Why California rules clean energy and Australia dreams
OPINION: Murray Hogarth*
I'm sitting in hotel room in San Francisco, after walking from downtown to Haight-Ashbury for dinner then back, pondering why America's mega-state of California trumps (pun intended) Australia on clean energy. Read the graphic to the left and weep, my fellow Australians, because that's what a serious commitment to climate action by 2030 looks like.
For years now I've been hearing ambitious, somewhat progressive politicians and public servants talking up the opportunity for New South Wales to be the California of Australia on the clean energy transition. Or Australia to be the California of the southern hemisphere, or other variations of this well worked theme.
It's great rhetoric. California has been kicking energy efficiency and renewable goals for decades, from halving the average US electricity consumption level for households, to fuel-efficient motor vehicles, to being the American leader in renewable energy uptake, especially solar PV.
In one area - the spread of rooftop solar systems - Australia has actually even surpassed California and indeed the whole of the US. It's our world record national buy-in to solar, with 1.5 million homes generating clean energy from the sun on their own roofs. That's 1.5 million out of 8.5 million rooftops, or about 18%, compared with 1 million US homes out of 135 million - less than 1%.
But there, however, any favourable comparisons end. While California enjoys an incredibly sustained record of achievement on clean energy action, Australia's record is a sad litany of policy befuddlement. One step forward two steps back is the usual order of the day, with policy-making bedevilled by partisan and polarised politics, and the malign influence of powerful vested interests protecting the fossil fuel sector.
Both of the main sides of politics are culpable in Australia's ongoing climate policy failure. It's important to emphasise this with an election campaign under way in Australia, with the polling day being July 2.
I met up a few days ago with ex patriate Australian Danny Kennedy at the 7th Clean Energy Ministerial's 'Start-ups and Solutions Showcase. He's the one-time Greenpeace campaigner who co-founded a major US solar company, Sungevity, wrote the book The Rooftop Revolution, and now heads up the not-for-profit, for-public-good investment group the Californian Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF).
I'll never forget Danny's insightful pronouncement on the Australian political class some years back, which is as true today as it ever was. To paraphrase, it was:You can't take the COAL out of the COALition, and you can't take it out of the Labor Party either. At this election the Labor Party is closer to the Californian targets that appear above, but still not close enough, while the Coalition Government is way off.
It's significant that California doesn't have major indigenous fossil fuel resources like Australia's polluting bounty of coal. But to me the single greatest factor that accounts for California's success and Australia's constant backsliding comes down to having the right, properly-empowered public institutions in place and them sticking to their transformation task over the decades, regardless of whoever sits in Government House, whether a Republican like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or a Democrat such as Edward G. Brown Jr.
It's bodies like the environmentally-conscious California Energy Commission, the forceful regulator the Californian Public Utilities Commission and the effective enforcer the Air Resources Board of the California EPA. They just keep on going, year after year, decade after decade, doing what needs to be done while Australia changes agencies and departments and policies constantly, and mainly not in a good way. We've killed off a carbon pricing scheme, slashed the Renewable Energy Target, abolished the Climate Commission and gutted the Australia Renewable Energy Agency - and that's not to mention so many other national and state government initiatives that have come and gone, come and gone.
I also caught up with former Australian Greens leader Christine Milne in San Francisco, a true legend of climate politics down under. It should be no surprise that her private analysis of the current Australian election campaign is bleak in terms of the prospects for socially and environmentally progressive outcomes. That's me your humble blogger in the picture in the post below, with Christine Milne and Danny Kennedy.
Australia's progressive leaders and aspirants from across the political spectrum have to stop their California dreaming. Better to just play copycat to the golden state. Not only could we do a lot worse, we have!
*Murray Hogarth is Wattwatchers' Director of Communications and Community Networks, and a former Environment Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He was part of the Wattwatchers team exhibiting at the prestigious CEM7 Start-Ups and Solutions Showcase in San Francisco June 1-2.