By now, Julia Gillard has been well warned of the perils of ignoring climate change. So far, her comments have been carefully crafted to obscure her intentions and to push the issue beyond the election. However, after years of overwhelming public support for action on climate change, it is odd for her to be speaking of the need to “build consensus”.

The public consensus is larger than on most issues of public policy. What is lacking is the political will to overcome the fearmongering of vested interests.

Gillard has taken the helm at a critical time. The long-awaited changes to the Renewable Energy Target finally passed the Senate, but while the RET will drive investment in wind there are still no policies in place to discourage investment in a new generation of coal power stations.

The investment decisions that are made in the next five to 10 years will define our energy future, and will define whether or not Australia can meet even modest emissions reductions targets. While groups such as Beyond Zero Emissions are advocating a plan for 100% renewable energy within the next decade, at the other end of town there are plans for 12 new coal power stations around Australia.

According to Garnaut, there are only eight countries in the world with an electricity system that is more emissions intensive than Australia’s — Bahrain, Botswana, Cambodia, Cuba, India, Kazakhstan, Libya and Malta.

The simple reason is that most of our power comes from coal. Brown coal produces around 1.1 ronnes CO2 per MWh while the most efficient new coal plant will emit around 0.7 tonnes of CO2/MWh. The most efficient gas power station in Australia, at Talawarra in NSW, claims to have an emissions intensity of 0.35 TCO2/MWh. Of course, renewable energy technologies like solar thermal and wind don’t have any emissions from operation.

In order to meet the long-term emissions reduction targets that have been agreed by both major political parties (it is easy to agree to something that has to happen in 40 years time), the average emissions intensity of Australia’s energy generators needs to drop from its current level of around 0.85 tonnes of CO2 for every MWh of electricity produced, down to somewhere near 0.15 tonnes CO2/MWh.

A very simple and elegant solution for Gillard to take control of our energy future would be to implement an pollution standard for new power stations. It could be set at a level that effectively excludes a new generation of coal power stations, and would therefore provide more investment certainty for low and zero carbon energy sources. The standard could be ratcheted down over time to ensure that we make the transition to zero carbon energy and don’t end up having to have the same public fight over gas power stations in fifteen years time that we are currently having over coal.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey