Originally published in RenewEconomy on October 27, 2019

by Tom Swann
[Originally published on Renew Economy, 27 October 2019]

Despite promises to cut emissions, Australia’s emissions are still rising. But at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month, prime minister Scott Morrison rejected criticism by claiming that “Australia now has the highest per capita investment in clean energy technologies of anywhere in the world”.

So long lump of coal. How good is Australia at renewable energy!

The PM repeated the claim back home later in Question Time, and like any good salesman, he challenged anyone to check it. So I did.

The PM’s renewable energy claim is false, even on his own sources.

As a researcher I spend a lot of time trying to get my facts straight. Expecting my Government to do the same, I asked the Department of Energy for the source.

The Department cited in 2018 data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), which they said shows Australia was first of 14 countries for clean energy investment per capita in 2018.

First out of a group of 14 is good, sure, but as the PM may be aware there are more than 14 countries in the world. According to the UN there are 181 other countries to consider.

Maybe a bronze medal for Australia …

The BNEF source in fact shows data for not just 14 but 23 countries. Australia was not first on a per capita basis, but third, beaten by both Denmark and Sweden. These Nordic countries have an impressive history of leading the renewables transition.

The data also excluded countries in our region like Tuvalu, with small populations but high renewable investment. The Pacific ‘step up’ only goes so far, apparently.

An earlier ANU study has the same limitation, comparing Australia against only a small group of “other countries”.

The Energy Department also gave a separate 2018 BNEF source, for renewables investment, showing Australia was second among 30 countries on a per capita basis. Silver medallists earn the pride of many Australians, but we don’t say they won the gold.

The Department of Energy confirmed all this in Senate Estimates this week, although were unsure they had ever said Australia was first in the world (they hadn’t). But in an echo of Bill Shorten, said that said if they had said it, then they stood by it.

2018 was indeed an exceptional year for the Australian renewable industry, when investment finally bounced back after the Abbott dark era.

From its election in 2013, the Coalition pushed for a cut in the Renewable Energy Target, resulting in a collapse in renewable investment.

Eventually the government and opposition cut a deal to cut the RET, by a quarter. This returned created a rush to meet the 2020 target, hence the 2018 boom.

Taking this history into account, across the last decade the PM’s preferred data show the Australia slips down to fifth for renewables investment per capita (out of just 20 countries).

To be clear, the Prime Minister’s own sources show he mislead the UN and the Parliament.

But even worse are the government’s active efforts against the industry.

There is no credible climate policy. The government won’t extend the Renewable Energy Target beyond 2020. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is scheduled to close when its legislated funding runs out.

According to the government’s preferred BNEF data, renewable investment in Australia is falling, down by half in the first half of 2019.

A government committed to renewables might provide some policy certainty and address grid constraints. Yet Minister Taylor claims “we have crossed the threshold” of what the grid can “absorb”.

If the Australian Government was honest about Australia’s role on climate change it would admit that despite all the new wind and solar farms, Australia has a smaller share of the world’s world renewables (1%) than it does of world emissions (1.2%).

…. Or maybe a pennant for participation

In terms of total installed renewables per capita, not just 2018 investment, Australia ranks 19th.

Australia has the highest per capita emissions in the OECD, ranking globally at seventh behind a handful of petro-states.

Australia is the world’s third biggest exporter of fossil fuel emissions.

Using false and misleading claims to distract from broken promises and rising emissions– that sounds like “negative globalism” to me.

If Scott Morrison bothers to attend the next round of UN climate negotiations in Santiago in December, he should either stick to the facts, or bring his lump of coal.

Tom Swann is Senior Researcher in the Climate & Energy Program at independent think tank The Australia Institute. @Tom_Swann

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