First, they branded it the Bob Brown green bank or slush fund, and then they spent nearly three years trying to abolish it. But now the Coalition government has found a new use for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – a ready source of funds for some good old election pork-barrelling.
In March, the Coalition announced to great fanfare the creation of the Clean Energy Innovation Fund, a “new” $1 billion fund designed to incorporate prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s pet slogan “innovation”. But its monies were entirely sequestered from the existing budget of the $10 billion CEFC.
At the same time, the Coalition confirmed then that it would scrap the remaining $1.3 billion of funds available through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency for grant making, an essential financing tool for early-stage technologies, and relegate ARENA to the role of “supporting” the CEFC.
Over the weekend, Turnbull and environment minister Greg Hunt announced another new fund, sequestering a further $1 billion in CEFC money over 10 years to support “clean energy” and “clean water” projects along the length of the Great Barrier Reef.
The money would go to a loans scheme aimed at reducing the agricultural and waste water run-off that is diminishing the reef’s ability to withstand rising sea temperatures.
“Much of this will come in the form of financing solar energy, which of course will reduce emissions but also enable farmers to manage their land more efficiently …” Turnbull told reporters in Townsville.
There are a couple of ironies in this. Firstly, the Coalition has been arguing that there is no point halting new coal mines in Australia because there would be little impact on global emissions and temperatures.
Now, apparently, a few solar panels on some farm land – the likes of which would have been funded by the CEFC anyway – will bring down emissions enough to make a difference to the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, the initiative includes no measures to stop new coal mines, with the Adani mega project looming large on the horizon.
Part of the CEFC money will also go to a loans scheme aimed at reducing the agricultural and waste water run-off that scientists say is diminishing the reef’s ability to withstand rising sea temperatures.
This appears to be outside the CEFC brief, which is focused on clean energy and energy efficiency. And like the CEIF, the new fund also pushes much of the funding out towards and beyond 2025, with the money drip fed over a 10 year period.
The CEFC was created in 2012 by the Labor government, at the insistence of the Greens and with the support of Ross Garnaut. It has played a critical role in greasing the wheels of finance to ensure that at least some clean energy projects get built amidst the confusion and constant changes in Coalition policy since it was elected in 2013.
The CEFC was supposed to be independent, with a broad mandate set by the Coalition. But in the last few months, some $2 billion of the $10 billion it was to have available have been sequestered to new Coalition project.
The Australian Solar Council accused the Coalition of using the CEFC as a kind of piggy bank – usually described as “pork-barrelling” in the context of an election campaign. It said the reef needs substantial government support, but it should be funded through the federal budget, not the CEFC.
“Apart from not having a legal mandate to invest in clean water projects, the CEFC funding needs to be repaid – with interest,” CEO John Grimes said.
The Greens said the Coalition had not stated how much of the clean energy finance money would go into water quality, but even $100 million a year over ten years into Reef water quality is far short of what the reef needs. And this spending will come at the expense of clean energy funding.
“It’s startling that Turnbull Government is trying to sell this plan to cut money from clean energy while pushing ahead with coal mines as somehow being a plan to save the reef,” climate spokesman Larissa Waters said.
Environmental NGOs pursued the same theme, welcoming Turnbull’s admission that Climate change is the biggest single threat to the reef but lamenting his government’s failure to do improve its climate policies.
““The money announced today has already been promised to renewable energy. Today’s announcement isn’t going to lead to any additional renewable energy projects being built and we know that for a healthy reef we need a rapid increase in new renewable projects being built and a phase out of coal mining,” Greenpeace said.
“Raiding money from renewables, then dressing it up as money to protect the Reef whilst continuing to prop up the greatest threat to the Reef – the fossil fuel industry – is no sign of leadership,” 350.org said.
Labor’s climate and energy spokesman Mark Butler described the move “the biggest ever con job”, and had come just weeks after the Coalition had forced UNESCO to remove any reference to Australia, and particularly the reef, from a report on world heritage sites impacted by climate change.
“It provides no new investment. It is just a redirection of existing resources,” Butler said in a statement. “This is spin and political desperation on a grand scale. For three years we have seen the Abbott-Turnbull Government duck, weave and avoid doing anything meaningful to address climate change.”
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.