Climate change, prime minister Malcom Turnbull once said, is the ultimate long-term problem that needs to be acted on urgently. But in his first budget as government leader, it is as though the issue does not exist.
Climate change was not even mentioned as a word, or a concept, or even an issue – despite Tuesday’s budget apparently being about growth and jobs for the future. There was no new money for climate initiatives and the only mention renewable energy got was to confirm that $1.3 billion in funds would be stripped from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
“There was nothing in the speech, not a word,” Professor John Hewson, a former leader of Liberal Party, told the SolarExpo conference in 2016.
“The slogan is jobs and growth. I would have though that one of the most significant sectors for economic and jobs growth is renewables – I am staggered that it didn’t get a mention in the speech or in the documents.” Hewson said the decision to remove funding from ARENA was an “absolute tragedy.”
In the budget papers, for instance, there is no extra funding for the Direct Action plan that Turnbull once ridiculed and dismissed as a “fig-leaf” for a climate policy and now forms the basis of the government’s emissions reductions plan, including the Paris agreement it signed just a few weeks ago.
Once the government has spent the current $2.5 billion allocation for handouts to polluters to do pretty much what they were doing anyway, there is zero extra funding for emissions abatement.
The Coalition government might have been expected to shift towards a “modified” scheme that would see Direct Action evolve with its safeguards mechanism to become a baseline and credit scheme. But that’s what Labor suggested last week, and rather than accept the tentative offer of a return to a bipartisan approach to climate policies, the government slammed the door.
It slammed the door, too, on renewable energy innovation. The $1.3 billion of unallocated funds for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency remains excised from the budget papers – even though it remains legislated – while $1 billion is transferred from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and rebadged as a new Clean Energy Innovation Fund.
Don’t expect Labor to stand in the way of that initiative. It voted with the Coalition earlier this week against a Greens motion to protect ARENA, and has since blamed NGOs for not standing up to the Coalition move to de-fund ARENA, so it won’t stand up either.
For his part, Australian Solar Council chief John Grimes was taking a stand on the matter, telling the Energy Storage Conference in Melbourne on Wednesday that the federal government had “taken a backwards step” in defunding ARENA, and not making the Agency’s competitive grants available any more.
“So they’ll only invest (in clean energy technology) on an equity or …a loan basis, which means that any money that’s given from the government has to be repaid with interest, and there has to be strong independent commercial case… and a risk mitigation.
“A lot of the blue sky research, the first research we might see out of somewhere like the CSIRO… you can’t make a commercial case to say, well lend me $1.5 million I’ll pay you back $2 million in three years (or) five years time.
“It just doesn’t work that way,” he said.
The Climate Institute was also critical of the budget, saying it “ignores the fact that if we do not invest in strong, effective action to reduce emissions now, it will simply cost us much more in the not too distant future.”
CEO John Connor said: “The consequences of ongoing failure to tackle climate change will be escalating energy, unemployment and other economic costs over the next few decades.”
“There’s no extra funding for the government’s current principal policy tool the $2.55bn Emission Reduction Fund now likely to be expended by the end of 2016 well before the policy review in 2017, threatening jobs and growth in the carbon farming and other emission reduction industries.”
He noted that support for climate adaptation research is to be slashed with no new money for CSIRO or the Bureau of Meteorology to fully redress CSIRO climate impact research cuts.
“Droughts, bushfires and the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef are already major threats to jobs and growth, and weakening our knowledge base means we risk facing these threats blindfolded.”
He said the budget also contains no sign of extra climate finance commitments necessary to do our bit in assisting developing countries boost climate resilience and clean energy.
“We should be scaling up from the current $200 million annually to $1.5 billion by 2020 to help meet commitments made in Paris last year.
“Without a plan to end climate pollution with net zero emissions by 2050 the government doesn’t have a plan for the future let alone a plan for climate change. This budget of delay is piling up the risks of shocks to electricity prices, energy security and the jobs that depend on both,” concluded Connor.
The Marine Conservation Society said the federal budget contains a mere $8.9 million a year year of new and additional funding over the next three years for the Reef. It noted that this compares with $7.7 billion a year for fossil fuel subsidies which have not been reduced in this Budget.
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.