Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?

Interestingly, in posing a solution to the current electricity policy malaise, the Productivity Commission recommends a systems approach comprised of a package of reforms “that addresses the major, interlinked regulatory barriers to the efficiency of electricity networks, including:

  • a poor focus on consumers, despite their interests being the overarching objective of the regulatory regime
  • inadequate demand management
  • costly ways of achieving, and sometimes excessive, reliability requirements
  • state regulatory arrangements and network business ownership
  • the resourcing and capacity of, and structural arrangements for, the regulator
  • the regulatory rules, and the ability of the regulator to apply them”[xxiv].

 Queensland Minister for Energy and Water Supply, Mark McArdle, blames the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) for not controlling the electricity industry – in the process ignoring the role of the sector’s national regulators and the State owned nature of the infrastructure in his own state.  It’s not the only thing that Queensland politicians continue to choose to ignore.

We seem to have a view that a sustainable future for Queensland can be built on the export of fossil fuels, particularly thermal and metallurgical coal, to countries like China and India – when all the indicators point to this being an unpredictable, cyclical and eventually in the intermediate term a dead end proposition.  China has already begun decoupling its economic growth from infrastructure investment (the main client of steel and by implication Queensland’s coking coal).  China’s GDP growth still hovers around 8% for this year, but the growth in electricity consumption overall is down under 4% – the lowest it has been this century.[xxv]   That has happen in part by a downturn in economic activity, but also because of energy efficiency and the closure of many energy inefficiency industries.

Some will call the downturn a normal cyclical “overshoot” because of the earlier excess momentum of the Chinese economy, but its collateral impact on the Queensland economy should alert us to the pitfalls of putting all our eggs in the coal export basket. 

I was in China last month meeting a range of university people, scientists, economists and officials and I can assure you the Chinese people do not wake up every morning with a particular wish for a future that involves importing Queensland coal.  They dream of economic progress, fuel security and a cleaner environment and opportunities to better exploit their own resources like the Americans are doing with shale gas and renewables.  As David Uren, economics editor of The Australian reminded us recently in his book about Australia and China: “Self reliance has long been at the heart of Chinese culture”[xxvi].  Crucially, I have yet to meet the person living overseas who sees it as their job to provide us Australians with an export income for the rest of time.  When the demand for fossil fuels diminishes or dries up, our very sustainability as a nation will depend on us having alternative economic outputs, industries, jobs and skills.  Question is, will we get it before we miss the proverbial boat?

12. Maybe getting beyond denial is no longer important

Paul Gilding, the former CEO of Greenpeace, has written a book called The Great Disruption which suggests that we won’t have much choice in future.  He writes that “things will change.  Not because we will choose change out of philosophical or political preference, but because if we don’t transform our society and economy, we risk social and economic collapse and the descent into chaos”. [xxvii]   Gilding admits the strength of the deniers and the appeal of the business as usual arguments for framing the future.  But he concludes rightly, I believe, that: “It takes a good crisis to get us going.  When we feel fear and we fear loss, we are capable of some really extraordinary things.”[xxviii]

My personal sense is that there will not be action appropriate to the challenge we face before there is much more compelling evidence of catastrophic feedback from Earth’s natural systems – be in severe climate change events, biodiversity loss and impacts on production, and growing resource conflict.  If the oil industry today is an annual $3 trillion phenomenon, we have seen nothing yet to what will be the water industry in a dry thirsty world where at least half the population grapple with the scarcity of this most essential of resources.  And sadly, as Sir Nicholas Stern warned in his Review on the Economics of Climate Change back in 2006, waiting for catastrophe is the most inefficient, most expensive way of dealing with the need for change or innovation.

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