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Australian Energy and Environment portfolios merged: hope for a renewable revolution?

With a price on carbon politically infeasible, unleashing a renewable energy revolution is the only path to fulfilling global climate obligations. The Environment-Energy portfolio merger in Australia is a step in this direction, but a lot rides on the inscrutable motives of the man tasked with leading it.

In a cabinet reshuffle of the Australian federal government on 18 July, there was one standout surprise: the merging of the Energy and Environment portfolios, with Josh Frydenberg, formerly Minister for Resources, appointed to head the reconstituted department. The question of how this dual mandate—and the man charged to lead it—affects Australia’s ability to manage a transition to clean energy and meet its international climate obligations obviously looms large. The response, tellingly, has been mixed.

Emblematic of the reaction from the resources sector was the gleeful boast of the Queensland Minerals Council in having scored a ‘trifecta’, with Greg Hunt moved to Industry and Innovation, and climate change sceptic Matt Canavan to Resources along with Frydenberg’s appointment. Clearly, they think he’s their man. Many green groups are in agreement on this point. Greenpeace slammed the appointment as a ‘huge blow’ for the Great Barrier Reef. Former Greens leader Bob Brown was likewise outraged, declaring that Frydenberg would bury Australia’s climate hopes.

Yet many other environmental and clean energy groups welcomed the move and seemed content—at least for now—to suspend judgment on the Minister himself. The Climate Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation, for example, both sounded cautiously optimistic notes about the expanded portfolio. John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, notably resisted being drawn into commentary on Frydenberg’s previous statements in praise of coal, warning against ‘get[ting] caught up in personalities’.

Such conflicting positions are perhaps attributable to the fact that, while Frydenberg has a history of colourful statements proclaiming the durability of coal, the virtue of nuclear power and has professed support to go ahead with the Adani coalmine, he also carries the reputation of being capable and prepared to take a broad view on policy.

Critics note with scorn his being dubbed ‘Mr Coal’ by Australia’s most vocal right wing pundit, Andrew Bolt. Further, he is on record as supporting the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin on the grounds that there is a strong ‘moral case’ to do so. Bringing energy security to millions of impoverished Indians behoves us to dig up the coal. In his defence, however, it’s not even the most bizarre ethical defence of the Adani coalmine. His predecessor Greg Hunt claimed that he was for the mine because he was an ‘anti-colonialist’.

There are encouraging signs, however. He showed up to a candidate’s forum in June (no other Coalition member did) to talk climate change with constituents. Reportedly, he gave the impression of a man who understood that the energy sector was ineluctably in transition. RMIT’s Alan Pearson writes that when he delivered a speech at a conference, in which he spoke about the future of clean energy, Frydenberg was in attendance and appeared ‘pretty interested’. A low bar, maybe. But there are also some compelling trends that might push an ambivalent minister over the edge. Renewables are extremely popular across the political spectrum and are becoming rapidly cheaper. Last year, investment in renewables outstripped that in fossil fuels for the first time. And schemes like subsidising rooftop solar, for example, increasingly appeal to consumers by allowing them to save on their electricity bills.

It’s worth trying to situate this development in a global context. Australia, of course, is the only country with the dubious distinction of having implemented and subsequently dismantled a nation-wide price on carbon. The incredibly heated and divisive climate politics that reigned in the last decade and contributed to the fall of a government offered a bleak lesson to other countries (however justifiably): however optimal pricing carbon might seem from a policy perspective, it carried too many political risks.

We must face up to the reality that the window for global action based on this ‘first best’ option of carbon markets has closed, write Dan Cass and Christopher Wright. Accepting this, we are obliged to concentrate our energies towards the second best option—renewables. If Australia is to meet its Paris Conference commitment of a 26-28% emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, renewable energy technology will unquestioningly have to be spurred.

From this perspective, the combination of Energy and Environment portfolios makes good sense. In order to oversee the necessary transformation in our energy sector, integration in these areas is crucial. It remains to be seen, however, that the overseer is up to the task, or, indeed, if he will instead stay true to the legacy of a party that has routinely dragged its feet on climate action—including slashing the Renewable Energy Target by 20% last year, ‘axing the tax’ and embracing further coal projects. There is strong reason to doubt that the government’s current policy, with its emphasis on achieving cost-effective emissions cuts, is capable of delivering the massive technological revolution in renewable energy so sorely needed. The policy and its targets come up for review in 2017. Conceivably, this could be the defining test of Frydenberg’s ministry. Only time—itself a depleting resource—will tell.

Jack Shield is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image credit: JJ Harrison (Wikimedia: Commons)

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