At the end of the last month Anthony Albanese MP, the Leader of the Opposition, delivered what he called ‘the first in a series of Vision Statements’. I’ve had to produce a few of these in the past myself, so I groaned a little, and then read on. The media scratched around trying to find how to summarise it, as I had to, and they decided that it was about climate change. It isn’t, really. Mr Albanese seems to take some kind of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Change for granted, so there are only a couple of references to it. I guess that a future Vision Statement will deal comprehensively with climate change
What he does seem to do is to focus on the jobs and wealth that might be created were Australia to take seriously the shift to alternative energies (though not by stopping the export of coal, which is not mentioned at all). So after a longish peroration in traditional Labor style (how Labor is the true guardian of the workers, because of its roots in the union movement, and how effete, tired and pointless the Coalition Government is), he gets into what I think is his main theme.
…we must first and foremost be in the business of creating wealth, as well as ensuring it is distributed fairly. Labor is proudly and resolutely pro-growth.
That is a bit unusual for a Labor leader, but we need to remember that this is a Vision. And he goes on like this.
And some of those opportunities lie within the global efforts to tackle one of the greatest challenges we face today: Climate change. The world is decarbonising. With the right planning and vision, Australia can not only continue to be an energy exporting superpower, we can also enjoy a new manufacturing boom. This means jobs.
Well, the world is decarbonising, I suppose, but not at any real speed. The demand for coal is increasing, and though the power available from alternative energy sources is also increasing, there is no prospect that I can see that in the short or medium terms coal and fossil fuels generally will be supplanted. For most countries, coal and oil are the backbone of their electricity grids, and the problems with replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy sources are well-known — intermittency, the short capacity of batteries, and the need for fossil-based back-ups, not to mention the sheer cost and scale of wind turbines.
Now Mr Albanese switches to a new concept altogether.
Or the dividends from a hydrogen economy that can help our major trading partners, such as Japan and South Korea, make the switch to hydrogen. This goal is also consistent with our ambitions as set out in the Asian Century White Paper. It urged Australia to improve human security through the development of resilient markets in basic needs, such as energy. Indeed, experts tell us achieving 50 per cent renewable energy at home while building a hydrogen export industry would create 87,000 good, well-paid jobs. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel sees a hydrogen export industry that in ten years could be worth $1.7 billion.
A hydrogen economy? How close is that? Well, not at all. Yes, hydrogen is abundant. All you have to do is break down a water molecule into its constituents of oxygen and hydrogen. There is a lot of water, so in practical terms hydrogen is virtually renewable. It is also fuel-efficient, and doesn’t have harmful emissions when it is burned. Why aren’t we using it now? Because breaking down the water molecule is difficult and expensive, and you need a lot of fossil fuels to do so. More, hydrogen is both difficult to store safely and highly flammable. Hmm. Well, this is a Vision. No matter, Mr Albanese can see ahead.
Australia can be the land of cheap and endless energy – energy that could power generations of metal manufacturing and other energy intensive manufacturing industries.
Yes, All these things could happen, but they’re a long way off. And in the meantime, as 11,000 or so scientists said today, the world is facing a climate emergency, even if that is not obvious from the evidence, and there aren’t anything like 11,000 climate scientists in the world. Mr Albanese charges on.
Our resources and capability also offer us the scope to be the capital of mining and processing of the key ingredients of the renewables revolution. Australia is the second largest producer of rare earth elements. We have the greatest reserves in the world of iron and titanium, the second greatest reserves of copper and lithium, and the third greatest deposits of silver. Just as coal and iron ore fuelled the industrial economies of the 20th century, it is these minerals that will fuel the clean energy economies of the 21st. It is expected that the growth in electric vehicles will mean global copper production in the next 25 years will be larger than all the copper mined in world history.
Once again, there is a great jump from the present to the future. There is a slump in lithium prices at the moment, and a rise in price awaits growth in electric vehicle sales and battery production. There are all sorts of optimistic forecasts about a surge in EV sales, but they have been with us for some years now. China has cut subsidies for EVs, and demand there dropped at once. These subsidies have been reduced or abandoned in other countries, too. It is certainly not clear, at least to me, that there will be a rapid increase in EV sales and production in the next decade, though I expect some growth.
And, to make again an argument that I have made in earlier essays, since around 85 per cent of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, the EV does little with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore to the notion that they are a means by which we can forestall ‘climate change’. But Mr Albanese seems to dismiss that issue, and concludes like this.
Simply put, the road to a low-carbon future can be paved with hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs, as well as supporting traditional jobs, including coal mining. Labor wants to lead that clean energy revolution.
EVs are not part of the road to a low-carbon future, and it is idle to suggest they are. Alternative energy sources can’t be programmed to power them. I simply can’t see where the hundreds of thousands of clean-energy jobs are going to come from, unless they are massively subsidised. Altogether, this is an odd speech. What exactly does Mr Albanese think about climate change, anyway? There is no guidance in his address. Somehow hydrogen and rare earths are going to change the way Australia works, but exactly how, and when, is completely unclear. Certainly not in the next three years. It’s a vision, yes, but you couldn’t build viable policy on it.
I guess we need to wait for the next Vision speech. What will it be on?