Category Archives: Australia

May 3, 1990 – How green was my referendum?

It’s forgotten now, but there was a wave of green awareness/concern/hype from 1988 to early 1991 (when the Gulf War supplanted attention.)  In the middle of it the Federal Labor Government even toyed with the idea of a power-grab from the states!!

CANBERRA: Public support for Federal Government power to make national environment laws had grown to the point where a referendum could now succeed, the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Kerin, said yesterday.

Mr Kerin raised again the need for the Commonwealth to wrest power from the States – first broached by the then-Minister for the Environment, Senator Richardson, last year – at the annual seminar of the Australian Mining Industry Council in Canberra.

Seccombe, M. 1990. Chance for green referendum, says Kerin.  Sydney Morning Herald,  4 May.

Also on this day-

The executive director of the GCP said in a Senate estimates hearing on May 3, 2001 that only one in 10 companies had met their emission reduction targets. (See also Report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee, “The Heat Is On: Australia’s Greenhouse Future”, chapter 8.)

April 21, 2007 – ‘Scorcher’ plugged (a good book, btw)

In 2007 the climate issue went ballistic in Australia Two excellent books were published. One was Guy Pearse’s ‘High and Dry’, which is still essential reading.  The other was Clive Hamilton’s ‘Scorcher,’ an update and extension of his 2001 ‘Running from the Storm’.  On this day, 10 years ago, he was on Radio National plugging  it….

Doogue, G. 2007. Clive Hamilton on Saturday Extra. Radio National, 21 April.

Also on this day-

1993 [Clinton’s] stand is a reversal of that taken by the former US President, Mr Bush, who refused at the Earth Summit to support specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions or to back the biodiversity treaty.
At the start of his speech, Mr Clinton made an unexpected acknowledgement of Australia’s Minister for the Environment, Mrs Kelly.
“We should introduce a guest from another country who is here with us – the environmental minister from Australia, Ros Kelly,” he said. “Would you stand up? We’re glad to have you here.”
Garran, R. 1993. Clinton pledge cuts new key to the greenhouse. Australian Financial Review, 23 April p.9.

21 April 2010: Failures of the Howard government’s Greenhouse Gas Abatement Program which was a version of direct action exposed by audit report and reported by Lenore Taylor. (From Mark Butler’s Direct Action Timeline)

21 April 2011: The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency publishes detailed estimates of potential land sector abatement which are significantly at odds with those promised by direct action, they put out a range of 5 to 15 Mt and set out why this was different to technical potential quoted by Greg Hunt. (From Mark Butler’s Direct Action Timeline)

April 9, 1990 – The BCA gets into the green game…

Business was taken aback with the speed of greenery in 1988/89. The fightback(!) began properly just after the Hawke government won a fourth term, with the launch of a BCA documnet that bemoaned the lack of ‘balance’ (a theme they returned to again and again).
“Launching its first policy on the environment in Sydney yesterday, the Business Council of Australia lamented the standard of the green debate.”
Lane, B. 1990. Business hitches a ride with green bandwagon.  Australian Financial Review, 10 April.

Also on this day- 
2011 Rally in for climate action in Brisbane .
Things to remember.  Some people get very rich from Queensland’s coal exports. The police in Queensland have a habit of surveillance that extends to clipping complain-y letters to the newspaper….

2 April 1978 – Australian Coal Association starts having conferences…

On this day 39 years ago, the first Australian Coal Conference began in Surfers Paradise, Queensland.  2 – 6 April 1978.

These shindigs, which happened every second year, would continue until 2000.  Climate change got a super-brief mention in 1988 (the conference happened in April) and a heckuva lot more coverage in 1990 (with the usual mix of denial and technology will fix it). The conferences hosted scientific luminaries like Fred Singer and Pat Michaels too. The industry, which saw these conferences as a chance to sniff out deals and schmooze, finally got fed up with a (to them) excessive focus on climate policy after the 2000 conference, and the Australian Coal Association stopped having a conference.  Other outfits (Coaltrans for example) took up the slack a bit…  But that’s for another day…


Also on this day –

In 2001, a day after John Howard sent a ‘good on you mate’ letter to George ‘hanging chad’ Bush, his Federal cabinet went ‘heh heh, yeah, me too’.

“A string of federal ministers, led by Prime Minister John Howard, voiced support for the US position following the March 29 announcement by Washington that it would not support the Kyoto Protocol. Federal cabinet decided on April 2 to support the US decision. The government declared that it will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless the US does.”

Meanwhile, The April 2 Age 2001 printed an article by Ray Evans from the Lavoisier Group, in which he stated: “President Bush has shown courage and provided world leadership by announcing that the United States will not support the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. What is baffling, however, is that some senior members of the Australian government do not seem prepared to immediately lend support to Bush. In the interests of good policy and good science, they should do so.”

Visions, hype and Twitter: Elon Musk and Energy Policy’s latest twist. #auspol

Who would dare make a prediction about Australian energy and climate policy these days? The truth keeps turning out not stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.

Last week Tesla’s vice president for energy products, Lyndon Rive was drumming up interest for his company’s batteries, the “PowerWall”. As opponents of renewable energy never tire of saying, as if it is a stunning insight, it’s only on tv that the sun always shines, and the answer is not blowing in the wind for the same reason of ‘intermittency‘. Renewables advocates counter this by speaking of storage (e.g pumped hydro), but everyone is holding out for a hero. (That’s enough shoe-horned song references, Ed).

Rive, pointed out that after a Californian power crisis “From start to finish, we installed an 80MWh battery pack at one of the substations in Southern California,”

California had had a methane leakage at a gas peaking plant, whereas South Australia’s September blackout – was due to high winds (despite the blame game which ensued). Knowing he had piqued his potential customers’ interest, Rive said “We can do the exact same thing in South Australia. Storage is the technology, and it can solve the problem within the next 100 days or so.”

Mike Cannon-Brookes the ‘accidental billionaire’  , the co-founder software company Atlassian was impressed, tweeting “Holy s#%t” and following it up with “how serious are you about this bet? If I can make the $ happen (& politics), can you guarantee the 100MW in 100 days?”

Rive’s cousin, one Elon Musk, tweeted back “Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?”

Nick Hammsen of the ABC notes that detail is sketchy. The Californian scheme was an 400 of Tesla’s Powerpack 2 batteries, which Tesla claim is infinitely scalable. Hammsen notes that system big enough for South Australia would run into the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars and that the cost and who would foot the bill is unclear.

Since then, Musk and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherhill have spoken, with Musk tweeting

Mr Weatherill, who had floated the balloon of a states-based emissions trading scheme  said “Today I had a positive discussion with Elon Musk regarding his battery proposal,”

Greens Senator Hanson-Young is also intetested, arguing

The way the spot market works and way the electricity market is currently structured means that battery storage just can’t compete at the same level.”

Policy via Twitter (a la Trump)

This is under way because following a ‘policy bonfire‘, in 2013 and 2014, there is the mother of all policy vacuums in Canberra, with no resolution in sight. When this happened under John Howard, the states – with New South Wales under Bob Carr as leading light – started a push for an emissions trading scheme, which created impetus for a national scheme.

Entrepreneurs, be they policy or technology-based, are needed to ‘shake things up’. As an academic colleague wrote

I’m generally pro Musk, on the grounds that all visionaries are flawed, and stunts can be useful. You’ve gotta have someone willing to take the big risks, but the personality that allows that kind of behaviour is almost certainly going to also include some narcissism and megalomania. Every other entrepreneur who developed a whole new system in the past was also like this. Henry Ford, George Stephenson, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, etc”

“Socio-technical transitions” are indeed about visions  , but of course, visions are okay if you’re rich; if you’re poor and you have visions, they send you to a psychiatrist.

 Regardless of the ins and outs of visions, proposals like these take on a life of their own. If this twitter love-in goes on much longer – and if Cannon-Brookes finds the cash – Musk and Weatherill will both be in a position where they have to do something together, or look like – as they say in Newcastle (England) “All fur coat and no knickers.”

Talk, like Australia’s electricity, is no longer as cheap as it was.

South Australia has a long history as a “laboratory”

You could argue that South Australia’s foundation as the only non-convict labour colony under White Settlement (or invasion) is the first example of its role as a ‘laboratory’.

South Australia’s longest serving premier, Tom Playford (in office from 1938 to 1965) was certainly capable of thinking big, with his 1946 nationalisation of the Adelaide Electric Supply Company to create the (since privatised) Electricity Trust of South Australia (this was done with the enthusiastic support of the Federal Labor Government of Ben Chifley) and his nuclear ambitions.

Later visions of state-based responses to economic, social and environmental pressures were less successful (for example Premier Don Dunstan and Monarto, and John Bannon‘s similarly ill-fated “multi-function polis.”

As a virtual city-state, South Australia  can claim a place as an ‘urban laboratory’ and be an object of study for the question ‘Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were?’  A new experiment seems to be unfolding. Tomorrow (Tuesday 14th March), Weatherill will announce a series of State government measures to deal with energy prices, energy security and climate change. Watch this space…

Winners and Losers

If it comes off, (and the “if” and the “it” are big questions), who would be the winners and losers? It would clearly be better PR than you could ever buy for Musk – proof of concept for his technology. Weatherill and his government are up for re-election in March 2018 and needing to put meat on the bones of the ‘OpenState’ festival promises, would be a happy chappy.

Academics studying “sustainability sociotechnical transitions” and the importance of visions and hype will love it. Public policy theorists who use the ‘Multiple Streams’ approach point out that often policy entrepreneurs develop solutions and then go looking for a problem to attach them to. The Musk-Adelaide connection would become the obvious citation

Renewable proponents would see their enthusiasm and hard work vindicated, especially if customers (and voters) see a stabilisation (or decrease?) in electricity prices, and an end to insecurity of supply. Community-based schemes may of course fear being pushed aside by the big boys, as do the Zen Energy owners and managers, who reckon a local consortium could do the job Musk is promising on the same time-scale.

Conversely, it would be bad news for the South Australian opposition, which is reduced to ‘me-tooism’. Liberal Opposition leader Stephen Marshall said in response to the Musk proposal

“It’s the sort of thing we need to be looking at to secure the stability of our grid here in South Australia and also how we can lower energy prices in this state” [source]

For the Federal Coalition it is another big headache – it is hard to see how Malcolm ‘innovation/exciting time to be alive’ Turnbull can object. He and Musk talked on Sunday, with the now usual exchange of mutually-congratulatory tweets.

If it came off, it would, presumably, be disastrous for the status quo actors who own/operate the centralised fossil-fuel power stations and grid, accelerating the ‘death spiral‘ of grid defection.

They can be expected to fight back, by attacking the credibility of proponents (with Musk, that’s hard), the technology and by attempting to slow deployment. But in South Australia, they may not have enough levers to pull on, enough credible threats to make.

2017 is already living up to its billing as a perplexing roller-coaster.

If Morrison had held up a lump of silicon instead of lacquered coal…

Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison held up a lump of coal in Parliament last week, in an attempt to humiliate the Opposition.  The coal was provided by the Minerals Council of Australia, who helpfully lacquered it so it wouldn’t smudge on its handlers…

Journalists have expressed bewilderment and Clive Hamilton, recently ex-Climate Change Authority member, used the incident to think cogently about death and fear. I wrote here and here.

Then there is this brilliant letter in the Fin.  I want to track down the writer and buy him a pint.  All help in this endeavour appreciated.


(h/t to Aaron for sending me this)

So, lump of coal as a boundary object, perhaps, or a mutable mobile. Or something else from Science and Technology Studies, which, as Tom Baker said at the end of his penultimate story, (The Keeper of Traken)  is not my forte so much…


Wedges of coal – Morrison, Howard stunts and catastrophe #auspol #climate

The Treasurer Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal in Parliament last week, against rules that are supposed to prevent props being used (Adam Bandt has since brought a solar panel. The speaker has now told everyone to knock it off).

Morrison, mocking the Labor Party members, cooed “This is coal… Don’t be afraid…  don’t be scared.” (And has since boasted about this to radio shocking jock Ray Hadley.)

As one astute  journalist wrote three years ago it’s part of

“a long campaign to redefine the stuff that comes from burning coal as a “colourless, odourless gas”, a harmless three-way cuddle between one carbon and two oxygen atoms that, happily, provides “plant food”

While a purple haze introduced  to the Bureau of Meteorology maps in 2013  causes confusion, Australia, like many other countries, faces an ‘energy trilemma’ – problems of price, security and decarbonisation.

The recent announcements (you can’t  really call them proposals) by Resources Minister Matt Canavan , Malcolm Turnbull,  and now Scott Morrison do not actually address any of these problems.

Clean coal is not going to be cheap, “clean” coal is not going to be clean enough to compete with gas or renewables, and most importantly clean coal is not going to happen – the CEFC, Bloomberg, and AEMO have all pointed out that, given the expectation of future carbon constraints, no private investor will come anywhere near new coal.  Gina Rinehart isn’t interested  and so the government (i.e. the taxpayer) would have to bankroll it, something that Barnaby Joyce is relaxed about.

Policy versus politics
What we are seeing is not actually a policy battle, but a politics battle, and one that has been going on since at least 2000. That was the year that, after the Australian Greenhouse Office had commissioned a series of reports on the emissions trading, then-Environment Minister Robert Hill, brought a proposal for an emissions trading scheme to Cabinet. It was defeated thanks to the opposition of Liberal Senator Nick Minchin.  Meanwhile, battles over whether the Kyoto Protocol should be ratified were raging, both among politicians and within industry.  Australia had received a very generous ‘reduction’ target that actually meant it could increase its emissions to 108% of its 1990 level, and this was supplemented by a clause (known as the Australia clause) which gave credit for reductions in land-clearing, but still they prevaricated.

Howard famously decided that Australia would not ratify unless the US did, so things were basically put on hold until after the 2000 US Presidential election.  Labor, seeking green votes, seemed more keen, but  under influence of the powerful CFMEU Union, re-wrote policy platform in mid-2000 to remove mention of Kyoto Ratification.  Then Shadow environment minister Nick Bolkus famously said “...I am not going to be a kamikaze pilot when it comes to taking Australian industry and Australian jobs.”   Labor confirmed support for Kyoto ratification before the 2001 Federal Election,  and Howard toured the Hunter Valley to argue ratification would cost jobs, raise power prices and hurt industry.
[McSweeny, L., Polglaze, K. and Hamilton, F. 2001. Fed – Govt warns of job losses under ALP Kyoto plan.  Australian Associated Press, 7 November.

Pulling the Greenhouse trigger
Howard’s wedging attempts continued – why change a winning game?  In late 2006, with the climate issue heating up, Labor and the Greens tried to get the ‘greenhouse trigger’ – the idea that the Federal Government should have both the power and the responsibility to give a final yay or nay on any particularly carbon intensive projects –  back on the agenda (this was another battle that Robert Hill had lost to Nick Minchin in 2000). The Environment Minister of the time, Ian Campbell, knew what to do….

According to one commentator  “Senator Campbell’s response to the criticisms was to describe the greenhouse trigger amendments as the ‘anti-coal amendment’ and seek to paint the ALP as being against the coal industry.”
(Macintosh, 2007: 54)

Labor, under Kevin Rudd,  tried to square the circle of climate concern and coal industry support with the notion of Carbon Capture and Storage, but this fell by the wayside by 2010 or so, after geological reality imposed itself and costs spiralled.   It is significant that the coal industry and government have switched to “High Efficiency Low Emissions” as their techno-fix du jour.

 Cultural battles
Meanwhile, the cultural battle – over who is ‘authentic’ and supportive of regional Australia continues unabated.  Prime Ministers Gillard and Abbott seemed glued to hard hats and fluoro jackets in their flesh-pressing tours.  In July 2014 Senator Ian MacDonald came to parliament in a fluorojacket, provided to him by the same people who gave Morrison his lump of coal.

One useful way to think of the current hi-jinks is as part of a cultural battle over the cleanliness and moral rectitude of a product or commodity.   The US firm General Electric tried to portray coal as sexy in this jaw-dropping 2005 advert

and a battle of television adverts on clean coal broke out in 2008/9 in the US.

The divestment campaign, which aims to make coal look outmoded and dangerous not only to the planet but also investors, is the key example, and it has drawn a sharp response from the coal industry and its political supporters (see especially October 2014, in the aftermath of the Australian National University’s announcement of a very partial divestment).

One relatively recent academic paper, called From Pabst to Pepsi: The Deinstitutionalization of Social Practices and the Creation of Entrepreneurial Opportunities captures the decades long struggle between the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the producers and sellers of alcohol.  The authors point out that as well as condemning alcohol, the anti-drinking movement also opened up space for entrepreneurs – motivated by morals or money or indeed both- to create an alternative product – ‘soft drinks’ as opposed to hard liquor.

That fight took decades (and ‘winning’ it lead to the disaster that was Prohibition). And the authors point out  that

“the brewery industry was composed of thousands of small, independent businesses. This fragmentation of the industry may account for its lack of success in refuting the WCTU’s attacks”

They continue

“multiple attacks by anti-smoking advocates such as the American Cancer Society on the tobacco industry—a consolidated industry with a few very large players—have had limited success in recent decades.”

The coal industry – often compared to Big Tobacco – has the same advantages, and it seems that Australia is no closer to finding a solution for the “nonn-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one.” to the dismay and outrage of many, especially the young.

2017 is already living up to its billing.