuels should be eliminated.

The climate movement should now move from the "Say Yes" message to a pro-renewable, anti-gas-fired energy message. Most political insiders are deluded that renewable energy is too expensive and unreliable, while natural gas is "clean energy". In reality, we need to replace fossil fuel energy as soon as possible; gas is part of the problem and renewable energy is the central solution.

Looking beyond the current electoral cycle, the climate movement really needs to get serious. By the time the first Climate Change Authority review rolls around, there needs to be public support for emissions reduction targets consistent with global action that will not just slow, but stop and reverse the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Australians must ensure the emissions trading scheme to commence in 2015 is not compromised by offsets and other loopholes. The free permits for polluters must be scrapped, though unfortunately the Clean Energy Bill makes this impossible to achieve before mid-2017.


In the long term the movement must be not just in favor of renewables but also against fossil fuels. Australian government and businesses plan to continue generating our electricity from and exporting to Asia an exponentially increasing amount of fossil fuels. Massive public support is required to overcome the massive profit motive and force government and businesses to change their plans. Concerned citizens should lobby banks not to fund fossil fuel investments. The movement's long-term goals should include a ban on new coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, and phasing out fossil fuel exports.

Beyond Zero Emissions is designing a comprehensive plan for Australia to transition to a zero-carbon economy in ten years, debunking the argument that it cannot be done. They have already completed a plan for a zero-carbon electricity sector. The full plan is expected to be finished by 2013, so could be implemented by as early as 2023 if the political will exists. Australia must make this transition as rapidly as possible, then we can export zero-carbon technologies to the world. Australia's first concentrating solar power plant will be critical to building support for such a plan.

Today is the day to savor the small, limited victory for climate action. Let's make sure this is only the beginning.

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About the Author

James Wight is a Science student with Macquarie University, Sydney, intending to major in climate science. He is a contributor to the climate science blog His personal blog is at

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