A new report from the Climate Commission paints a more optimistic scenario of global momentum toward renewable energy while suggesting a mix of carbon abatement methods and voluntary action might become the de facto path toward worldwide emissions reduction.

The report, released this morning by Chief Commissioner Professor Tim Flannery, suggests Australia’s bipartisan 5% reduction target by 2020 places it neither behind nor ahead of other countries in terms of targets, despite our status as the world’s highest per capita carbon emitter. Countries responsible for 90% of the global economy have committed in some form to limit greenhouse gas emission, including 33 with a national or sub-national carbon price; by next year about 12% of the world’s population will live in states with a carbon price, including around 250 million urban Chinese.

The report also describes a surge in global investment in renewable energy, which has grown six-fold to US$257 billion since 2004. That’s led by Germany, which is already a renewables powerhouse and a major technology exporter through a combination of regulation and the EU’s emissions trading scheme, and China, which is on track to become the largest renewables energy market in the world by 2014.

Former Liberal senator Robert Hill launched the report with a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement. He declared it “reasonably well-balanced” but didn’t see as much worldwide momentum as the commissioners did.

Hill also jousted with his former departmental secretary and current Climate Commissioner Roger Beale over the efficacy of regulation versus pricing, having declared he didn’t support the Gillard government’s carbon price. Hill cited the fact that some forms of renewable energy, like solar PV, were becoming dramatically cheaper than forecast because of regulation and government intervention. “We were told in cabinet these were uneconomic,” he said.

This picked up one issue that is apparent in the report: the quest for a global, pricing-based carbon abatement mechanism appears increasingly unlikely while countries opt for voluntary commitments delivered by a variety of means. Of a variety of economies discussed in the report — including China, the US, the EU, Russia, India and Japan — most had a sub-national or national carbon price either in operation or planned, but all had a renewable energy target, all had energy efficiency regulation and most had vehicle emission standards.

The Climate Commission maps global action on climate change — click through to a larger version

The report also noted an International Energy Agency finding that around 65% of the abatement task to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees could be achieved through energy efficiency, suggesting “we already have the technologies we need to tackle climate change”.

Hill appears sceptical of the chances of an international agreement, while Beale’s view was that we maximised the chances of securing such an agreement by fulfilling our own commitments.

But the real debate appears to be around how to deliver commitments, rather than the binding nature or otherwise of international agreements. For all the relentless focus on the government’s carbon price, in fact much of the heavy lifting of renewables investment between now and 2020 will be driven by the Renewable Energy Target, government assistance and, if it survives, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, rather than the carbon price.

The example from the rest of the world appears to be not a simple choice between an economically-pure carbon price and government intervention, but a mix of both.

Peter Fray

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