Carmichael coal mine

One of the stark realities to emerge from the federal election result is that the broad majority of Australians are still not convinced of the importance of effective action on climate change.

A decade of drought and emissions trading, renewables schemes and rising power prices has left them aware, but not engaged. When faced with a suite of less existential issues on the weekend, climate change was not decisive. When pushed, most Australians would probably like governments to just make the problem go away.

Perhaps part of the reason they’re not convinced is because too much of the campaigning around climate change isn’t directed at them. Some of it, like the campaign over the future of the proposed Adani coal mine in central Queensland, may even feel like it’s directed against them.

Blue-collar workers jeering a convoy of protesting greenies makes great television, and plays well to the activist base in Brunswick and Newtown and, apparently, just as well to Queenslanders who don’t like being dictated to by blow-ins from the south.

The show around Adani is just smoke and mirrors; the future of the mine is largely irrelevant to the real debate on energy policy and climate change in Australia.

Adani has been a campaign of convenience by the Greens, to try and wedge Labor, which is bound by the responsibilities of government. Labor governments are obliged to consider it as a mining project on its merits, just like any other resources project. Adani is hardly the first or only coal mine in Australia.

Global greenhouse gas emissions will be largely unchanged whether Adani proceeds or doesn’t. The world consumes around 5.5 trillion tonnes of coal each year to burn in power stations and make electricity. Coal use is declining in developed economies and growing in developing. The Work Bank has been funding coal-fired power stations in a number of developing countries for a while now. It’s likely the last users of coal will be the world’s poorer nations.

The proposed Adani mine, if it proceeds, would produce around 27 million tonnes a year at capacity. Not even half of 1% of global demand.

Demand for coal is determined not by the number of mines, but by the demands of power stations. Owners of these power stations source coal domestically and globally. They will continue to burn coal at exactly the same rate regardless of whether the Adani mine proceeds or not.

You don’t reduce emissions by banning a coal mine, you reduce them by providing a credible and affordable way of making electricity that can replace coal.

The real headline story on climate should be Australia’s accidental experiment in high renewables integration in a large and isolated electricity system. Through a combination of political and policy chaos over the past decade, Australia finds itself a world leader in trying to make renewables work at scale.

South Australia has become a global test case in high renewables integration, with around 50% of generation sourced from wind and solar. It wasn’t planned that way; it just happened. And every day, some hairier than other, it continues to work.

But wait, there’s more. Perth is on course to be the first large-scale grid on Earth powered entirely by distributed renewable energy when growing rooftop solar meets minimum demand on a mild spring afternoon some time around 2025.

Engineers are still working out exactly what supporting technologies will be needed to ensure that grid can continue to operate reliability. This experiment is also unplanned, the product of runaway household solar photovoltaic sales in a completely isolated grid, another uniquely Australian phenomenon.

Solar and wind farms are piling into the grid to fill the last orders of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), which closes next year. But this new capacity is intermittent and still needs back up from firm generators when there is low or no wind and sun.

Battery and chemical storage is emerging but still relatively expensive and tiny in the scale of the grid. It’s highly effective at stabilising the volatility that occurs in high renewables systems. But it’s a long, long way from being able to power entire states for days when it’s dark and still.

Currently this is mainly coming from the remaining coal generators working overtime, which is self-evidently not a sustainable solution, especially as they will continue to age and then close.

Grid managers, governments and energy companies are scrambling to get enough new gas fired capacity and transmission built in time for when the next large coal-fired generator, Liddell in the New South Wales Hunter Valley, closes in 2022. There’s also the Torrens Island A gas generator in South Australia, which is expected to close around the same time.

If this seems like a white-knuckle ride, that’s because it is. Chronic political uncertainty and populism have made a challenging job all the more difficult. Chaos is expensive. Rising electricity prices are the electricity system equivalent of a bank of red flashing warning lights. Reform is urgently needed.

In terms of addressing and solving the technical challenges of a rapidly decarbonising electricity grids there are few, if any, in the world as important as Australia right now. If we get this right we can help lead this transformation in other economies. Yet no political party has engaged with, or tried to sell, this reality. We have just been served a choice between extreme targets or extreme inactivity.

Stark divisions within the Coalition on climate reflect the political lethargy of the issue outside of the inner suburbs of major cities. Sustained messaging of emergencies and radical transformation do not appear to have engaged ordinary Australians. High-profile activist campaigns based around closing down projects in regional Australia only entrench already sharp cultural and political divisions.

The death of Bob Hawke reminded us of a time when this divide was smaller and of a political leader who could authentically bring both sides together. Delivering the wish of most Australians — to move climate and energy back out of the spotlight — will require a political conversation based around how we end the destructive politicisation of energy policy, not exacerbate it.

Matthew Warren is the author of Blackout — how is energy-rich Australia running out of electricity? published by Affirm Press.

Peter Fray

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