Turnbull declares war on the future

Malcolm Turnbull has just declared war on the future. For a man who came to power with a vision for innovation, his public call for new coal power stations in Australia combines brazen hypocrisy with economic stupidity, built on a foundation of reckless irresponsibility. If there was any doubt that he stands for nothing but power for its own sake, let it be dispelled once and for all.

Having made the choice to back expensive, polluting 1900’s technology over 21st century clean technology that is getting rapidly cheaper, the captain of innovation then had the gall to claim that Labor’s support for renewables is ‘ideological’. Turnbull then seamlessly appoints a senior staffer from the Minerals Council to be his new climate and energy adviser. There is no room left for parody. Nor doubt about intent.

When Australia’s major energy companies responded to Turnbull’s call for new coal power stations with the obvious critique of how expensive new coal is, the Government’s response was to open the door to public subsidies through the Northern Australian Infrastructure Fund. As if a $1 billion loan for the Adani rail line to transport coal from the proposed Carmichael coal mine wasn’t enough, now they’re talking about a concessional loan for Adani’s power station too.

The fact that renewable energy is substantially cheaper than new coal is irrelevant if your primary purpose is the protection of the vested interests of the coal lobby. But it isn’t about actually building a coal plant, or jobs, or keeping energy costs down. The idea of new coal power stations is a framing device in a political culture war. The fact that it is also a war against our children is a minor inconvenience for people obsessed with power for its own sake.

If you actually care about energy prices or job creation, you don’t destroy confidence in the renewable energy industry and you don’t imperil the Great Barrier Reef. If you care about community health and if you actually care about our future, you don’t block action on climate change. Global warming isn’t an abstract issue. We have had the hottest year on record for three years in a row. The reef is bleaching. Heatwaves and more extreme weather are killing people – today. Who knows the chaos it will wreak on our children’s lives in future.

Turnbull knows this. The fact that he is willing to stand alongside Abbott and Trump as a blocker of climate action marks him as the worst kind of coward. The great innovator will be remembered for pushing public subsidies for the Adani coal mine and new coal power stations in an era when the world’s scientists are virtually screaming about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Done all while other countries embrace a clean energy revolution that is driving down the costs of renewable energy faster than most people thought possible.

As Turnbull bluntly put it, the battle lines have been drawn. The intention of this Government is to block climate action and to push new coal for ideological and political reasons. There is nothing left but to fight. To fight Turnbull’s destructive agenda, the right wing extremists that he is beholden to, and the vested interests in the export coal industry that Turnbull so clearly identified as the real driver of Australian energy policy.

The next federal election is going to be a referendum on climate change and the future of the coal industry. Turnbull has defined it as such and it is exactly what we need it to be. He is gambling that fake news and scare campaigns will get them through. People of conscience need to rise to the challenge.

These aren’t normal times. More than ever we need to work together. To build a movement that combines the audacity and the magic of the Franklin blockade with the persistence of the civil rights movement. To vote out politicians that are blocking action on climate change. To boycott companies that are blocking action on climate or that fund industry groups lobbying against climate action. To pressure feeble politicians who are sitting on the fence. To build alliances. To organise our unions to speak up against new coal and for climate action. To speak up in our workplaces, at school, in our neighbourhoods and families.

The future is determined by the people who show up and who join together to take action when the moment requires it. We are fortunate to have many luxuries in this country – but we don’t have the luxury of time to take action on climate change.

John Hepburn
Founder and Director of The Sunrise Project

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MEDIA STATEMENT – 22 October 2016

Revelations via WikiLeaks in The Australian newspaper today that a major US philanthropist has been emailing the senior advisor to the likely next US President, about the expansion of coal mining in Australia, highlights a major diplomatic risk for the Turnbull government: that a Clinton Administration will hold a mirror to Australia’s climate inaction and pursuit of new coal reserves, says Executive Director of The Sunrise Project, Mr John Hepburn.

Find here an email written by John Hepburn, forwarded to John Podesta, Chairman of the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign, former Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton and Counselor to President Obama which is now on the Wikileaks site.

“It is no surprise that the ongoing expansion of coal mining in Australia is on the radar of Clinton’s most senior advisor. While the world is ratifying the Paris Climate agreement in record time, Australia is becoming a global embarrassment for being the first developed country to go backwards on climate policy and fast-tracking the approval of new coal mines,” said Mr Hepburn.

“With the UN Climate Conference in Marrakesh only weeks away, this leak adds to the wider pattern of international concern over Australia’s failure to meet our international obligations and dogged commitment to give special treatment to the coal industry while the rest of the world rapidly shifts to clean energy.

“In January, the Obama Administration implemented a moratorium on new coal mines on public land in the US. The UK has closed its last coal mine and China will close more than 1,000 coal mines in 2016, yet our government is still in the thrall of mining companies like Adani at a time when scientists are confirming that barely any carbon budget remains.

“Of course we and other environmental groups are fighting tooth and nail to stop the Adani project. It should not be allowed to proceed. It is a highly polluting project by a shonky company with an appalling track record of environmental abuse. If built, the Adani Carmichael mine will be a carbon bomb that is completely incompatible with the Paris Climate agreement and will put further pressure on the Great Barrier Reef.

“It is not surprising that the mining lobby has seized on the leaked email to once more attack conservationists. The mining industry has a habit of using its wealth and access to get what it wants. That is why it is so anxious about national and international financial support for environmental groups who are highlighting the damage an expansion of coal mining will cause.

“The mining industry has too much influence over our politicians. It is time that Australia’s approach to climate change was determined by the science and by the community rather than by the lobbying power of foreign owned mining companies like Adani.

“With the urgent need to cut greenhouse pollution, it is reckless for Australian governments to be expanding fossil fuels. We need a moratorium on new coal mines and to embrace the opportunities clean energy will bring,” Mr Hepburn said.

 

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We believe in the power of people because, throughout history, people have come together to ‘turn the resources they have into the power they need to solve the challenges they face’.

We are inspired by social movements who have taken a stand against injustice and worked to change the world: First Nations’ communities resisting colonisation; women organising for the right to vote; African Americans fighting to enshrine civil rights; Indian independence activists marching to end British occupation; Latin Americans overthrowing dictators.

Now we take our lead from Pacific Islanders who are fighting for a global response to climate change; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities standing up to protect their country and culture; farmers keeping land and water safe from polluting energy, and young people organising the next generation of activists to secure a safe climate future.

Driven by the imperative of climate change, our mission is to build and support a powerful social movement to drive the transition from polluting energy to 100% renewable power because we believe:

  1. Strong social movements, as part of a healthy democracy, are vital for the creation of a sustainable and just society.
  2. Social movements change the world rather than individuals or organisations acting in isolation.
  3. People working together to turn the resources we have into the power we need will solve the collective challenges we face.
  4. Our work must be grounded in the wisdom and experience of the communities that are directly impacted by the destruction we seek to stop.
  5. Many and diverse actors working in different ways towards shared goals combine to build powerful stories, mobilise people, shift the political context, and achieve real world outcomes.
  6. By aligning strategy across our movements and resourcing researchers, analysts, campaigners, organisers, lawyers and communities we can achieve our shared goals.
  7. Our partners and allies are our true strength and our collaborations need to leave us all more powerful.
  8. In the power of information and rigorous analysis, but we reject the notion that education and information alone can create the change we seek. Instead, we focus on building the necessary power to win.
  9. Social change is not a simple, linear cause and effect process so we need to be dynamic and flexible to respond to a rapidly changing world.
  10. The dynamic and chaotic nature of the times we live in provide social movements with opportunities to transform the status quo.
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The device that you are using to read this blog has more computing power than NASA had when they put a man on the moon. Since that time, there has been an exponential growth in the power and an exponential reduction in the size and cost of computing. Solar power, battery storage and electric vehicles are on a similar curve. Throw driverless vehicles into the mix and you have a clash of four inherently disruptive technologies that will transform the energy sector much faster than most people think is possible.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the cost of energy has been driven by the cost of fuel. But an historic shift has taken place. Energy is no longer derived from fuel. It is derived from technology. Over time, fuel costs will tend to go up as lower cost reserves are exploited first. Over time, technology costs come down due to innovation and the learning curve.

As Tony Seba explains so clearly in his book “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation”, the solar industry has doubled in size every two years for the past twenty years, coupled with a relentless march down the cost curve. This is an exponential growth rate which, if it continues, could see 100% of the world’s energy needs met by solar in just 14 years’ time. Of course, it isn’t just going to happen like that, but it indicates the trajectory of the technological revolution that has been unleashed in the energy sector.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the levelised cost of onshore wind has fallen 50% since 2009. Solar PV module costs have fallen a staggering 80% since 2008. In May 2016 a new record was set for unsubsidised solar with a project in Dubai setting the cost at 2.99 cents per kWh.

But the energy disruption isn’t just about the cost of energy generation. It is also about quality of service, about business models, finance and the de-coupling of energy and mobility services from fossil fuel use. Uber has disrupted the taxi industry. They’re now betting big on electric autonomous vehicles – as are google and apple. Indeed, Apple is spending more on research and development into driverless electric vehicles than they spent on the apple watch, ipad and iphone combined. Staggeringly, Apple’s R&D spending on cars outstrips that of the average big auto maker by 20:1.

Kodak didn’t see digital cameras coming (despite inventing them) just like Peabody seemed to think that the coal industry would keep growing for ever. Both companies have joined a long list of bankrupt companies that failed to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Tony Seba makes the point that it is the incumbent industry experts that are often the last to see the disruptive change coming.

It is clear that we’re entering an era of profound energy disruption. But we’re in a race against time to cut greenhouse pollution before we trigger climatic disruption of an even more profound nature.

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When we think of climate change, many of us still think of something that is in the distant future. Something that our children or grandchildren will be impacted by. It remains a vague, ill defined threat – never solid enough to fully comprehend, let alone respond to. Unless of course you live in New Orleans. Or the Philippines. Or in any one of the increasing number of places that are being impacted by unprecedented climatic events.

The unfortunate reality is that we are now living through the early impacts of climate change. 2015 was the hottest year on record and so far in 2016 we have seen temperature records smashed. This past April was the hottest April on record globally – and the seventh month in a row to have broken global temperature records.

April was also the third month in a row where the monthly temperature record was broken by the largest margin ever. The graph below illustrates temperature deviation from the average for each month from 1850 – 2016. This recent run of temperature extremes is shown at the end of the graph as the line shoots towards 1.5 degrees.

The changes that are happening in the physical world are outside of the bounds of what many scientists thought possible. We’re outside of the range of the climate models. The long held political goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees is looking more difficult than ever while the reality of global warming impacts at just 1 degree (where we are now) is starting to sink in.

This past summer, the worst coral bleaching incident ever recorded resulted in 93% of the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef suffering bleaching. Recent analysis indicates that up to 35% of the northern reef has died (and this was the healthy part). The primary cause of this bleaching is the warmer than average ocean temperatures, coupled with the rise in ocean acidification as oceans absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere.

Climate change is with us and we need to adjust to this new reality. The challenge to cut greenhouse pollution has never been more urgent, while we need to begin adapting to the impacts already underway.

When Al Gore released his film “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006, it triggered a widespread increase in global awareness of the problem of climate change and the need to act. At the time, the fledgling renewable energy industry wasn’t ready to scale at speed. Now it is. This time, it isn’t a film putting climate change on the public and political agenda. It is the reality of a changing climate.

Just like the climate system, economic and political systems are non-linear. It is what makes the future so hard to predict. And just as the climate system is starting to change faster than scientists had predicted, the transformation to a low carbon economy is likely to happen a whole lot faster too. Welcome to the age of disruption.

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The Sunrise Project is excited to be releasing our Annual Review for 2015, at a time of remarkable, rapid change.

When we look back on the history of human civilisation, the moments and events that are most important are those in which the course of the future were determined. The emergence of revolutionary new ideas that transformed how people live, conflicts that shaped the formation of nation states, ideas that fundamentally altered our societies – these moments matter because the world we inhabit today can be traced back to them.

Future generations will look back at this period of time through the lens of global warming – as the moment when their world was defined.

The response to global warming has slowed to a snail’s pace for decades, thanks to vested interests in the fossil fuel sector. But in 2014 it seemed momentum finally began to shift, and 2015 was the year we started to make real progress. Only a year ago, most people thought that the coal industry was in another one of its cyclical downturns. By the end of 2015, it was clear that it was structural. Not before time, we are now beginning the phase-out of the use of coal as a source of energy.

Solar use around the world has been growing exponentially, projecting us towards a clean energy future. At the same time, thousands of communities are fighting to protect their homes, their land and their communities from an industry that has been allowed to grow out of control.

We have had the privilege to work with many of these communities and are continually inspired by their resilience and optimism.

While there are simply too many moments in our work to capture, hopefully the 2015 Annual Report Review gives at least a glimpse into the highlights of another remarkable year for The Sunrise Project.

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8-11 April Myuna Bay, New South Wales

Beyond Coal and Gas is the national gathering of communities working to move beyond coal and gas. Bringing together people from one end of Australia to the other, it is a rare and important opportunity for communities to meet, share experiences and to learn from one another. Registration is now open!

The program for the 2016 gathering will be an exciting line up of National and International speakers, workshops and plenaries. The major theme for the conference this year is The Transition is Now and will feature case studies on the transition away from coal and gas to a new energy economy based on renewables. The program will also cover major themes of the movement beyond coal and gas, including health, finance and economics, coal closure and rehabilitation and plenty of practical workshops on skills development. As with previous years, a large portion of the program will be open spaces to allow participants to define the workshops they want to see at the conference. All the information you need, including the impressive line up of speakers, is available on the conference website.

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We’re proud to be releasing our 2014 Annual Review with an overview of the highlights from a truly remarkable year.

We’ll look back on 2014 as the year of transition, where momentum shifted from the old fossil fuel economy towards a cleaner, more positive future. It was the year in which Chinese coal demand started to decline for the first time in living memory; the year in which global emissions de-coupled from economic growth; and it was a year in which one in five Australian households were powered by the sun and the fastest and sexiest cars on the road ran on 100 per cent renewable electricity.

Global energy markets are in a state of incredible flux, changing faster than anyone thought possible. Many of the world’s political leaders are aligning behind this transition, as market and technological forces set a clean energy and climate agenda that politicians have been fumbling for decades.

For its part, the Australian Government is trying to buck what is now an unstoppable global trend. While the market and community move decisively in one direction, Australian policy makers are still clinging to past ways. As perhaps the most extreme example, Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plea that “coal is good for humanity” is at least fifty years out of date and reflects a view that is out of touch with both the community and with market realities. But political leaders can only swim against the tide of history for so long…

We are witnessing the transition that lies at the heart of The Sunrise Project’s mission. Our challenge is to make sure that local communities and the natural environment do not lose out as part of this process. It simply doesn’t make sense to be sacrificing our best farmland, our drinking water catchments or our special natural places for coal mining and gas expansion.

For many local communities facing the brunt of the coal and gas boom, there is a growing sense of relief that many projects have been put on the back burner. However, in the absence of regulatory protection the uncertainty and anxiety remains. It has also been a tough year for mining communities that have seen extensive job losses. The failure of successive State and Federal Governments to manage the boom and to plan for the inevitable economic transition will only make it more difficult.

The Sunrise Project is proud to work alongside countless grassroots community groups here in Australia and around the world in their fight to protect the environment and the global climate. Our 2014 Annual Review captures some of the highlights of our work and some of the wonderful stories of environmental protection from this remarkable social movement of which we are a part.

John Hepburn

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A recent report from The Australia Institute has found that the mining industry has spent almost half a billion dollars on its major lobby groups over the last ten years. This is in addition to the countless millions spent on third-party lobbyists and in-house PR. Combined, this represents a massive investment by the mining industry in shaping the political and regulatory environment in which they operate.

Of a total of $484 million spent on lobby groups between 2004 and 2014, The Minerals Council of Australia was by far the largest recipient of funds with over $200 million in revenue. The remainder was spread between APPEA ($84 million), the Queensland Resources Council ($63 million), NSW Minerals Council ($58 million) and the now defunct Australian Coal Association ($36 million).

It is a lot of money so the obvious question is: What does the mining industry receive as a result of this investment?

The most spectacular “return on investment” for mining industry lobbying was the advertising campaign against the Minerals Resource Rent Tax.  An investment of roughly $20 million resulted in the scrapping of the tax and an estimated reduction of tax revenue of $5.3 billion over the forward estimates. Not a bad result.

More recently, lobbying by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton has prevented an inquiry into the $75 billion per year iron ore industry while ongoing industry lobbying maintains a complex web of subsidies such as the diesel fuel rebate – costing Australian taxpayers over $4.5 billion per year.

It is against this backdrop that the mining industry has been complaining about funding for community environmental organisations which are working tirelessly and valiantly to protect the environment – with only a small fraction of the resources.

Foreign owned mining companies use their massive financial power to change the law to suit their own commercial interests, and then cry foul when largely volunteer run environmental groups raise funds to try to ensure that mining companies comply with existing laws.

The current lobbying blitz by the mining industry to try to remove the charitable status of environmental groups is yet another example of the arrogance of an industry that has been writing its own rules for far too long. If we had strong environmental laws and Governments with the willingness and capacity to enforce them, Australia wouldn’t need a strong environment movement. We don’t. So we do.

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Time to plan for the future

In 2007 the Centre for Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle published a report into “A Just Transition to a renewable energy economy” as a contribution to the debate about how to manage the inevitable transition to a low carbon economy. The report aimed to stimulate a conversation about how to use policy to manage the future transition in a proactive way.

Eight years later, it is clear that Local, State and Federal Governments have failed to plan for a disruptive transition that is now taking place – regardless of government policy. Rapid technological improvements, combined with economies of scale and innovations in finance, are driving a renewable energy revolution faster than most people thought possible. At the same time, the global imperative to reduce greenhouse pollution coupled with acute pollution problems in China and other countries is driving regulation that is reinforcing the market shift that is already well and truly under way.

The tide of history has turned and the transition is upon us. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, coal-mining jobs in Australia are down 17,000 since 2012, representing roughly ¼ of all employees. The closure of Alinta’s coal power station in Port Augusta, following hot on the heels of the closure of the Angelsea power station in Victoria, are but the beginning of an economic disruption that has a long way to run.

In 2011, Peabody was the largest privately owned coal company in the world with a market capitalisation of US$18bn. Today, their share price is down 95% and their market capitalisation has shrunk to US$730m. With over US$5bn of debt and massive unfunded pension and rehabilitation liabilities, this raises serious concerns about their viability. They are facing legal action by employees who claim that Peabody failed to exercise their fiduciary duties by investing employee pensions in Peabody shares – shredding the value of retirement savings. It is a dramatic fall from grace that is symbolic of the fortunes of an industry that was once a shining light of innovation and future prosperity.

In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy having dominated the global photography industry for over 30 years. Peabody, and indeed the wider coal industry, is facing its ‘Kodak moment’. Policymakers have a rapidly closing window of opportunity to plan for the transition to ensure that coal dependent communities are supported and environmental remediation responsibilities are met. The problem isn’t going to go away and the longer we wait, the harder it will be to manage.

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