Josh Frydenberg
Josh Frydenberg. Photo: Julian Meehan

“You cannot be serious!”

As an irate John McEnroe protested in that now-famous 1981 line call at Wimbledon in a heated exchange with umpire Edward James.

And with just as much passion and utter bewilderment, it about sums up the PM’s call to implement a Grand Gas Plan that will save us from two sets to love down in the final of a five-setter while on the comeback trail.

“Surely you cannot be serious PM!”

A “Frydenberg slip”

But there were hints of such a plan back in July when our Treasurer Josh Frydenberg uttered an off-the-cuff comment. A “Frydenberg slip” so to speak –  that he drew inspiration from Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Supply-side economics and a neoliberal political ideology to repair the Australian economy post-COVID. 

I mean, it looked like a mis-hit but could have just as well been a well-placed drop shot. 

But that Frydenberg slip — note the mischievous smile immediately after he dropped it — was not inconsequential because it surreptitiously signalled our federal government’s intent going forward. Its environmental, economic, and social strategy. A Machiavellian ploy with a neoliberal twist might better describe it. 

We can thus expect, under the guise of a COVID recovery, a further loosening of environmental, financial, and industrial relations rules of the game.

And mindful that after a surfeit of inquiries and royal commissions into corruption and morally questionable behaviour, we know that the rules of the game are already ridiculously rubbery.

A grand success or a dismal failure? 

Throughout the 1980s Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher stood at the pinnacle of neoliberal economics. 

But depending on who you read, Reaganomics and Thatcherism were either a grand success or a dismal failure. The state of both the US and the UK today would suggest the latter.

If you need a refresher, Jamie Peck’s brilliant bookConstruction of Neoliberal Reason, is a masterful, and positively poetic rendition of the neo-miserabilism of neoliberalism:

“Once neoliberals themselves had their hands on the levers of power, so they were to find — repeatedly — that markets would fail, that bubbles would burst, that deregulation would descend into overreach, that privatisation would make monopolies. They were thus drawn into the murky worlds of market-oriented ‘governance,’ the purgatory in which they have been destined to dwell ever since.”

Peck goes on: “Neoliberalisation is not the antithesis of regulation but a self-contradictory of regulation-in-denial … a contradictory mode of governance.” 

Think of Iceland and the collapse of its financial sector, currency, and economy in 2008. Pre the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) it was the poster child for deregulation — neoliberals around the world cited it as vindication for a free-market economy — post the GFC it was the poster child for the perils of financial liberalisation. 

Then came the PM’s Grand Gas Plan 

The PM’s Grand Gas Plan revealed Tuesday 15 Sept 2020, the one that’s got everyone “flabber-gas-ted”, was hatched from the report: NCCC Manufacturing Taskforce: A Modern Industrial Policy, that was leaked last May and drafted by a group with links to the fossil-fuel industry.

It was a backhander to all those heavily invested in saving the planet, and a winner for all those invested in sucking the life out of it.

And although gas-fired electricity generates about 50 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than coal-fired electricity — excluding leakage from extracting, burning, storing, and via the supply chain — greenhouse gas emissions are cumulative.

Yes, they will continue to build irrespective of a 50 per cent reduction; or even a 70 or 80 per cent reduction. Think of it like compound interest; you might decrease the contributions, but the cumulative impact of the balance keeps building on what’s already there — the original deposit, “the legacy load”. 

Another point to note is that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a “climate killer”. Its atmospheric lifetime might be relatively short compared to CO2, but it’s more than 80 times more efficient at trapping heat. And as a fuel for vehicles, it emits only 15-20 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

That is, to create “sustainable new industry” with gas as the “primary fuel”, as the report implies, will require some significant carbon capture technology and infrastructure, and a whole new regime to monitor and prevent fugitive methane emissions.

So, that’s it in a nutshell. The PM’s Grand Gas Plan is more likely to leave us up “Schitt’s Creek” with a bunch of stranded assets. 

The Grand Slam: the Technology Investment Roadmap

Anyway, spring is in the air and “it’s time to get out from under the doona”, as our PM would say.

Last Tuesday at the National Press Club, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, delivered the First Low Emissions Technology Statement

Urged on by his prime minister, he let loose with a volley of technologies that will not only make Australia the envy of the world’s cheap energy producers but cut carbon emissions in a canter. 

This was the PM’s Grand Slam. The crux of which identified a handful of low-emissions technologies that would set us on the road to recovery. 

The five technologies highlighted were clean hydrogen; energy storage; low-carbon steel and aluminium; carbon capture and storage; and soil carbon.

Clean hydrogen from solar and wind, and battery storage for renewables, are absolute winners. Low carbon steel and aluminium will take some significant realigning of industry with renewables and the requisite infrastructure rebuilding to make them green. 

To a limited extent, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is also a potential winner if done correctly. Mindful that the sequestered carbon must be permanently stored for thousands of years without seepage and it must be measurable. And any mitigation strategies must not inadvertently increase emissions elsewhere — accountability is key. 

Which makes the economics of CCS, relative to going directly to 100 per cent renewables, questionable.

Finally, soil-based carbon capture is a potential gamechanger. But to do this, desertification needs to be reversed through regenerative agriculture on a global scale, which we need to do anyway. See Nicole Masters’ excellent book For the Love of Soil.

All that said, even if we were to treat the PM’s not-so-cheap and dirty Grand Gas Plan as an ill-fated overture, the Liberal-National Coalition’s climate change and clean energy credentials have been running on empty for several decades. Trust in government is now the scarcest of commodities.

We’re in the tiebreaker of our lives

At 1 °C above pre-industrial levels we’re in the tiebreaker of a Grand Slam Final. At 1.5 °C it’s game, set, and match. At 2 °C it’s a career-ending exit from the world stage. 

We must then stop the on-court antics and focus with absolute lucidity on the game in progress — because “it’s game on”! 

For the record, in one of the greatest tennis rivalries of all time, Connors and McEnroe played each other 34 times between 1977 and 1991. McEnroe came out on top winning 20 of those encounters, although Connors was probably past his peak for the last dozen or so. 

It was a glorious rivalry between two enigmatic masters of the game. I stopped watching tennis when McEnroe retired. 

I would also stop watching politics but, it’s so asinine and altogether tragic to see ideologues with so many ideological hang-ups still hiding under the doona from the climate change monster that awaits them.

Anyway, we’re in the tiebreaker of our lives and the ball is firmly in the PM’s court — or is it?

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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  1. ‘Low carbon steel’ is steel with a carbon content between 0.05 and 0.19%. I think the expression should be ‘Low CO2 steel’.