Last week, EU leaders set a goal to derive a fifth of their energy from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2020. Yesterday, our major parties spent the day pledging more money for research and development into clean coal.

The EU are aiming to cut emissions by 20% by 2020. In Australia, “we’re going to exceed Kyoto targets by 2020 by a bucketload,” Richard Wise from the Australian Business Council for Sustainable Energy told Crikey. “And projects like the latest clean coal project aren’t going to be online for another 20 years.”

There’s a mantra in the renewable energies sector: we have the technology. “Gas, renewables, and energy efficiency technology are available today, right now,” says Wise.

But the government’s refusal to update and extend mandatory renewable energy targets has meant renewable energy companies have been shutting down and moving offshore — moving to where the markets are. Experts say we’ve fallen behind where once we were world leaders.

“We’re exporting renewable technology but also jobs and manufacturing because we don’t have incentives to sustain and build a strong an innovative clean energy industry in Australia…,” Erwin Jackson from the Climate Institute told Crikey. “There are no real or significant government drivers to develop clean energy technology to reduce pollution.”

“Take the solar industry – we’ve seen a number of solar technologies being commercialized in Europe and Japan because those countries have got in place real incentives…,” says Jackson. “Japan has thirteen times the number of solar powered homes that Australia does,” says Jackson.

BP Solar currently export between 80 and 90% of their solar technology. According to their spokesperson Chandran Vigneswaran, “Federal Government support has underpinned domestic growth and in its absence the market would be significantly smaller.”

“Growth in the Australian market is tracking at approximately 15% per annum,” says Vigneswaran. “…But global growth rates of 50% …will test Australia’s longer term competitive position… What’s needed is a feed-in tariff to really take this to the next level.”

But the government can claim ownership of a very successful initiative implemented back in 2001. “The emphasis five years ago was to clean up the energy sector,” says Wise. “The government set a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) of 2%, and investment in renewable energy generation was achieved approximately four years ahead of schedule.”

“But since that time government has made a shift to delaying action…,” says Wise. The South Australian state government currently has an MRET of 20%. Victoria has 10%. But the Federal Government can’t even boast 2% any more.

“The 2% figure morphed into a hard target — gW hours by 2010 — which meant that as energy consumption grows and electricity generation grows to meet it, the percentage that comes from renewable remains static, and in fact reduces,” says Wise.

“A 2003 Government Inquiry into MRET, headed by former Senator Grant Tambling, actually recommended a doubling of the MRET target, but this was rejected by Prime Minister Howard,” says Wise.

This has meant a series of lost opportunities for the renewable energy sector. “The investment goes to where the markets are,” says Wise. Which partly explains why companies like BP Solar export up to 90% of their product.

When wind power company Vestas shut its Tasmanian plant down towards the end of last year, Senior vice-president Johnny Hoy Henriksen said the company had failed to sell a single turbine in 2006. Mr Henriksen said the Federal Government’s decision not to raise renewable energy targets had left the future of wind power in Australia uncertain.

Compare that to “China, who doubled the amount of wind power it has in its market in one year…,” says Jackson.

The big difference here? Overseas there are market mechanisms in place, in most countries set as a method to meet their Kyoto target. Which may be why Austrade are so eager to encourage Australian export firms to “tackle climate change.”

Austrade sent this press release out in late February, urging Australian businesses to “play a part in cutting emissions internationally.” After all, compared to our domestic market, the opportunities overseas are endless…