Brumby’s Quarry Vision

Originally published in Arena Magazine.
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John Brumby stands looking upwards into the distance, squinting and baring his nice straight teeth. Behind him is a giant octagonal configuration of mirrors reflecting the sun’s rays against a backdrop of perfect blue sky. They call this greenie porn: pictures of big shiny solutions for the energy dilemmas of our time, like this one taken at a large-scale solar power plant.
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Cashing in on the appeal in this advertisement in an inner-Melbourne local paper we read: ‘John Brumby and Labor – Leading Australia on Climate Change’. There are some dot points about making Victoria the ‘Solar State’, about spending $650 million on climate change and renewable energy programs; $10 billion on unspecified new investment and jobs; a target for emissions cuts of 20 per cent by 2020 on 2000 levels; and a staged closure of Hazelwood power station. Interesting for a state government that has overseen steady increases in greenhouse gas emissions over the eleven years it has held power.
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There is no questioning the motivation here. Following the 2010 federal election (in which Julia Gillard’s strategy on climate policy was to duck and deflect), the large swing to the Greens across the country, and especially in Victoria, resulted in that party gaining the balance of power in the Senate and claiming the lower house seat of Melbourne. Facing an election of his own on 27 November, with four seats at risk of being lost to the Greens, Brumby has made no secret that he has a different strategy in mind. On 26 July, as Abbott and Gillard’s campaigns were already in full swing, he released his Climate Change White Paper.
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This long-awaited statement of Victoria’s climate policy agenda looked fresh: first, because it was in radical contrast with the federal climate change policy vacuum; second, because it actually did reflect a new approach from the Brumby government. Previous drafts focussing almost exclusively on ‘adaptation’ had had to be pulped as carbon prices went on and off the national agenda, and Brumby finally decided emissions reductions could not be left to higher forces.
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Unfortunately, Brumby’s apparent climate policy stance has very little to do with the substance of his policies. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence of politics-as-usual, which continues to fall distressingly short of the task of altering our progress along a path to ecological disaster. It boils down to the question of how we might assess leadership on climate change. If it were a question of relativity we might have reason to congratulate the Brumby government for taking some steps forward. The problem is that they are baby steps, and can be explained more easily by a fear of losing votes to the Greens rather than any real comprehension of climate change science.
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The capacity of politics-as-usual to live up to the task of avoiding dangerous climate change has been questioned before and found wanting. In their 2008 assessment of the dramatic, widening gap between the response that climate science demands and the response actually given, David Spratt and Philip Sutton in Climate Code Red pointed to the short-term, adversarial and incremental mode of politics conventional in Western nations like ours. This mode is ‘steeped in a culture of compromise that is fearful of deep, quick change—which suggests it is incapable of managing the transition [to a safe-climate economy] at the necessary speed’. Nothing has changed, except that is, the amount of evidence in support of this statement.
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Nowhere is this more evident than in the Australian approach to coal, with politics-as-usual meaning a refusal to deviate from the ‘quarry vision’ so aptly described by Guy Pearse in his 2009 Quarterly Essay, Quarry Vision: Coal, Climate Change and the End of the Resources Boom. This is an ingrained mentality—shared by the vast majority of politicians, the business sector and many citizens: that Australia is a nation dependent both for domestic electricity and export income on digging up, shipping out and burning coal.
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While the imperative to break with this mentality could not be stronger, for reasons ranging from the moral to the pragmatic, there is no indication that this is occurring where it matters most. Witness QR National proudly boasting their coal freight activities and asking that Australians invest in the idea that this will continue indefinitely. Witness federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson feigning ignorance when presented with the prospect of the need to draw up transition plans for coal workers. Meanwhile ABARE proudly reports that Australian coal exports reached record levels in the December quarter 2009 and projects that exports will rise by 88 per cent between 2004/2005 and 2029/2030.
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But what of Premier Brumby and his latest advertisements? Should we be grateful that he did not pose next to a big pile of coal and some smokestacks? Unfortunately there is nothing to suggest that Brumby’s own quarry vision is wavering, beyond his apparent recognition that it may not be the best thing to emphasise in an election context.
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A key element of Brumby’s climate policy platform is a commitment to shutting down a quarter of production at Hazelwood—Australia’s most polluting coal-fired power station—over the next four years. Considering it was due to close in 2009 but had its life extended in 2005 by then Labor Premier Steve Bracks for an extra few decades, this is hardly a position worth celebrating. It should have gone completely off-line by now. With Victoria’s potential for baseload solar thermal power it is possible to replace all of Hazelwood’s generating capacity with renewable energy within the same four year timeframe. However as it stands under Brumby’s plan, a quarter of Hazelwood’s current output will probably be replaced with coal power from another source.
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Even worse than this, and certainly not a lead item on Brumby’s climate policy agenda, is the proposal currently waiting for approval from EPA Victoria to build a brand new 600 megawatt coal-fired power station near Morwell in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. The HRL Dual Gas proposal has the support of both the Brumby Government who have committed $50 million and the Commonwealth Government ($100 million). They claim that the use of synthetic gas (from the drying and gasification of brown coal) and natural gas at the new plant will ensure the emissions intensity is lower than any other coal plants operating in Victoria. Again, this is nothing to get excited about. While the HRL Dual Gas plant would indeed help to bring Victoria into line with other coal plants in Australia by producing emissions slightly below the level of a typical black coal power station, the emissions intensity of the plant would still be almost double the OECD average. One wonders why the Brumby Government would make their own target to reduce 20% of emissions by 2020 that much harder by committing to new coal power development that will increase emissions and lock in reliance on coal for years to come.
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Further evidence that the Brumby Government has expansion rather than curtailment in mind for Victoria’s coal industry emerged in September 2009. At that time Victorian Energy Minister Peter Batchelor was reported to be championing a proposal by Australian-based company Exergen, to mine, dry and export 12 million tonnes of brown coal annually to India.  Confidential cabinet documents obtained the next month by The Age showed that this was only the tip of the iceberg with the Brumby Government considering a competitive tender process to sell off billions of tonnes of Latrobe Valley brown coal reserves to companies looking to open up new coal export markets overseas. Premier Brumby himself said that given Australia exports oil, gas, black coal and uranium, he saw no reason why Victoria should not export brown coal. Yet, by December 2009 the export deals had been shelved, seemingly because the run in the media and backlash from environment groups had ignited fears of broader voter disapproval. However this has not been ruled out, and one should ask whether the plan to expand coal exports might emerge again after a Labor election victory.
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Premier Brumby may not be all he is cracking himself up to be on climate change, but how much does it matter to Victorian voters? The gamble is that green message will beat the substance, which is probably a safe bet in this age of marketing supremacy. The strategy is clever enough to sway people without the time or inclination to consider the details.
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Brumby’s approach is likely to mean that NGOs, community groups and individuals concerned about climate change will have to work harder than they did during the recent federal election campaign where it was easy to show that Gillard had nothing to offer on climate issues. The task is to build public understanding so that Brumby and others in positions of power can be judged on just how far their policies are really intended to secure a safe climate future.
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Taegen Edwards is a member of Yarra Climate Action Now, an independent community group based in the inner Melbourne suburbs of the City of Yarra. She works as a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.