Hewson's View | Investing in coal will turn back the clock on renewables

It was Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US, who said: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. You should add to this the inevitable transition to a low carbon society, globally.

Now some 97 percent of peer-assessed climate scientists agree (unusually) as to the magnitude and urgency of the climate challenge. Consistent with this, if the world needs to transition to net zero, or better, net negative, emissions by 2050, some 70 percent of existing coal reserves can never be mined and burned to produce electricity.

So, how can anybody responsibly contemplate opening new coal mines, or building new coal fired power plants, in this country? 

This is not to say that coal will not continue to be an important source of power generation for decades to come, but the transition to renewables is inevitable. And to the surprise of many, while it is true that the Chinese and Indians are still building new coal-fired power plants, they are clearly also accelerating the development and reliance on renewables. 

Smart governments will accept this and plan for, and facilitate, the essential and inevitable transition.

Yet some of our politicians, especially in the Turnbull government, still hanker after coal. Do they really believe this? Do they represent seats where the coal industry predominates? Or is it mostly just a “protest mechanism” being embraced to undermine the Prime Minister?

I suggest mostly the latter. In recent days we have seen the emergence of the Monash Forum – little more than a “rump” of bitter and twisted ex-ministers, being led by the likes of Abbott, Joyce, Abetz and Andrews – dressing up their bitterness as a “policy forum”, and notionally arguing for the government to “nationalise”, or insist on the sale of, the failing AGL Liddell power plant, and to consider funding the construction of a new, ultra super-critical, coal-fired power plant.

OLD STYLE: The AGL Liddell Power Plant in the Hunter Valley has become a symbol for those ministers who still "hanker after coal". Photo: Liam Driver.

OLD STYLE: The AGL Liddell Power Plant in the Hunter Valley has become a symbol for those ministers who still "hanker after coal". Photo: Liam Driver.

The formation of this “forum” has been carefully timed to coincide with the run up to the Commonwealth/State Energy Ministers meeting next week where the government is hoping to get the States to sign off on the National Electricity Guarantee. It is designed to be obstructive, not constructive.

This rump was soon brought to heel by the descendants of the Monash family. They said use of the Monash name was “discourteous”, and called on them to drop it: “We disassociate ourselves specifically from the forum’s use of the Monash name to give their anti-science and anti-intellectual argument an air of authority, and we ask that they withdraw the name.”

While the family acknowledged Sir Monash’s role in leading the “development of coal for power generation in Victoria for the benefit of the community,” they said it was “in the context of the time,” “when coal-fired electrical generation was the leading technology”.

They said that while their ancestor “was no left-wing radical in his personal politics,” they are sure he would be a proponent of the new technologies such as wind and solar generation rather than reverting to the “horse-and-buggy era”.

There is a clear need for leadership, and bi-partisanship, on this issue. The transition cannot be avoided, and should not be delayed. When Turnbull seized the Prime Ministership from Abbott he did so with the expectation that he would lead, and provide good government, on this and many other issues.

Until he does, the embarrassment of poor Newspolls will continue.

 – John Hewson