So, the Australian 2009-2010 Federal Budget is delivered. ‘Clean energy’ stands as one of the infrastructure centrepieces – an investment that is hoped to both pull the economy out of recession and get us on the pathway to a low carbon economy. A princely sum of $4.5 billion directed to renewable energy, infrastructure for climate observing systems, and funds for low emissions technology development. It sure sounds imprressive, but under scruity, it turns out to be mostly just smoke and mirrors.
Breaking down the numbers, we find that $1 billion is a rollover of existing funds, while $2.4 billion has been directed towards research, development and demonstration of low-emissions coal technology (that’s ‘carbon capture and storage’ for those not au fait with its prefered euphemism). A little under half a billion will go towards establishing a body to support research into renewables.
I’m ambivalent about the large bucket of money handed to coal. There are severe technical and logstical constraints on ‘clean coal’, which mean that it can never be scaled up to become a major global solution to carbon mitigation.Yet the technology, if developed to maturity, has the potential to be used to drag carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it away underground – if power generation furnaces are fed by biomass rather than fossil fuels. So in a future ‘geoengineering’ role, it remains a promising approach that is worth supporting. The trouble is, it can be so easily used to ‘greenwash’ the rampant expansion of coal use today, while the climate system becomes increasingly, and perhaps irreversibly, hostile to our modern society and the planet’s biodiversity.
As to the investment in renewable energy such as solar power, I’m honestly not sure what value add we’re getting out of this budget. The mandatory renewable energy target (MRET), which will commit Australia to produce 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, is already going to drive major investment in renewables through carrot-and-stick incentives. What is this budget doing that the MRET legislation won’t already do? Almost certainly nothing.
One practical measure, which I support, is the commitment of $228 million to double the capacity of Adelaide’s Port Stanvac desalination plant, giving it an annual output of 100 gigalitres. In my view there is no real prospect that Australia’s major cities will ever again break their chronic water stress – and restore some decent quanta to environmental flows – unless a technological solution like desal is adopted across the country. Desert states in the Middle East have been doing it for years. The key climate consideration is to have that desalinated water produced from low carbon energy sources. Unfortunately, the paltry commitment to low carbon energy rollout in this and previous budgets, coupled with the flawed design and inadequate targets of the CPRS, means ‘carbon-friendly’ desal remains a pipe dream.
Comments and thoughts on the environmental, climate and energy aspects of the budget are welcome.