Upon the release of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s carbon price package (to take effect July 1, 2012), there has been talk aplenty of her plummeting popularity. The PM has dismissed the commentary in favour of the scheme’s necessity, saying, “Polls will come and go… I’m absolutely convinced what I’m doing’s right.” The scores of people supporting action on climate change undoubtedly applaud this stance. For its part, Beyond Zero Emissions welcomes PM Gillard’s carbon price package as a positive step toward weaning Australia off fossil fuels. However, BZE holds some reservations regarding how the scheme will play out once it is implemented. These reservations predominantly concern the role the carbon price package will assign fossil gas-fired power, and the amount of faith Labor places in the market to bring about the mass deployment of large-scale renewable power. Let us recognise the distinctions here.

The first and most pressing message BZE hopes to bring to attention is the need to avoid encouraging a big shift to gas power. Part of Gillard’s scheme includes that 2000MWe of coal-fired power will be shut down by tender to be replaced by clean energy by 2020. Critically, at this stage, Gillard’s carbon price package does not explicitly say whether or not gas will be considered a “clean” method of producing energy – whether in gas-fired power plants as a “transitional” necessity or hybridised into gas/solar power plants as can be seen in the recently announced Solar Dawn solar thermal plant with gas backup. And while from a kWh comparison, the conventional gas-fired power stations appear politically attractive, they emit between 45 to 70 percent of greenhouse gases compared to a coal-fired power station.

BZE’s Leigh Ewbank says that “while gas may be less carbon-intensive than coal (excluding the full life-cycle climate impacts), it is still a fossil fuel.” “Gas is a pollution,” stresses BZE Executive Director Matt Wright, adding that “A hybrid gas plant is not a configuration that will take us to a renewable energy future.”  Ewbank concludes that “expanding its use in the stationary energy sector will result in billions of tonnes worth of greenhouse gas emissions over the operating life of such installations. Encouraging gas-electricity generation should be discouraged where possible.”

This view is in concert with the thinking from the International Energy Agency  who “warn that gas is ‘no panacea’ for climate change. IEA modelling on ‘high gas’ scenarios show that reliance on the fuel would lead to warming of 3.5 degrees—far in excess of the 2-degree target nations agreed to in Cancun last year. Futhermore, executive director of the IEA Nobuo Tanaka, cautions that the increased use of gas could ‘muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables”

It should therefore go without saying that establishing fossil gas as large supplier of electricity foolishly repeats history by building another set of barricades to developing truly renewable power. Wright made this point in a recent interview with ABC Radio National: “If you are standing out the front of a coal plant today advocating for gas and then you find yourself in ten years standing outside the power plant you just advocated to get installed – that would be a pretty embarrassing situation for any campaigner.”

The second crucial message BZE has contributed to the national carbon debate is that a carbon tax alone is not enough to inspire the private sector to invest in renewables. The influence of the Greens and independents fortunately instigated extra measures to be included in the carbon price package announced on Sunday. Yet these measures still may not be enough to get large-scale renewable projects off the ground, as Zero Carbon Australia fellows Patrick Hearps and Dylan McConnell discuss at The Conversation and BZE states officially in a recent media release, largely for the reason that they lack sufficient funding.

BZE supports the use of Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) to incentivise private investment in renewables. FiTs have been immensely successful in kick-starting the mass deployment of green energy in countries like Spain and Germany, “[T]he most successful policies for renewable energy around the world… provide an attractive enough price for the product so that private capital flows,” Hearps and McConnell argue in putting forward the case for renewable FiTs in Australia, noting however that: “Fortunately, nothing in the government’s carbon price package would prevent well-designed national FiTs being implemented this decade.”

BZE has further opinions on the carbon price package, including a steadfast position that compensation should be restricted when it comes to the big polluters; this can be gleaned from a quick appraisal of its recent media releases on the scheme. Yet the twin critiques against fossil gas and a carbon tax alone are undoubtedly the most urgent.

BZE’s imminent series of Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Plans (including last year’s award-winning Stationary Energy Plan) provides a fully costed roadmap to get Australia running on 100 percent renewable energy in ten years. Our researchers have done much of the thinking for how Australia can rapidly decarbonise – now Gillard has taken this first step, policy-makers have been given a window of momentum from which to make a running start.

– BZE Media Team

This article was first published on Beyond Zero Emissions

Beyond Zero Emissions Inc. is a not-for-profit, volunteer run organisation. Our core goal is to develop blueprints for the implementation of climate change solutions that will rapidly reduce emissions and give our society and global ecosystems a chance of surviving into the future. We also run broad-based education campaigns based on this research.

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