Voters love renewable energy. They love it as much as the Coalition hates it. Even Liberal voters love it.

Just yesterday, we saw that even 39% of Coalition voters think the government should be backing renewables over coal; 56% of Labor and “other” voters also think so. More than half of voters want more support for wind farms, large-scale and rooftop solar. Voters also think renewables are better for the economy, jobs and, crucially, electricity prices. And a third of voters think the Renewable Energy Target is too low — and that was before Labor did a deal with the government to reduce it. That includes 19% of Liberal voters.

Voters of course say they like many things, but often aren’t willing to back up their stated preferences with action. But 27% of people say they have rooftop solar and another 17% say they have solar hot water. Voting intention makes no difference to usage of renewables. Rooftop solar is particularly popular, unsurprisingly, in Queensland. Moreover, 24% of people are considering getting rooftop solar or solar hot water in the next 12 months.

What’s especially interesting about this enthusiasm is that efforts to link renewables to higher energy prices has failed badly. Right-wing commentators, the business lobby and the government itself all claimed the RET was forcing electricity prices up. Unfortunately, the government was humiliated by its own RET review, designed to be the basis for killing the RET, which found that even with anti-renewables assumptions built into modelling, it would lead to lower energy prices, not higher ones. The contrast with a carbon price — whether tax or ETS — is significant: voters understand there’s a price impact of any carbon price, whereas they see more investment for renewables as something that costs them nothing, because either governments are doing the investing, or because power companies are being forced to provide it. Politically, it’s a victimless crime.

Thus, the government’s evidentiary basis for its war on renewables has shrivelled to arguing that wind farms look ugly and wind turbine syndrome is real.

Bill Shorten’s proposed 50% RET by 2030, revealed by Fairfax’s Mark Kenny, is designed to exploit this huge gulf between the coal dust-fuelled delusions of Abbott, Hockey and Co. on renewables and the stated, and increasingly the demonstrated, preferences of voters for renewable energy. It will allow a lower-impact ETS, and higher carbon abatement targets than the risible 5% bipartisan target currently in place.

It also exploits the fact that the government, run by a clutch of climate denialists, has nowhere to go on climate action. It’s already relying on dodgy international emissions accounting to be able to reach the 5% target; to reach anything more ambitious, such as a 10-15% type target of the kind it might try to announce prior to the Paris climate conference later in the year, it will have to scale up its discredited Direct Action policy by several orders of magnitude, costing the budget billions of dollars. “Direct Action”, too, exploits the fact that voters prefer an apparently cost-free way of carbon abatement, but unlike renewables, no one has ever bought it. Just 10% of voters back “Direct Action”, with Liberal voters every bit as hostile as everyone else.

How economically efficient is a stronger RET, though? As Ross Garnaut succinctly put it in his submission to the RET review:

“The costs of mitigation per unit of abatement are lower the smaller the proportion of costs of mitigation imposed by direct intervention and the higher the proportion carried by broadly based carbon pricing. Costs would be lowest if the whole burden were carried by the combination of carbon pricing and support for innovation.”

He also pointed out that a RET doesn’t encourage lower emission fossil fuels (i.e. gas) over emissions-intensive fossil fuels like coal, in the way a carbon price does. As he went on to note, of course, we no longer have any carbon pricing to carry the burden. Under the sort of scheme apparently to be proposed by Labor, a RET would do much of the work of decarbonisation rather than a higher-priced ETS, and do it less efficiently and with less support for cleaner fossil fuels.

But that’s the economic price to be paid for the rabid campaign against carbon pricing by Tony Abbott, News Corp and other climate denialists. Perhaps the Business Council and other ostensible advocates for more economic reform can make the case for a carbon price over a bigger RET?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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