- Chat live with Anna Skarbek from noon today. Leave a question below
Australia's effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be a pivotal issue in this election. Here and throughout the world, mounting scientific evidence that human activity is driving global warming is fuelling demand for policies to mitigate the risks.
It is an area of stark difference between the major parties. In broad terms, the ALP's primary policy is pricing emissions through a market-based system; the Coalition's is a direct action plan, the cornerstone of which is paying polluters to change their ways. The Greens are pushing for a big increase in the overall emissions reduction target. All the parties support measures to significantly increase the use of renewable energy sources, primarily solar and wind.
Anna Skarbek is the executive director on independent policy organisation ClimateWorks Australia. Photo: Simon Schluter
The renewable energy sector already employs more people than the car industry. Australia is making more progress on reducing emissions than many might realise, as today's guest in The Election Zone, Anna Skarbek, the executive director of independent not-for-profit research organisation ClimateWorks Australia, details in our interview.
Skarbek will be online for an hour from midday today to respond to questions and comments from the audience.
Perhaps the best encapsulation of this progress is that while the economy has grown by almost a third in the past decade, there has been no growth in Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
Skarbek, who trained as a lawyer and worked in investment banking, is optimistic. ''Climate change is a challenge that we actually know how to solve, and the technologies that we need to do it are already invented.
''So it is about bringing on that transition in our economies. The policy mix that can help achieve that - a range of subsidies, incentives, regulations and the pricing of emissions - is reasonably well known and actually we see that [it] is fairly consistently applied across our international peers.''
ClimateWorks Australia is a joint venture between The Myer Foundation and Monash University. In 2010, ClimateWorks published Low Carbon Growth Plan For Australia, a blueprint for how the nation could achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of 25 per cent below 2000 levels.
At present, the ALP and the Coalition support a cut of 5 per cent but are open to lifting that to 25 per cent should other nations move to that extent. In 2010, ClimateWorks' plan won the Eureka Prize for Innovative Solutions to Climate Change and the Ethical Investor Award for Sustainability Research.
Skarbek says Australia should aim to cut emissions to at least 25 per cent below 2000 levels. ''ClimateWorks defers to the scientific advice on this, and international scientists have said that the minimum that developed economies like ours should aim for is 25 per cent to 40 per cent reductions by 2020. So clearly 5 per cent is not enough.
''However, something to note mathematically is that the jump from the 5 per cent target to a 25 per cent target is not five times harder. The amount that you need to do to get to 5 per cent below is about the same as the extra amount you need to do 25 per cent.''
In other words, the amount of effort required to get to the first target is the same as that required to cut an extra 20 per cent, because almost as much of the effort is in reducing the emissions growth above the zero per cent baseline that would occur by 2020.
ClimateWorks has just released a report called Tracking Progress Towards A Low Carbon Economy. ''Our recent research shows in fact better progress than many people would be aware of. When we looked under the bonnet of our economy that has been growing, what we have found is that even though the economy grew, emissions did not for a decade.
''That is a combination of improved technology, of improved energy efficiency, of improved rates of reducing our deforestation and improved rates of [growth in] plantations of new forestry. When we break down our economy and look at it bit by bit, we see evidence of improvement in every sector.''
Key findings of the report are:
■ Emissions from power generation. These have fallen by 13 per cent in the past four years. This reflects a 5 per cent fall in demand from grid-supplied electricity (equivalent to the entire annual electricity consumption of Tasmania) since 2010, a rise from 7 per cent to 12 per cent in the share of renewable energy since 2004 and a 14 per cent fall in coal generation since 2004.
■ Improvements in energy efficiency by industry. In the past four years, big industrial companies cut energy consumption by the equivalent of that used by 800,000 households in a year. Between 2008 and last year, the amount of off-grid electricity companies generated, primarily through gas which has lower emissions than coal, rose by almost 60 per cent.
■ Improvements in emissions reductions by buildings. Among things driving this are that 1 million homes, or one in 10, have solar panels, and new offices these days use a third less energy than was the case a decade ago. In the past three years, the amount of energy needed to heat and cool a new home has fallen by almost a fifth.
■ Better management of waste and land use. Since 2003, the amount of annual deforestation has halved, while the area of plantation forests has increased by more than a fifth. Three million hectares (equivalent to 4.2 million football fields) are being managed to reduce emissions from bushfires. So much methane is being captured from landfill that it generates sufficient electricity to power more than 200,000 homes.
■ Changes in energy sources. Electricity generation by renewable sources (primarily wind, solar and hydro) has grown by two-thirds in the past decade, while generation by gas doubled. Wind generation now makes up almost a third of all renewable generation, sufficient to power 1 million homes.
Skarbek's optimism is in no small part founded on her belief in the power of markets. She believes the pricing of carbon by the last Parliament has sparked much change by businesses in particular, and that progress towards a lower carbon economy would be undermined were the mechanism removed.
''There is pretty widespread understanding in business that the science is in and this issue is with us for the rest of our lives and that policymakers will return to it even if they need to reshape it or rebrand it.
However, there are many technological investments where the carbon price does make or break or significantly help the business case. So switching it off would mean that there are some investments that would not get made.''
Skarbek argues there are positive elements in each of the major parties' climate change policies. She believes Australia should aim for a much higher target than a 5 per cent reduction, and that a final report early next year by the Climate Change Authority, which was set up to provide independent advice to the government, should recommend such a rise.
''We are confident the evidence will show the target can be increased and should be. We know it is possible. We know the opportunities are there. And we know the science says we need it. So actually the mechanisms and the architecture are mostly already in place, but need a boost. It is about allowing it to do its job.
''So set some certainty and add to it by raising the ambition at that time through the proper parliamentary process and send clear signals to businesses and households that this is here to stay. Once the market is then free to respond, we find that technologies come to light and new business models come to light because they have the ability to plan for the long term.''
Business, in the main, has accepted the scientific consensus and is clearly acting to reduce emissions. In recent days, a leaked draft of a report due to be published next month by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is 95 per cent certain the main cause of warming in the past 70 years is human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels.
Evidence has been mounting for years.
Well before the 2007 election, into which then prime minister John Howard took an emissions trading scheme policy, then president of the Business Council of Australia Michael Chaney argued the science was sufficiently strong to compel action.
Chaney used an analogy: he said he did not necessarily believe his house was going to burn down, but that he felt it important to take insurance against such a catastrophic risk.
As the research of Skarbek and her colleagues shows, businesses and individuals are going about creating an insurance policy out of enlightened self-interest.
''You don't need to focus necessarily on the hearts and minds if you can set the market conditions so that the power of the market and the creativity of the market and the hunger of the market and technology providers can be set to work.
''And that needs a combination of policy - which needs the hearts and minds so that the social licence is there to make those changes - but I have seen markets work and they work fast when they are free to. Let's harness that power for the social good - which is reducing the carbon emissions in our economy.''