100% renewable energy — how do we get there?

The December release of the federal government's climate policy left little room for doubt. Kevin Rudd — Mr 5% — is no friend of the climate movement.

But being clear on who, and what, we are against is only part of the equation. Discussing and deciding what the movement to avert climate change stands for is equally important.

Green Left Weekly's Simon Butler spoke to two leading members of the Socialist Alliance (SA) to discuss their proposals for a sustainable energy policy based on achieving 100% renewable energy in Australia within 10 years. David White is the SA national environment spokesperson. Dick Nichols is a national convener of SA.

@question = What are the yardsticks that SA uses to determine an acceptable energy policy?

David White: Firstly, it must recognise that the urgency of the climate crisis means we need to reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 300-325 parts per million as quickly as possible.

Secondly, it must guarantee and maintain employment, living standards and retraining for affected workers and communities.

And lastly, it's crucial that the economic burden of developing national sustainable energy infrastructure is shared equitably.

Dick Nichols: It has to be a real policy, able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector by 8-10% a year.

SA supports the Al Gore position of 100% renewables in 10 years. That means that the federal government's Expanded National Renewable Energy Target of 20% by 2020, which is causing much angst in corporate Australia, is completely inadequate.

Also, the energy scheme has to have the support of the vast majority of the community, most importantly working people, and it must be paid for by those who can most afford to carry the burden, the big polluters, big capital and the rich in general.

@question = What role do you see for the trade union movement in the campaign for a sustainable energy plan?

DW: The union movement must be involved at every level in the sustainable energy campaign, for it is working people that are the foundation of the community that will be most affected by adoption of "business as usual" energy and climate policies.

If workers and their representatives come to recognise that our current policies of massive reliance on fossil fuels are leading us all towards financial and environmental disaster, and that there are alternative ways of powering the nation, they'll get involved and support the changes.

DN: The trade union movement urgently needs to develop its own positions. With a few exceptions, it has a very long way to go in working out the policies that would confront the threat of global warming while defending living standards and jobs.

All workers need to be as informed about climate change as they were about John Howard's Work Choices laws.

That way, unions can begin an informed debate, among the whole union membership and not just at the "peak" level, about a policy that both addresses climate change and guards the interests of workers.

It will be working people who are aware of the issues and determined to play a role in avoiding climate catastrophe who will be the motor force of a "just transition" to energy sustainability.

@question = SA calls for the formation of a Sustainable Energy Authority to oversee the phasing out of fossil fuels. Why is this needed?

DW: If the aim is to phase out carbon-intensive energy production as quickly as possible, perhaps in as little as 10 years, it won't be achieved by a market-based mechanism.

When the production and distribution of energy is left to market forces, the primary motivation is to make more profit, regardless of the effects on consumers, industry or the environment.

Only a national authority accountable to parliament can make the necessary hard decisions to make the transition possible.

DN: We only need to compare the best rates of uptake of renewables that have been achieved with market-based solutions (like Germany's "feed-in tariff") to the rate of uptake actually needed to achieve the necessary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Germany is presently producing around 13% of its electricity from renewables, and is set to meet the European 20% renewables target by 2020 as well as its Kyoto target of 21% less greenhouse gas emissions than 1990 levels by 2012.

However, Germany's average cut in emissions of just over 1% a year since 1990 is about a fifth of the minimum needed if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.

To transform the world's energy infrastructure fast enough we have to force the rate of research, development, trial and mass application of renewable technologies in a sort of war effort. That can only be achieved through public intervention, provision and supervision.

@question = In broad outlines, what would this body be responsible for?

DW: It would have to look after the control and coordination of all energy production and the establishment of wholesale and retail energy tariffs, including feed-in tariffs.

Other things this body would need to do are initiating a properly funded crash program of phasing out coal-produced electricity, developing a plan for the decentralisation of sustainable energy production and encouraging research and development of innovative proposals to develop renewable energy.

Most pressing will be for it to oversee a plan for the conversion to sustainability of the most energy-intensive and polluting industries with workers retrained on full pay, and alternative industries established, especially in rural and regional areas.

DN: Firstly, it would establish exactly how bad the situation is by implementing carbon audits throughout industry and oversee the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels and energy wastage.

It would develop a plan for the conversion to sustainability or closing down of the most polluting industries (coal, aluminium, cement etc), with affected workers given the option of retraining on full pay.

It would oversee a crash program of energy efficiency and demand reduction, in particular extending the work already done by the National Framework for Energy Efficiency in the domestic and commercial sectors to industry, with binding targets set for demand reduction and building stock energy efficiency refits.

Central to this entire idea is that the big decisions about sustainable investment are not left to private interests. Instead, the unions, scientists, activists and affected communities should be empowered to direct the environmental priorities.

@question = SA rejects carbon trading schemes and the "cap and trade" model as measures to reduce emissions. Why is this?

DW: Carbon trading schemes do not achieve the objectives that their advocates assert.

These schemes always include exemptions or concessions for polluters, allowing the market to set the carbon price. This means that it is subject to manipulation and evasion, while the process for changing the behaviour and operations of polluters and consumers is too slow and bureaucratic.

The Rudd government's proposed emissions trading scheme gives some polluters and industries free permits to pollute and does not prohibit them from selling or disposing of some permits to developing countries overseas.

It also excludes certain vital industries altogether, such as agriculture. It does not provide any real incentive for sustainable energy producers to take on a greater role in the transition to a sustainable future.

DN: Because they don't work — the evidence is in.

In theory it's possible to reduce carbon emission quotas to a level that makes carbon so expensive that carbon-intensive industry is rapidly forced towards sustainable technologies.

But in practice the big carbon polluters are able to use their clout to win free permits and/or force authorities to relax quotas (as has occurred in Europe).

What's more, the system of "carbon offsets", whereby polluters can offset their emissions by such schemes as buying, planting or renting forests is little more than a scam.