Heather Zichal says that Australia chairing the G20 this year will put its climate policies under international scrutiny.

3 April 2014 — Heather Zichal, former lead US White House advisor on energy and climate change, has called out the government’s climate inaction and labelled its decision to sit out on international climate negotiations a “mistake”.

The comments were made at the Australian Alliance to Save Energy’s 2XEP Forum on Doubling Energy Productivity, which got underway today in Sydney [Thursday].

The opening plenary laid bare the US and Australia’s marked difference in government support of policies to increase energy productivity and tackle climate change.

The panel was chaired by Jonathan Jutsen, chairman of the A2SE, with speakers Kateri Callahan, president of the US Alliance to Save Energy; Maya Stuart-Fox, assistant secretary of the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund Taskforce; Heather Zichal; Anthony Roberts NSW minister for resources and energy; and Adjunct Professor Robert Hill from the US Studies Centre.

It must have been a tough gig for Ms Stuart-Fox, sitting in for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who was called away to Perth at the last minute. She started her speech on the ERF by telling the tolerant audience how much Mr Hunt would have wanted to be there. One commentator said she wished the minister could have been there, just so he could see the leadership and passion shown by the US contingent.

Sandwiched between Kateri Callahan, who spearheaded the campaign to double energy productivity in the US by 2030, and Heather Zichal, who had a large part in the plan being adopted by the Obama Administration, Ms Stuart-Fox’s presentation revealed a government with minimal leadership on energy and climate policy.

Ms Stuart-Fox said the government had a strong focus on productivity: “whether it’s tackling costly red tape, putting the budget on a stable footing or shining a light on unlawful industrial relations practices”.

Yes, but what about energy productivity, which a commentator noted was mostly left off government rhetoric around productivity?

The ERF was one of the key ways the government planned to increase energy productivity, Ms Stuart-Fox said. Technical working groups were currently working across sectors to find the best means of reduction, and energy efficiency was a key opportunity.

Further details were to be provided in the soon-to-be-released white paper, she said.

Interestingly, Ms Stuart-Fox ended her speech defending the selection of the Renewable Energy Target review board – headed by anthropogenic climate change sceptic Dick Warburton.

Heather Zichal’s speech contextualised Australia’s climate inaction in the global arena.

“In Australia, as in the United States, the issue of climate change has unfortunately been politicised. And as you well know, there are many in Australia trying their hardest to repeal the national carbon tax. And that’s an issue that’s become more prominent with Australia’s chairmanship of the G20 this year,” Ms Zichal said.

“But ignoring one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced is simply not an option. Sitting out on international climate negotiations is not in Australia’s – or any nation’s for that matter – interest. It would be a huge mistake.”

The comments follow Australia being the recipient of the “fossil award” at Warsaw climate talks last year after failing to send a minister, and for attempting to repeal the carbon price.

Ms Zichal said that “sometimes politics just aren’t rational”, but if traditional climate policies were not feasible, the government needed to articulate a credible path forward to reduce greenhouse pollution.

“Prime Minister Abbott has said the focus of the G20 should be on economic growth,” she said. “Energy productivity could well be the economic sweet spot here between economic growth and environmental protection.

“After all energy productivity is by definition getting more GDP out of each unit of energy.”

Doubling energy productivity by 2030 for the US meant 1.3 million more jobs, a boost to GDP of two per cent and a 33 per cent reduction in CO2 levels from 2005 levels.

“Now is the time for Australia to adopt a goal of doubling energy productivity,” she said.

Vehicle emissions standards an important efficiency source

Ms Zichal noted that fuel economy and vehicle emissions standards were one of the first things the administration had achieved – it happened so early into the first term that they got lost in the West Wing on the way to announce it, she said.

The new standards meant 12 billion barrels of oil, six billion tonnes of CO2 and $1.7 trillion saved at the pump by 2025.

Robert Hill had an interesting, yet sobering point to make on this.

He noted that when he first introduced the Renewable Energy Target under the Howard government – at 1.5 per cent of total electricity produced, far from today’s 20 per cent – he was told it would destroy the economy.

However, on vehicle emissions standards, he said, he “lost the battle”.

“When I was responsible for that, it was said we should be more demanding on emissions standards, but not quite as demanding as the Europeans, who’ve had the highest level, or the Americans, otherwise we’d destroy the Australian car industry.

“So I sometimes wonder if we had been more demanding, whether we would have ended up with a more competitive car industry. But we’ll never know the answer to that.”