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Canberra leads the country on clean energy

Based on recent history, it's anyone's guess who the Australian prime minister will be in four years. But in 2020, whoever is in The Lodge and Parliament House, those buildings will be powered 100 per cent by renewable energy, based on new ACT government policy.

The ACT is well known as a leader on a range of social issues and more recently on climate change. It already has set ambitious climate targets, early support for battery storage and plans for fossil fuel divestment. This week the ACT government announced it will move even faster, replacing coal with clean energy in just four years.

As the national climate debate heads back into yet another scare-campaign death spiral, the ACT government and others are showing that ambition is not just necessary but feasible, economically and politically.

Although national policy uncertainty and reluctant energy companies have led to large-scale renewables investment plummeting in recent years, the ACT is driving wind and large solar through its innovative reverse auction process. In fact, the ACT is behind nearly all of what is being built. The low prices attracted and the strong local support for renewables are impelling the government to go further.

This must be galling to federal ministers and backbenchers who, in this hottest year so far, still dismiss the torrent of ever-worse news telling us we need to shift our energy sources, and quickly. It should be especially concerning to those who stand to gain from digging up more coal.

Mike Henry, president of coal at BHP, complained that coal was losing the public relations battle: "Recent research conducted for the industry indicated that there is a widespread public view that coal use will be phased out over the next 10 to 20 years in favour of renewables".

Of course, Henry is right that realising this "widespread perception" requires changing our policies. But that is precisely what the ACT government is showing is possible.

That is why subnational action can be so powerful. The scarce resource in this energy transition is political will, which must be cultivated and demonstrated wherever it is found.

What is increasingly strange, however, is the widespread support for a faster shift to renewables has so rarely been met with action. By making the most of the opportunity, the ACT government is putting pressure on others to do more.

By increasing ambition even further, the ACT Labor Party is setting the stage for a clean-energy election in the ACT in October. It could have Canberra Liberals caught between the views of their federal colleagues and those of their constituents.

ReachTEL polling for The Australia Institute last year found almost four in five Canberrans support the previous target of 100 per cent by 2025, with a majority expressing strong support.

Three in four said to meet the target it would be worth paying more on their bills, and two in three nominated paying $5 or more a week. That is roughly what the government expects it to cost at the peak, declining in later years, and offset by the savings recovered through energy efficiency programs, not to mention the boost to clean-energy innovation and investment in the territory.

What's more, Canberra's leadership is the envy of voters nationwide. In national polling conducted last year, three in four Australians said they wanted their own state governments to adopt a policy similar to the ACT's.

Under the national carbon price, state governments had agreed to withdraw from cutting emissions, "handing over" responsibility to the federal government. It's now clear that wasn't such a great idea.

State and even local governments have recently adopted their own targets and policies to boost renewables in their jurisdictions, but few have raised the ante as rapidly as the ACT.

While the Canberra-based wing of the fossil fuel industry – their lobbyists and political supporters – try to scare us into thinking the transition to 100 per cent renewables will be a disaster, the ACT government is just getting on with it, and the benefits of doing so, directly and through the impact of its leadership on others, will flow for decades to come.

by Tom Swann - a researcher at The Australia Institute and reigning ACT Environmentalist of the Year

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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