– 4 February 2010 –  Discussions on carbon price stole the day at the  9-22 January G’Day USA event –  the annual celebration of Australian capability in the United States. Following are some observations from Darren Bilsborough who attened at the invitation of the South Australian Government.

For the past seven years G’Day USA has successfully deepened the bonds between Australia and the USA, to the point where it is claimed that G’Day USA is now one of the most effective, far-reaching and comprehensive national promotions anywhere in the world. While it is the arts and entertainment industry that dominates the spotlight (who could forget that this is where Nicole Kidman met Keith Urban?), G’Day USA also showcases Australia as an innovative, high-growth, and sophisticated economy.

The US-Australia Energy Dialogue was an opportunity to share common problems and debate possible solutions, leading-edge research and technology in traditional and new energy fields. Five panels framed the discussions:
post-Copenhagen energy outlook:

  • Technical, regulatory and market challenges for traditional energy;
  • Technical, regulatory and market challenges for new energy;
  • Impact and opportunities for green building and green development;
  • Energy innovations in the wider economy.

The panels had roughly equal representation from Australia and the USA, and included academics, government and industry leaders. Each panel sessions provided a comprehensive summary of the major issues confronting both countries’ economies and regulatory systems. In the first panel, Australian Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism Deputy Secretary Drew Clarke shared his view of a post-Copenhagen environment. He noted three main issues for Australia arising from the Copenhagen Accord:

  • A domestic target, which is required by the accord
  • An instrument for achieving the targets (a carbon pollution reduction scheme  or carbon taxes;
  • A technology program in support of the above – to which he pointed to the Australian Government’s investment in carbon capture and storage demonstration projects and solar energy

The Copenhagen Accord is due for commitments by Annex I and Annex II countries by the end of January 2010. Perry Wong, a senior managing economist at the Californian think tank, the Milken Institute, pointed to the very different priorities facing developing countries versus developed countries as the major obstacle in gaining widespread consensus between Annex I and Annex II nations.

Perhaps the most enlightened comment made during the “traditional” energy session was regarding a carbon price or, more accurately, the lack of a domestic (for both the USA and Australia) carbon price. The panel observed that for all of our deliberations regarding the level of incentive required to commercialise potential solutions such as carbon capture and storage, the most important thing was to just get on with it. The existence of a carbon price far outweighs the cost itself. If a carbon price had been introduced 10 years ago, imagine the transformations we might have already seen in the marketplace?

The newenergy panel described the many opportunities that exist for solar energy, biofuels, wind, and storage technologies. The panel acknowledged that many of the current programs and projects that were proceeding did so with significant regulatory or legislative incentives, which are necessary to cover their lack of financial competitiveness when compared with traditional fossil-fuel resources.

I spoke as part of the green building and green development panel. Our discussion focused on the role of good governance, vision, planning and the integration of policy and design across all disciplines and agencies to achieve desired social, environmental and financial outcomes. An energy dialogue often centres on carbon as communities and policy-makers seek to simplify what is a complex debate. However, there were many other consequential and parallel conversations that need to be had around things such as energy security, climate change adaptation, and the need for holistic, integrated solutions.

The final session explored opportunities for innovative technologies in providing solutions for lowering emissions and increasing energy efficiency. The panel spoke about technologies for smart grids, electric cars (energy storage), distribution and cleaner energy production, and energy and demand efficiencies. The key point from this discussion was that it is policy that is lagging behind; the required technology exists.

After listening to the many discussions among a wide range of experts, two things became abundantly clear. First, there is a need for accountability and responsibility. Too often the debate meanders back and forth between the accountabilities of private and public sectors, but who is ultimately responsible for determining the community’s vision and the planning to achieve this vision? Surely this is the role of government, as representatives of the people? Second, there must be action. The corporate mantra of Nike – “just do it” – could well have been the catchphrase for the US-Australia Energy Dialogue. What are we waiting for?

Darren Bilsborough is director of sustainability for Parsons Brinckerhoff.