Mission 2020’s Christiana Figueres says a clean energy policy with bipartisan support could have prevented many difficulties. Katherine Griffiths
The former climate chief at the United Nations, Christiana Figueres, has urged the federal government to stop obsessing about the fate of individual power plants and seize the opportunity to recast its power system in line with the urgent requirement to cut carbon emissions.
Figueres, who oversaw the negotiations on the landmark Paris accord in December 2015, said Australia has wasted 10 years in “constant back-and-forth” on climate policy while individual states and cities are pushing ahead on clean energy.
“It’s 10 years that are resulting in a very difficult chaotic situation that everyone is facing with very high levels of anxiety that could have been prevented,” Figueres said while in Sydney as part of her Mission 2020 initiative aimed at “bending the curve” on the world’s trajectory on greenhouse emissions by the end of the decade.
The former Costa Rican diplomat said a clear energy policy with bipartisan support that tackled security of supply, affordability and emissions could have prevented Australia’s current difficulties.
All three of those goals are possible, with no need to choose one over the other, Figueres said.
“This is a systemic issue: it’s not about closing or opening one plant here, or one plant there.”
“It’s a systemic challenge and it’s a systemic opportunity to really understand that the power sector of the future is very different to the power sector of the past.”
Figueres’ comments come at a crucial time in the policy debate in Canberra, where the federal government has been unable to reach a consensus within the Coalition on the centrepiece of recommendations from the Finkel Review, the introduction of a clean energy target.
But she said she is still optimistic that the Finkel work will provide a direction for energy policy that will garner broad support and so have the potential to unleash needed investment in new, lower-emissions energy supply.
“There has been no direction and the result of that is that this policy uncertainty has not attracted the level of investment that Australia deserves and needs,” Figueres said.
“If we had had that investment over the past 10 years we wouldn’t be in a crisis mode now.”
Still she believes things can rapidly turn around.
“Let’s not cry over spilt milk. Let’s see if we can get more policy clarity, more predictability so that you can attract investment which can come very quickly if there is confidence in the system.”
Quizzed on worries about soaring costs for baseload power users, Ms Figueres insists that the problem is meeting demand spikes rather than continuous demand from round-the-clock electricity consumers.
And in that regard, renewables are better placed to meet peak demand, when worked up in a package with gas, demand-response measures, smart metering, energy efficiency and storage.
Critical to remember is that the transition is a gradual one: “No-one is talking about a jump to zero fossil fuels – that is absolutely irresponsible,” she said.
“What is being considered here and should be accelerated is a smooth transition.”
At the same time making a proper start on the changes is urgent to avoid locking in further increase in emissions that contribute to climate change.
“The carbon intensity of the investments we make over the next three years is basically going to fundamentally decide the carbon intensity of the energy matrix over the next 20 or 30 years,” Mr Figueres said.
“So if we are talking about being net zero by 2050, guess what, we have to make those investments now.”
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