November 20, 2014

The hypocrisy and bald zealotry that often masquerade as energy policy “debate” in Canberra have been of an unusually high quality of late.

The “Climate Pact” signed by the USA and China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions appears to be the root cause.

“China and US have shown they will act,” cheered The Greens’ leader, Christine Milne. “The Australian Greens are congratulating the US and China on their agreement to act on global warming and say it’s not too late for Australia to get on board.”

It’s fair to say the Greens and their boosters have used the USA-China accord as a stick with which to beat pretty much anyone outside of the renewable energy sector.

Their rhetoric is symptomatic of a broader malaise; our increasing inability to listen to, analyse, and properly understand the words and numbers underpinning complex policy.

Slogans should not be a substitute for serious discussion or critical thinking.

The question I would like answered, is whether the Greens and the wide array of energy dogmatists who cheer them on, actually understand – let alone support – any of the energy technologies that underpin the capacity of the two global superpowers to enter into the “Climate Pact” in the first place?

The People’s Republic of China has 22 nuclear power reactors operating and a further 26 under construction.

Additional reactors – enough to triple nuclear capacity to at least 58 gigawatts by 2020 – are planned. As a rule of thumb, a typical new-build reactor will generate about 1 gigawatt a year, so it appears there are quite a few new Chinese nuclear power plants on the drawing board.

This will raise the percentage of China’s electricity produced by nuclear power from the current 2 per cent, to more than 7 per cent, by 2020. Thereafter, another threefold increase in nuclear capacity (to about 150 gigawatts) is planned by 2030; and then more again by 2040.

Not only does nuclear power offer an enormous opportunity to Australia’s uranium exporters, it clearly has a central role to play in China’s decarbonisation. Yet the last time I checked, the Australian Greens were trenchantly opposed to the use of – let alone the further development of –this major energy source. Of course, they are not the only people in Canberra to hold such a view.

Hydroelectricity is also incredibly important to any future reduction in China’s emissions.

Hydro is the world’s leading source of renewables-based electricity and in 2012, it produced more than twice as much power as all other forms of renewables combined.

In China, hydropower has long been the single most important source of renewable energy and it will remain so in 2040. China last year brought online a record 31 gigawatt of hydropower.

And while the country’s investment in hydro will fall after 2020, this is simply because most of the suitable hydro sites will have been by then developed, not because better or cheaper renewable technologies will have become available. Hydro will still account for about 40 per cent of total energy produced by renewables in China in 2040.

As a party who owes its parliamentary advent to an anti-dam campaign, it is hard to see how the Australian Greens could change the party’s opposition to China’s – or anyone else’s – dam-building.

Now let’s look at the USA; a country that is already leading the world in the field of carbon reductions; with emissions today back to levels last seen in the mid-1990s. It is an astounding achievement, but not one born of a carbon price or a Renewable Energy Target. Rather, it has been the rapid and dramatic discovery and use of cleaner burning indigenous natural gas supplies that has cleaned up the American power system.

The scale of the USA shale gas expansion is immense. In the few years immediately following the technological advancements in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that made vastly more resources commercially available, the price of gas fell from more than $13 per gigajoule in 2006, to less than $4 today.

Gas use has soared and gas has displaced coal as the country’s leading energy source.

The United States today has 487,286 gas wells in production; a staggering number. And throughout 2014, more than 300 drill rigs have been drilling for gas across the US.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that in 2040, gas will provide more energy to the USA than coal, wind, and solar combined.

And what do The Australian Greens say on natural gas development? They oppose it.

Lastly, the IEA forecasts China will remain the world’s largest coal user in 2040 – with consumption three times that of India, the world’s second-largest user. Not surprisingly, the IEA says carbon capture and storage (CCS) is an essential mitigation technology.

As part of their “Climate Pact” the US and China aim to use advanced coal technologies, including a major CCS project in China.

The Australian Greens? In 2011, they insisted CCS be excluded from the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation, set up with the Gillard Government.

Frankly, it is hard to see what Senator Milne was referring to last week when she said: “The Greens will continue to push for true leadership and real action to address the greatest challenge of this century – global warming.”

Energy security and climate policy are areas of complex policy. “True leadership and real action” is indeed required. But it actually consists of sophisticated thinking and rigorous debate, not opportunism.

First published in The Australian on 21 November.