Just what is Trade Minister Andrew Robb going to be doing in Peru at the climate negotiations in Lima — apart from “chaperoning” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott charmingly phrases it, and making sure the Coalition’s most popular politician does not become “too green”?

Negotiators and observers here in Lima are scratching their heads as to what role Robb could possibly play in the climate talks — he has no counterparts to talk to because no other country is sending a trade minister. So why is Australia suddenly sending an “economics” minister to a “climate” event, when it refused to talk about climate at “economics” events such as the G20 and the free trade agreement negotiations with China, arguing — to the astonishment of most — that the two don’t intersect?

Perhaps, Robb has been sent to convey a simple message — namely that Australia does not understand what all the fuss is about, that addressing climate change is not that urgent, that we need more research before we start deploying new technologies such as solar, and anyway, it’s a bigger priority to sell coal to poor countries to alleviate “energy poverty”.

To do that, all the government has to do is to channel the thoughts of its favourite thinker, Bjorn Lomborg, who as others have pointed out has made quite a nice career casting doubt on the seriousness of climate change, arguing the problem is overstated and concluding that on a cost-benefit analysis there is no need to do anything. That pretty much sums up current Coalition government policy.

Robb has certainly been brushing up on his research. Last week he tweeted this picture after a briefing with Lomborg:

Presumably Robb meets many people in his role, but this is the only encounter he bothered tweeting about in the last few weeks. Given Lomborg’s past form, that idea of eliminating energy poverty would almost certainly be about trade in coal, the commodity that he says is the only way to lift 1.3 billion people out of poverty. This is a favourite line from Big Coal PR. Lomborg and Tony Abbott have swallowed the Kool-Aid, but most others say it is nonsense.

Lomborg, who was brought in to speak at a G20 event sponsored by Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest coal miner, has been a favourite consultant for the Coalition government because he says what they want to hear, i.e. there is no urgency to act, it’s fine to burn fossil fuels, and there is no point deploying renewable energy. Last December, for instance, Lomborg suggested that the world should stop installing solar. He told the ABC Radio PM program:

“What we need to stop doing is to buy another solar panel. It makes us feel good, but it doesn’t do very much good. What we should be doing is to buy a solar panel researcher — and that’s obviously putting it way too simply — but it’s about getting the next generation and the next generation so that eventually it’ll be cheap enough that we will want to put them in without subsidies.”

That, of course, is music to the ears of the utilities whose business models are being wrecked by solar and other renewable technologies, or at least those too dumb to change.

But it’s also nonsense. Anyone can tell you that the biggest cost reductions in the past five years have occurred because of deployment — and efficiencies in manufacturing, installation, monitoring, maintenance and integration. That will deliver further cost reductions of between 10% and 20% a year, while further R&D will add cream to the cake.

Solar is now cheaper than fossil fuels in many markets, against oil, diesel, LNG and new build coal-fired power stations. It is cheaper “behind the meter” in more than 100 countries.

Lomborg justifies his “do nothing” gospel by claiming there is no point in doing anything right now, because what counts is the total amount of CO2 that we put out into the atmosphere across the century.

Actually, it matters a lot, scientists say. And there is not that much time left to act. In order to keep global warming below 2 degrees and give the world a 50-50 chance of avoiding runaway climate impacts, the world needs to observe a carbon budget that will exhaust itself well before 2030 at current rates. Every economic study says that the quicker action is taken, the less costly it will be.

But Abbott is on Team Lomborg, rather than Team Science. This came from his book, Battlelines:

“It doesn’t make sense, though, to impose certain and substantial costs on the economy now in order to avoid unknown and perhaps even benign changes in the future. As Bjorn Lomborg has said: ‘Natural science has undeniably shown us that global warming is man made and real. But just as undeniable is the economic science which makes it clear that a narrow focus on reducing carbon emissions could leave future generations with major costs, without major cuts to temperatures.'”

In other words, axe the tax — and replace it with a policy like Direct Action, dreamt up by Environment Minister Greg Hunt, another enthusiastic disciple of the Lomborg principle.

As David Holmes reported in The Conversation, Hunt credited some of Lomborg’s work — a discredited analysis of the cheapest abatement technologies — as a blueprint for the Emissions Reduction Fund.

Now, it seems, Lomborg, the climate confusionist, is back on two of his favourite hobby horses — that renewable energy causes energy poverty, and more coal-fired generation can solve it.

This too, accords with government policy, and Robb’s view of the world. But if Robb is taking that message to Lima, he will be laughed out of the tent city that forms the venue for the talks.

*This article was originally published at Renew Economy

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off