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Australia's renewable energy wars: How to win the argument for green power

Australia's renewable energy wars: How to win the argument for green power
Published 12 Aug 2015 

The first post in this three-part series compared the energy plans of Australia's major political parties with the rest of the world. The second post considered the economics of Australia transitioning to a renewables-based energy system.

When it comes to the politics of climate change and renewable energy, it is relevant to consider both strategy and tactics.

Climate change is not going to be solved with a single giant global treaty and a perfect emissions trading scheme. Climate action is not, internationally or domestically, a 'one shot game'. As such, agents of climate action, including policymakers, must take seriously the idea that decarbonising global and national economic sectors will require a strategic approach.

Good strategy requires taking into account the feedback effects of near-term individual policy interventions with a view to achieving a long-term goal that can't be attained through the near-term policies alone. Yet all too rarely in policy analysis do experts consider the political implications of policy interventions.

In an Australian context, if your long-term policy objective is a strong Australian approach to climate change, then strong policy support for renewable energy is good political strategy. This is because policy support for renewables can have such positive feedback effects as: [fold]

  • Directly creating new institutional arrangements and organisations that make adverse reforms more difficult and further progressive reforms more likely, both directly (eg. by creating new legislative, administrative and/or contractual arrangements that would need to be altered, at some cost) and indirectly (eg. by providing politically useful resources to state and non-state actors who favour climate action).
  • Inducing companies and financial institutions to invest in the renewable energy sector and in complementary sectors, literally creating new vested interests in the maintenance and expansion of renewable energy and wider low-carbon policy, and thus favourably altering the political economy in which future policy will be made.
  • Bringing down the costs of renewable and complementary technologies, making them more economically and financially attractive over time (eventually without subsidy, as we are seeing now with solar PV and wind) and, conversely, weakening the market power of fossil fuel incumbents.
  • Creating new, self-reinforcing knowledge and physical infrastructures in the innovation system and energy system.
  • Socialising Australians to the viability and benefits of renewable energy and so potentially favourably shifting their beliefs, preferences, and attitudes about matters relevant to achieving long-term climate goals, such as their support for additional and more ambitious actions on climate change and clean energy.

Indeed, arguably it is the positive feedback effects of previously implemented institutions and policies — such as the Renewable Energy Target, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and various state feed-in tariff schemes and other incentives for renewable energy — that have laid the technological, economic and social foundations that now make further policies to decarbonise the energy sector politically viable.

Which brings us to tactics or 'framing'.

As well as being good long-term strategy, a focus on renewable energy also makes short-term tactical sense. Research suggests that framing climate action as part of a narrative that primes collective, inclusive, 'self-transcendent' values, especially where these tap into widely shared markers of national or community identity, are likely to be more effective at sustaining long-term positive engagement with climate change than are narratives that prime more selfish and competitive values (eg. the 'hip pocket'), or those that focus on overly abstract and distant justifications.

In Australia, survey evidence has shown clearly that renewable energy is wildly popular (research and development on renewable and other low-emissions technologies also enjoys wide popularity across all climate-relevant segments of society), whereas fossil fuels, nuclear power, carbon taxes and increases in electricity bills are very unpopular. One conclusion from this evidence is clear: Labor's renewable energy frame is likely to be appealing, and the Abbott Government's fetishisation of coal is likely to be unappealing.

But when we move from energy sources in general to the policy mechanisms for transitioning away from fossil fuels to a renewables-based system, the public opinion research — not to mention the lived experience of the response to the Gillard Government's carbon pricing mechanism — suggests there are many snares to beware. It is contradictory to prefer a cost-effective transition to a renewables-based energy system while rejecting carbon pricing altogether, yet the unpopularity of carbon pricing generally, and carbon taxes specifically, suggests that 'fiscal illusion' and 'tax aversion' are widespread among the polity. This is perhaps unsurprising, given survey and focus group research suggesting there is poor understanding among Australians as to how different types of carbon pricing mechanisms work, the distinctions between them, and how they relate to tackling climate change.

In this challenging epistemic environment, the political war over Australia's future energy system will not be a reasoned public discussion of the important issues. Rather, it will be a struggle for control over the terms of the debate: 'a nation-building transition to renewable energy' (without much discussion of the distribution and redistribution of benefits and costs), or 'two great big new taxes on electricity that will bankrupt the nation and steal your children' (without regard for any facts at all).

Which side will win this struggle remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: a rhetorical and policy focus on renewable energy makes for both good strategy and good tactics for a party looking to take progressive action on climate change.

Photo by Flickr user Michael Coghlan.

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