The federal government will set an energy productivity improvement target of up to 40 per cent, it has announced in its Energy White Paper, with the buildings sector poised to be a key contributor. However, the paper largely ignores climate change and the pressing need to reduce emissions.

The paper says energy productivity improvements can be made through better buildings, more efficient equipment and actions by governments, small-to-medium enterprises and large industry.

It says the federal government will lead a National Energy Productivity Plan to stimulate “action that increases awareness about the benefits of improved energy productivity”.

“A national improvement target of up to 40 per cent by 2030 is achievable, but will require contributions from a broad range of sectors and actions, both regulated and voluntary,” the paper states.

It says determining the energy productivity target should be done concurrently with setting an emissions reduction target, “recognising the important contribution of energy productivity to least cost emissions reduction”.

The paper notes that buildings are a key measure for improving efficiency.

“Improvements in new building quality can be achieved by both higher standards and improved compliance with standards… The Australian Government will continue to work with states and territories to maintain an appropriate level of minimum standards and encourage the strengthening of assessment of compliance with these standards.”

Actions the government will take to improve building efficiency include:

  • working with other G20 countries to develop better approaches to energy efficiency through the G20 Energy Efficiency Action Plan
  • leading further development of the NatHERS tool and investigating use of a NatHERS-based tool for voluntary use at point of sale or lease of existing residential buildings in order to allow the market to find the best way to achieve energy reductions
  • leading work with states and territories to continuously improve the use, scope and accuracy of the NABERS tool for assessing the energy rating of commercial buildings

ClimateWorks Australia chief executive Anna Skarbek welcomed Australia’s commitment to an energy productivity improvement target.

“This announcement is important because it is the first time Australia has had a national energy productivity target,” she said.

“Currently, Australian energy expenditure is close to one-tenth of GDP. It is important to give specific focus to improving the productivity of that expenditure on energy.”

However, she said the potential was much greater than the paper stipulated, as discussed in a recent ClimateWorks report which found there could be a 79 per cent improvement from a 2014 baseline by 2030, almost double the government’s maximum target.

“Australia has made some progress in energy productivity but will continue to lag behind many other countries unless we boost our improvement rate,” Ms Skarbek said.

The Energy Efficiency Council also welcomed the paper’s focus on energy productivity.

“We commend the Abbott Government for putting energy productivity at the heart of the Energy White Paper,” EEC chief executive Rob Murray-Leach said. “Getting more out of each unit of energy is the best way to cut households’ energy bills and boost Australian businesses’ competitiveness.

“However, if the Australian Government is going to unlock the potential of energy productivity, it can’t sit idly by – it needs to take strong action. We look forward to working with the Australian Government as it develops its National Energy Productivity Strategy.”

Climate disregard met with condemnation

Environment and climate groups criticised the white paper for failing to properly take into account the importance of shifting energy generation to greener sources, with the paper instead advocating for a hands-off “technology neutral” approach to the electricity market.

“It’s hard to believe a government of an advanced developed nation in the second decade of the 21st Century can release a vision for an energy future that pays so little attention to climate change,” Australian Conservation Foundation climate change program manager Victoria McKenzie-McHarg said.

“The white paper imagines a future in which most of our energy continues to come from coal and gas, even when we know these sources are polluting and unsustainable.”

Ms McKenzie-McHarg said that instead of preparing Australia for the global shift to renewables, the paper instead advocates cuts to the Renewable Energy Target, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

“The government’s own modelling of the Renewable Energy Target showed under most scenarios maintaining the RET would result in lower prices to consumers,” she said. “In its first year of operation, the CEFC invested $900 million in partnership with the private sector, resulting in total investment of more than $3 billion. ARENA has completed 35 projects and has 200 more projects in the pipeline.

“Rather than plan for a clean future, this paper props up last century’s energy sources.”

The Greens also dismissed the paper, with leader Christine Milne calling it “nothing more than a pamphlet by the wholly-owned subsidiary of the coal industry that is the Abbott government”.

Other areas discussed in the white paper include:

  • support for privatising the rest of Australia’s state-owned electricity assets, which the government says will lead to increased productivity and competition
  • rollout of cost-reflective tariffs to reduce cross-subsidies between consumers, particularly in regards to airconditioners
  • support for increased coal seam gas and unconventional gas resources, given better regulation and community consultation
  • opposition to reserving gas for Australian use in order to protect the country from international gas market prices, as the government sees this as acting as “a tax on the production of LNG”
  • remaining open to a nuclear power industry
  • acknowledging that disruptive technologies like storage and electric vehicles could have major implications for electricity markets

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