Virtue-signallers need to weigh the nuclear option

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    Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spruiks the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project in Talbingo on Tuesday. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAPAustralian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spruiks the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project in Talbingo on Tuesday. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP

    The whole point about run-of-the-mill virtue-signalling is that it comes without a cost. Tweet about your despair for the future of the planet, click on a GetUp petition to block a coalmine or like an Instagram post trumpeting renewable energy; none of these requires anything of you in dollars or effort.

    Virtue-signalling cheapens public debate and avoids consideration of hard choices but doesn’t do much real damage until governments get involved. Then we all pay. The financial and economic burden we bear as a result of climate virtue-signalling is deliberately difficult to quantify. Governments state and federal, Liberal and Labor, as well as industry and interest groups, all obfuscate the actual costs.

    But if we consider investments under the renewable energy target plus subsidies and emissions reduction funds we can tally at least $50 billion spent on behalf of taxpayers, or by private investors who need to recoup the capital from consumers. Modelling revealed in this newspaper last week by Brian Fisher estimates the Coalition’s emissions and renewable targets would cost a further $70bn over the next decade, while Labor’s virtual doubling of these targets would cost $472bn.

    We are familiar with these costs because we have seen them manifested over the past decade in steep electricity prices, disappearing factory jobs and existential threats to small business.

    Climate and energy policy debates should cover weighty economic choices, serious environmental issues, hip-pocket sensibilities and long-term planning. The worry is that climate posturing and petty politicking dominate — there cannot be another issue where so much disruption, expense and risk has been predicated on such meagre economic and environmental imperatives.

    Scott Morrison devoted most of his week to climate and energy policy, looking to underpin his government’s environmental credentials. He announced an extension of Tony Abbott’s direct action policy on Monday and Malcolm Turnbull’s Snowy Hydro 2.0 on Tuesday. These added $3.4bn to the climate action bill.

    Scott Morrison has committed a further $1.3 billion to the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project. Picture: Kym SmithScott Morrison has committed a further $1.3 billion to the Snowy Hydro 2.0 project. Picture: Kym Smith

    A decade of climate-driven interventions in the national electricity market mean extra government action to provide more dispatchable generation is desperately needed. With major coal-fired generators closed and demolished in South Australia and Victoria, and the Liddell station in NSW shutting down in three years, there is a large and widening gap between peak demand and guaranteed supply.

    Just how our resource-rich nation could do this to itself while it continues to power the world — Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and third-largest exporter of uranium — remains the great unasked question in national affairs.

    Whether you blame our collective guilt or unbridled altruism, we are the only country on the planet doing itself serious economic harm in order to deliver climate gestures. And gestures are all they remain, because the indolence of the rest of the world means global carbon dioxide emissions continue to grow strongly (this year they will increase by the equivalent of twice Australia’s total annual emissions). Think about that. We could shut down and evacuate our whole country and within six months global emissions would be back to the same level.

    Despite Australia’s strong track record of meeting Kyoto targets, committing to Paris and subsidising renewables, the thrust of our political debate is about doing more. This is delusional. The US withdrew from Paris but its emissions from fixed generation have fallen because of technological and price-driven switches from coal to gas. France has low fixed power emissions because of its reliance on nuclear energy but now has people protesting in the streets as it tries to enact climate action in transport. In Germany the price impact of its renewables push is hurting badly. In China, India, Japan, Southeast Asia and Africa, new coal-fired generation is being built to underpin grids that will use other forms of energy where and when they can.

    In the wonderland of our national climate debate, economic modelling such as Fisher’s is dismissed but the most alarmist climate modelling is treated like gospel — despite the failure of the climate to mimic it. There is a fundamental lie at the heart of the debate that no one wants to call out.

    The falsehood is the absurd notion that policy actions here can have an impact on the climate. Despite all out expense, dislocation, job losses and consternation, global emissions continue to rise strongly, so there is no environmental improvement. We have borne the costs but seen no benefit.

    On ABC TV news this week national environment reporter Michael Slezak began a report with these words over dramatic pictures: “Towns under water, bushfires burning out of control, this summer the effects of extreme weather have put climate change back on the national agenda.”

    Slezak then cut to Macquarie University academic Jonathan Symons, who said: “Passing on a habitable environment to the next generation is not going to happen unless we take steps now.”

    The implication is that floods and bushfires, which have characterised this continent for as long as we have known, are a consequence of human-induced climate change and that unless we take dramatic action now our children will not be able to inhabit the planet. This is completely at odds with even the most alarmist assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That academics would spread fear and misinformation and that national broadcasters would collude with them tells you much about how our society has gone astray.

    But the next line from Slezak was: “The government needs to find a way of stopping 695 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere between now and 2030.”

    Aside from the reduction task actually being half that amount, the inference was that this action was needed to save the nation from floods and bushfires.

    The only reason the government needs to reduce those emissions is to meet the Paris climate targets. We will meet our target but global emissions will still have risen. So if you are signed up to the climate science consensus you will have to concede there will not be — cannot be — any improvement in the global environment.

    According to the UN emissions gap report of 2018, global carbon emissions have topped 50 billion tonnes and, even under the Paris commitments, are on track to hit 60 billion tonnes by 2030. So if Australia meets its reduction target it will be a rounding error on the overall substantial increase. If Labor doubles our reductions, the rounding error correction in the global increase will be slightly larger but there can be no discernible change in the environmental impact and certainly no improvement as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will still be substantially higher than today.

    It might be a conceit to think global action can alter the climate trends but it is certainly a monumental conceit to suggest Australia can have an influence without equivalent global efforts. In his speech on Monday, at least Morrison tried to keep some global perspective. “In 2015, we committed to reduce our emissions, as I said, by 26-28 per cent by 2030, from 2005 levels. This percentage is higher than countries like Japan and Korea but slightly below Canada and New Zealand.” Incredibly, the public debate seems framed around the Coalition not doing enough to match Labor’s grand plans to save the planet. On Seven’s Sunrise David Koch asked Morrison, “Are you a climate change believer?” On the ABC Paul Kennedy talked about emissions reductions targets as if they are a game, “Why not aim higher if things are going so well?”

    Former climate activist Michael Shellenberger wrote in Quillette about his reversal on renewables. “Consider California. Between 2011-17 the cost of solar panels declined about 75 per cent, and yet our electricity prices rose five times more than they did in the rest of the US,” he wrote. “It’s the same story in Germany, the world leader in solar and wind energy. Its electricity prices increased 50 per cent between 2006-17, as it scaled up renewables.”

    He was frank about the environmental and economic costs of renewables. He has forced himself to consider the obvious solution when it comes to reliable, emissions-free electricity. “France produces one-tenth the carbon emissions per unit of electricity as Germany and pays little more than half for its electricity. How? Through nuclear power.”

    We tear ourselves apart in contrived and disingenuous debates, we exaggerate the threat and diminish the costs, and we despair about the future, when all the while there is a silver bullet waiting to be used — if ever we see fit.

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