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Australia is an energy superpower. We should be using that to drive the world towards renewables

The coal and gas we provide internationally makes us powerful – and we waste it being craven to the mining industry

Australia is aiming to be a renewable energy superpower – but its actions don’t necessarily match its words, writes Greg Jericho.

The Australian government likes to say we can be a renewable energy superpower, but it ignores that we already are an energy power that fails utterly to use that power for good.

The past weekend was the 10th anniversary of the Abbott government releasing the draft legislation to repeal of the carbon tax, and also of a report noting that IPCC suggested that “global warming could kill thousands of Australians”.

The past weekend also saw the UN release temperatures for last month, which was the hottest-ever September on record. It came after August was the hottest-ever August on record, after July was the hottest-ever July on record and – just to make it an even four months in a row – after June was also the hottest-ever June on record:

2023 is smashing temperature records

From 1900 to 1969 there was a new monthly record once every two years. Since 2010 it has happened, on average, once every four months. It almost makes you wish the climate change deniers who said the world has not warmed since 1998 were right.

In the 25 years since 1998, the world has not just warmed, it has warmed faster.

The path to 1.5C, 2C and beyond

Global land-sea temperature anomaly from 1880-1900 average

The linear trend of temperature from 1973 to 1998 would have had hit 2C above pre-industrial levels by 2078. The trend of the past 15 years has us hitting it in 2051.

Around 70% of Australians alive now are expected to still be around then, and half of Australians living now will still be of a working age.

Time to start reducing emissions, you might think – but a pity, then, that Australia is not doing that.

Our emissions are not falling

Australia's annual greenhouse gas emissions (excluding land use)

We are nowhere near the path to net zero, let alone the emissions target of 43% below 2005.

But the main purpose of the targets is not to reach them, but to allow the government to pick the middle between what the science suggests is needed and what some in the Liberal party suggests is enough.

This allows them to argue they have found the sensible centre, or the “pragmatic delivery focused approach”, to use the climate change and energy minister Chris Bowen’s words in a recent Australian Politics podcast with Katharine Murphy.

Bowen did all he could during that podcast to turn the discussion away from reductions of fossil fuels, or vital issues such as not opening new coal or gas mines, and talk instead about Australia becoming a “renewable energy superpower”.

This mostly relates to a hope that we will be able to one day produce large amounts of “green” hydrogen and that we have lots of minerals that are needed for renewable technology, such as lithium. If the world does move towards net zero by 2050, Australian having 50% of the world’s lithium extraction is going to be very beneficial:

Global demand for lithium is projected to soar

The thing is, though, Australia does not need to look ahead to being a renewable energy superpower – because we already are an energy superpower.

We may produce around half of the world’s lithium but we already export 52% of all metallurgical coal in the world, are the biggest exporter of LNG (along with Qatar and the US) and are the second biggest exporter of thermal coal behind Indonesia.

That is a massive amount of power.

And we waste it.

We don’t use our position as an energy superpower to drive the world away from fossil fuels and towards renewables – even though we know we will also be a renewable energy superpower.

Instead, Australian governments for decades have been craven towards the mining industry, turning up to Minerals Council of Australia dinners out of fear of upsetting companies which are contributing to climate change.

Value of Australia annual coal and LNG exports

We then turn to our trade partners like Japan and Korea and tell them we will keep supplying them with LNG come what may. We talk about one day selling them hydrogen, but so far no date is suggested at which point that might occur.

We argue that we need to sell them LNG now so that as this unstated point in the future they will trust us to buy our green hydrogen. This “strategy”, as Murphy rather succinctly noted to the climate change minister, was essentially saying “We need to sell the gas to end the gas”.

And while the export of green hydrogen remains a future rather than a current enterprise, the International Energy Agency noted that “measures to stimulate low-emission hydrogen use have only recently started to attract policy attention and are still not sufficient to meet climate ambitions”.

Little wonder there is no real shift to hydrogen when the Australian government is telling its export partners like Japan and Korea not to worry that we’ll keep giving them as much LNG as they need for as long as they want it.

And why would anyone think Australia is serious about the transition when the resources minister, Madeleine King, said last week at the AFR’s Energy and Climate summit that there are 18 carbon capture and storage projects at “various stages of progress in Australia, aiming to collectively sequester 20m tonnes of CO2 a year by 2035”.

Given this year Australia emitted 530m tonnes of CO2, that hardly suggests we are serious about reducing emissions.

That’s because reducing emissions actually involves using less coal and less gas, and doing what we can to urgently reduce the use of these fossil fuels around the world.

This week, Adrian Blundell-Wignall, a former economist at the OECD, suggested Australia should use its power to implement an export tax on our metallurgical coal, of which we so greatly dominate the world that we can reduce global demand and drive down the use of coal (and with it emissions).

That would be acting like an energy superpower that is determined to become a renewable energy superpower as quickly as possible.

But no. Instead, we have reports that the government is considering placing metallurgical coal on the “critical minerals list” that would deem it “essential”.

We are not so much an energy superpower as a supplicant.


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