'Sabotage: How the attack on renewables undermines government' by David Schlosberg

‘Pathetically inadequate’ was probably the most frequent description of the government’s voluntary emissions proposal for the United Nations Climate Change Conference; the description fits their climate and energy policies more generally. Clearly, the wholly inadequate aspects are deliberate – but the problem is much broader. Members of the government have used the term ‘sabotage’ to describe the actions of environmental groups when they use the law to slow something like a proposed new coal mine. But the term more accurately describes the government’s own approach to environmental and energy policy, which is nothing less than a form of economic sabotage of the renewable energy industry. It is also an abdication of the basic roles and tasks of government.

Everyone knows that the resistance to changing Australia’s coal-based energy production (and export) must be short-lived, given the impacts of climate change and the technical evolution of renewables. It is all but certain that we will eventually see a fundamental reworking of electrical power. That, in itself, may also assist in bringing some important political change.

It is surprising that the Abbott government was not more directly called out for actively and purposefully sabotaging a promising domestic industry. It was criticised for dismantling the carbon price, the cuts to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency; creating uncertainty in (and then radically lowering) the Renewable Energy Target (RET); and directing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation not to invest in solar and wind. These critiques, however, did not more broadly question and challenge a national government that undermined an industry which has the potential to drive and expand technological development, employment, investment opportunities, economic growth, and continued energy security. In 2014, investment in renewables in Australia dropped by eighty-eight per cent, and in two years the industry has lost more than 2,500 jobs – a direct result of the attacks on the RET, and the resultant uncertainty in the industry.

The Abbott government pursued these measures while adopting the language of the coal industry – parroting the spurious notion that coal is ‘good for humanity’ or the best answer to ‘energy poverty’, while advocating more mines and fewer renewables. The government approved projects that are clearly environmentally and economically damaging, at the potential expense of farming (in the Liverpool Plains, for example) and tourism (Adani’s inevitable impacts on the Reef). Bad as these are, with risks for both established industries and their contributions to food and economic security, the Australian case goes a quite a bit further.

This destructive obsession of the Coalition government not only sabotages and undermines new forms of electrical power, but it is more broadly symptomatic of a breakdown of proper political power and the function and legitimacy of the government itself.

‘Members of the government have used the term ‘‘sabotage’’ to describe the actions of environmental groups when they use the law to slow something like a proposed new coal mine’

Let us step back and reflect upon the basic tasks or imperatives of the contemporary nation state. Theda Skocpol, in States and Social Revolutions (1979), argued that the early state simply had to keep domestic order, provide security in the international realm, and raise revenues to pay for the first two tasks. As states evolved, so did their tasks. With the growing power of capital came the demand for ongoing growth and accumulation. Then, with the vagaries of capitalism and the impacts of such economic growth on working classes, came the role of the welfare state, one that protects the most vulnerable and provides a form of legitimacy in its service to the population.

Ultimately, support for the coal industry, the simultaneous sabotage of renewables, and policies that will lead to the inevitable increase in the potential impacts of climate change will undermine each of these basic tasks. As the government protects a dying industry that is the single biggest domestic contributor to climate change, and sabotages the renewables industry, it abdicates its responsibility to deliver every one of these state roles.

It is not a stretch to note the potential impact of climate change on domestic order. A dedication to a coal-based economy, and the rise in CO2 emissions that means, will result in a rising number of heatwaves – just to note one impact predicted by CSIRO and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Such heat threatens human health, as well as food and water security, and will result in migration and resource conflicts. Others argue that the rise in heatwaves has the potential to increase anti-social behaviour in the cities; Melbourne has already documented a correlation between increased heat and assaults.

As for external security, the obvious potential impact is an increase in extreme weather events, leading to migration from our neighbours and the need to address our responsibility for such migrants. Less obvious, but clearly growing in light of our laggard reputation in the climate realm, is the damage to Australia’s standing in the international community, and so in future global negotiations on a range of topics. All of this can, and will, harm Australia’s basic security interests.

While the government has talked up the revenue and growth potential of the coal industry, the days of its limited contributions are clearly numbered, and a responsible government would be seeking replacements. On revenue we have seen how the power of the coal industry has limited its tax and royalty responsibility through resistance to resource taxes. Investment houses already see the inevitable decline of coal as a risk to their portfolios. The Mercer report, ‘Investing in a Time of Climate Change’, notes that the value of holdings in coal could fall by 18–74 per cent in the next thirty-five years, while annual returns on renewables could increase by 6–54 per cent. A smart state would infer the same coming decline in revenue, and attempt to diversify. Instead, this government has only made the revenue situation worse; the Direct Action emissions plan, overwhelmingly predicted to be unsuccessful, will cost taxpayers a minimum of $2.5 billion, while a broad carbon price would actually raise revenue. The future of energy – and government revenue from energy – is clear; the only question is how long that future will be postponed in Australia.

CSIRO ScienceImage 2146 Solar panels spelling out CSIROSolar panels at the CSIRO Energy Centre rotated to spell out CSIRO. CSIRO has used solar energy to generate hot and pressurised ‘supercritical' steam, at the highest temperatures ever achieved in the world outside of fossil fuel sources (courtesy of CSIRO, via Wikimedia Commons)

As for economic growth, there is a significant potential in the expansion of renewables, from design to manufacturing to installation. Bloomberg’s New Energy Outlook 2015 predicts global investment of US$3.7 trillion on solar alone. The United Kingdom expects a renewables sector of £50 million in the next five years. Meanwhile, the Australian government has demonised the industry, leaving such investment and growth to others. But economic growth in the energy sector can come in more ways than the generation of power. There is also an immense potential for industrial development, investment, and jobs if Australia seriously addressed its stunning inefficiency and immense waste, demonstrated by our having the highest per capita CO2 emissions of any developed country. Such waste brings profits to the coal and utility industries, but the inefficiency depletes the economy. Making homes and businesses more efficient, and stimulating more efficient choices (as has been done in the white goods sector), will encourage the manufacture and installation of such technologies. Such efficiency would help people save on energy costs and free up income that can go toward other sectors of the economy.

Finally, and crucial when it comes to the public perception of both the government and renewable energy, is the status of the government’s own legitimacy. Usually, even in neo-liberal states clearly shifting their policies toward the ultra-rich, the banks, and various capital-related powers, governments will justify their actions as being for the public good. But the inauthenticity of such pseudo-legitimising language is obvious in Australia. The government has claimed that coal is the answer to ‘energy poverty’, despite the fact that Australia’s coal-based electricity prices are among the highest in the developed world. Renewables, on the other hand, can clearly bring those prices down – both here and abroad. And rather than being ‘good for humanity’, there are clear and documented health impacts of coal mining, transportation, and burning. Such health impacts are not only apparent in Australia, but obvious overseas. While ignoring those risks to public health, the government has proposed a Wind Commissioner and a focus on the already-disproven health impacts of wind power. This did not help the Abbott government attain the legitimacy imperative; rather than see the government’s position on energy as good for all, many agreed with Naomi Klein that it was difficult to tell where the industry ends and the government begins.

‘This destructive obsession of the Coalition government not only sabotages and undermines new forms of electrical power, but it is more broadly symptomatic of a breakdown of proper political power’

Ultimately, Australian state power has been sacrificed to the power of a single polluting, damaging, dying industry, at the cost of every basic task of the modern state. This cannot last.

An alternative system of energy generation can distribute both political and economic power, and help in the provision of the basic tasks of the state. An energy system reliant on renewables – especially rooftop solar, where Australia excels – threatens the purely centralised utility model of power generation and circulation, and thus the related centralisation of economic and political power. The public interest in the more evenly distributed power of renewables is, in part, about taking both kinds of power out of the hands of the usual suspects – mainly the coal and utility industries, but also the government and major political parties. The move to renewables is not only about the redistribution of electrical power, but a new form of political power as well – one that, not coincidentally, could contribute to meeting the basic goals of a competent government.

One irony of the government’s resistance to large-scale renewable energy projects is that it comes at the same time as a vast increase in local and household take-up of solar and wind. The Australian Energy Market Operator predicts that, even with moderate uptake, the capacity of combined rooftop solar and storage will exceed that of coal generation by the end of the next decade. Even in an era of anti-renewable policies by the government, Australian households are already moving the country away from the utility model and toward a distributed model of power generation and flow. The government resistance to renewables simply won’t work; instead it has created public resentment.

Wind Farm at Albany, Western Australia (photography by Nachoman-au via Wikimedia Commons)A wind farm in Albany, Western Australia (photography by Nachoman-au via Wikimedia Commons)

The broad attraction of renewables is about power in many senses of term. People are drawn to being part of new electrical system, in particular one that is empowering both financially and politically. Australia has 1.4 million households with solar, and many more benefit from the technology. Beyond individual rooftops, energy cooperatives are a growing option for those who cannot install their own solar power – a practice even the pope celebrates in his latest encyclical.

There is obvious economic motivation for the adoption of renewables, from the earlier feed-in tariffs (the amount solar panel owners receive when the energy they generate is fed back into the grid) and installation subsidies, to the more recent drop in system prices (and thus earlier break-even dates). But political resentment is feeding the demand for renewables.

On the one hand, many environmentally conscious citizens, frustrated with the lack of government policy at both the federal and global level, are simply tired of waiting for a sensible response to climate policy, and want to do their part. On the other, many also resent that their own practices in everyday life – including the unavoidable use of energy – support a whole system of political and economic power, along with the obvious ecological damage of climate change. New battery and storage technology – and lower prices – come just when state governments are reducing feed-in tariffs. The less people get for their own power generation, the more they will resent giving energy to the utilities, and the more attractive power storage becomes. Political and economic disempowerment, designed by governments and utilities, is leading to an increased desire for people to control their own energy and further decentralise the system.

‘Ultimately, Australian state power has been sacrificed to the power of a single polluting, damaging, dying industry, at the cost of every basic task of the modern state. This cannot last’

Government policy, based on favouritism towards the coal and utility industries, is creating political resentment. Overreaching political power will lead, therefore, to a greater likelihood of the redesign of electrical power distribution. The more government policy and practice illustrates the clear link between political power, economic power, and climate impacts and vulnerabilities, the more demand for alternatives will grow.

Obviously, Australia is not going to move from a centralised, coal-based model of energy generation to a new system purely based on small-scale and distributed solar and wind. On the one hand, the smart utilities are planning to develop large utility-scale renewable installations. While Tesla’s battery storage announcement came with details as to how solar plus enough storage could provide all of our energy, many critics of battery storage noted the difficulty given the cost and effort of such a radical decentralisation. But complete decentralisation is not really the point – what is going to happen is that a distributed model of power will be built alongside the centralised utility model. Crucially, in terms of political power, even this limited decentralisation will undermine the strength and influence of the coal and utility industries.

More broadly, a healthy renewables industry can help the Australian government to meet all of its basic state imperatives. Mainly, the more widespread provision of distributed energy will help Australia weather the impacts of climate change – in particular, spikes in energy use during heatwaves. A switch in policy will raise Australia’s profile from that of pariah to an active player in the international policy arena. More directly, distributed renewables (and related efficiency measures) provide for community and economic development, and a broadening of a tax base beyond a single industry. Broad government support for distributed energy systems could increase the legitimacy of the state, at least in terms of alleviating its obvious capture by a single industry and the support of policies that are a detriment to the public good. Even the idea of a sustainability imperative looks both possible and productive.

So the choice is stark: sabotage or sustainability – in terms of both the energy sector and the role and performance of the state itself. The latter is a more positive way for a government than the continued sabotage of the renewables industry, climate policy, and the basic roles of a responsible government.

Published in October 2015, no. 375
David Schlosberg

David Schlosberg

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His publications include The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (2011) and Climate-Challenged Society (2013), both with John Dryzek and Richard Norgaard. He co-edited Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (2016).

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