The Wonder Down Under: Tim Flannery in Conversation

Recently, we had the chance to sit down with Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers—one of the most influential books on global warming ever to see print. An internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer and conservationist, Flannery now serves as the chief commissioner of the Australian Climate Commission. The commission is an independent body providing information on climate science and policy.

We connected with Flannery in Vancouver—where he was speaking at the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival—about  Australia’s recent climate leadership, and the challenges still to come.

A year ago, Australia placed a nation-wide price on carbon pollution. The policy came into force this past July, and now requires 400 of the country’s biggest carbon polluters to each pay  $23 for each tonne of carbon pollution they emit. Any preliminary indications of how it has impacted the economy and your emissions?

We just have just had our first quarter assessment in, and the carbon price is having a big impact. In the electricity sector, 80 percent of our electricity is from coal, and we are back to 2003 emissions levels already. We have dropped about 3,000 megawatts of coal. These are large-scale changes.

What about the economy?

The economy continues to grow. It turns out that we are getting a lot of gain for not much pain.

Australia has also established a CAD$10 Billion clean energy fund. Tell us about that.

The fund is going to be investing in clean energy technologies. It is still under construction, but by July 2013 it will be up and running and making investments in deploying things like concentrated photovoltaics and related technologies.

You’ve had success with the economy-wide carbon price, but we gather it’s been a tough slog.

As Chief of the Australian Climate Commission I have been the public face of a lot of this stuff. We’ve had a campaign by radio shock jocks and others to say the most appalling things. I’ve had to threaten to sue our national newspaper twice for malicious libel. The amount of public fear that has been generated has been quite difficult. The climate commissioners have had to have federal police protection as we go around the country, and for a time, at my house. Change is difficult for a society.

We have seen a backlash against renewable energy here in Canada, in Ontario and B.C. How does one open up space for dialogue about real choices and solutions when the exchanges at times reach the level of shrieking?

That’s the job the Australian Climate Commission has been taking on. It is hard for people to shriek at the retired head of BP Australasia. One of the things the commission has done is really establish that middle ground, and get a respectful dialogue going.

How are you making out with your renewable energy targets?

Some years back the Australia government set a mandated renewable energy target of 20 percent by 2020. It was agreed by both sides of politics, and remains a bipartisan agreement. But because of the contraction in the overall electricity market, it looks like we are going to exceed our target. People think we might be as high as 26, 27, or 28 percent by 2020, which is a really amazing outcome if we achieve that.

You just said that there has been a contraction in the electricity market. There is an assumption that with economic growth comes greater demand for power. Is that not proving to be the case in Australia?

That is exactly not proving to be the case in Australia. It’s amazing. The wholesale market is shrinking, three years in a row now. That is due to a number of factors, mainly energy efficiency and distributed generation—everything from little biomass plants to solar PV on rooftops.

When you cite distributed generation, is that community owned energy, or small businesses?

Community owned energy is still small, we’ve had our first community-owned wind farm open last year. We are seeing businesses rather than community groups get into this space. There are a lot of industries like abattoirs and landfills and so forth that are just below the threshold to pay the carbon tax, they are investing a lot in terms of capturing their methane or emissions and turning it into electricity. We are getting a mix of things, coming down the pipe a lot faster than anyone imagined.

What does it take to get carbon pricing on a government’s agenda?

You need a government that really believes this is necessary and in the interests of the nation, and needs to be pursued. The message I would give is: Price makes a difference. We’ve been able to have large reductions in Australia with relatively little pain. This is all do-able. It is simply a matter of making the commitment, and seeing it through.

To what extent are Australia’s clean-energy ambitions linked to energy security, by a desire to reduce your vulnerability to commodity prices? For example, you rely heavily on coal sales to China.

Australia’s economy is very vulnerable to commodity prices and to changes in China’s economic growth. The other side of this is that China is now the world’s leading deployer of renewable energy; they are number one in wind and solar. And because of economies of scale, they have been able to drive the prices down. Solar PV pricing has declined 74 percent in four years. That is making it more cost effective in the Australian marketplace. Australia is already 17 years ahead of official government projections on solar uptake. It’s incredible. We are now where we were going to be where we are by 2030. China’s emissions will continue to grow for some time, but hopefully not as strongly as they would have without these measures. And we hope that by the mid 2020s we will start getting China on a downwards trajectory as well.

To what extent do you see natural gas as a “transition fuel?”

Gas has about half the emissions on average as coal. In the Australian context, that has to be a good thing. The big question is what will it do to renewables, if it is lowering the price threshold of renewables. Looking at the price declines in solar I think solar is really going to give gas a run for its money. Is gas a global transitional fuel? It’s too early to say.

What are the big unresolved challenges you see in moving to low-carbon power grid?

One of the biggest is how we create a stable electricity grid with distributed grid technologies. How do we go form a situation where we have a few large generators with lots of consumers, to a situation where we’ve got “prosumers”—producers who are also consumers, at the very small scale. Nobody knows how to do that yet. We can see it now with the uptake of distributed grid and PV in Australia. The challenge to the conventional model is very real. Unless we get that transition right, it’s got the potential to be very disruptive.

Market disruption can be a good thing…

It could, but it could also cause major electricity shortages, or could leave the most socially disadvantaged members of society quite exposed. You can imagine a world where anyone who can afford to buy PV has done so, but you’ve got people in public housing and renters who haven’t been able to do that, and who are paying massive amounts for stranded electricity assets. That is a potential problem.

In The Weather Makers you had a chapter about the climate crisis, called “Time’s Up.” That was five years ago… 

Look, 90 percent of governments around the world, covering 90 percent of global economic activity, have climate action plans in place. Those plans are not ambitious enough—they only get us about half the emissions reductions we require to get us to the two-degree guardrails. But they are a significant start. And I know from the experience in Australia that doubling those ambitions is not unthinkable. If every nation did that, we would be where we need to be.

How do we get Canada to that place?

In Canada you have some really fantastic action at the provincial level that is really doing the heavy lifting for the nation in terms of emissions reductions. You’ve got a target of 17 percent below 2007 levels by 2020. It looks like Canada is going to meet that target through provincial action. But the big problem is the tar sands. Post-2020, that is going to be the big issue for this country. You need to start planning now for that. You can’t expect to wake up in 2020 and say, “We have this massive liability, how are we going to deal with it?” I think even people in the tar sands recognize that as a reality. Somehow that needs to get through that this industry needs to bear a carbon price. It needs to be responsive to its emissions. I’m not one of those people who says “Close it down tomorrow.” I say, “Impose a cost, and reduce emissions through that.”

Speaking of hope, many advocates really see Australia as a beacon—for setting its carbon price, and for the progress you are seeing in renewables. What do you say for others who would follow?

Set your targets, set your strategy, and stick to it, come hell or high water. Change is difficult. This isn’t a game for the meek but the result is worth it. I can assure you, and I’m sure the people in B.C. feel its worth it for their carbon tax has been in place for a number of years. But we have to redouble our efforts. We have to set those targets, and stick with them.

Print this article