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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Snowy Mountain Scheme for the 21st Century

The time has come for an aspirational new nation-building project to spur a prosperous, clean energy economy in Australia

By Leigh Ewbank. Originally published by On Line Opinion - Australia's e-Journal of social and political debate.

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the momentous Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Power Act - the first step in a 25-year journey to modernise our nation. Unrivaled in its ambition, the Snowy Mountains Scheme would meet the dual objectives of providing reliable electricity for our cities and towns, and water supplies to sustain food production along the Murray River.

Australia's largest-ever engineering project would spur social and economic development and benefit the cities and rural communities of Australia's southeast for generations. Without fanfare or media attention, Australia forgot to acknowledge a significant moment in our nation's history.

Today Australia faces new challenges: our climate is changing. And we must quickly transition to a clean energy economy to avoid the worst-case scenarios predicted by climate scientists. Alongside this comes the continued global economic change that is putting increased pressure on established industries. Our parliament must act to encourage the expansion of new industries and secure jobs for the future.

A new nation-building project on the scale of the Snowy Mountains Scheme is needed.

The backbone of a scheme for the 21st century will rewire the nation, laying the foundations for a clean energy revolution. Australia needs new transmission lines to connect population centres to our abundant renewable energy resources. Currently, our windy southern coast; our vast deserts; and our rich geothermal resources, are untapped. A renewable electricity grid can open up new regions to development, unleash private investment in renewable energy production, and allow for these new energy markets to flourish. It's needless to say that this comes with new jobs, prosperity, and the important benefit of mitigating climate change.

Importantly, such a scheme will overcome the deficiencies of the Rudd Government's so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Emissions trading will not build new electricity grids, particularly to remote places rich with renewable resources. High capital costs and the lack of short-term profitability of building this type of infrastructure is beyond the capacity of the private sector. Furthermore, building new grid infrastructure does not directly reduce emissions and will therefore not benefit from emissions offset markets. Our government must step in to provide the public investment and long-term vision required to carry out such a scheme.

While carbon reductions targets and "market-based" policies might captivate bureaucrats and policy wonks, they have failed to win the hearts and minds of Australian citizens. These policy tools say nothing about Australia's collective aspirations and abilities, and miss the opportunity to generate the public support necessary to build a clean energy economy. Because emissions trading are not directly linked to specific projects it is unable to capture the public's imagination the way that monumental, government-backed projects have in the past. The best examples of which include the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Snowy Mountains Scheme.

I'm not the first Australian to call for a massive nation-building project. In 2006, Professor Tim Flannery attempted to capture public imagination by evoking the spirit of the Snowy Scheme. He proposed the construction of a sustainable city in the heart of Australia called "Geothermia". The city would harness geothermal and solar energy to process mineral resources. New rail lines would connect key mines to the mineral-processing hub, and then to the port of Darwin for export. This was a big vision.

So why didn't Flannery's initiative gain traction? And would a similar proposal work now? Well, apart from Flannery's poor choice of name, I think there are two good reasons that explain the lack of interest, and the context has changed enough for a visionary project to succeed. First, the neo-liberal consensus was still strong in 2006. John Howard was the PM and the prevailing economic orthodoxy prohibited large-scale public investment. The financial crisis of 2008-9 has since undermined the neo-liberal consensus and governments around the world are now implementing massive public investment programs.

Second, climate change and environmental advocates did not support the plan. For too long climate change advocates have focused on technocratic and uninspiring policy proposals - a 20 per cent carbon reduction target by 2020 and the implementation of carbon trading. With several environmental groups now opposing the Rudd Government's CPRS and proposing a "Plan B", there is now a window of opportunity for these advocates to adopt a new campaign that focuses on building the enabling infrastructure of a clean energy economy.

I suspect environmental advocates are reluctant to employ a powerful myth because of the Snowy Scheme's environmental impacts. It's true that the scheme harmed the Snowy River, but this should not disqualify the use of Australia's myths and nation-building projects for responses to climate change. Environmental advocates must also overcome the false perception that "strong" reduction targets guarantee emissions reductions. On the contrary, because an effective response to climate change requires building the infrastructure for a clean energy economy, the Snowy Scheme is a better model than one that emphasises targets and trading.

Is Australia ready for a massive nation-building project to deal with the twin challenges of climate and global economic change? Yes it is. As the Parliament demonstrated 60 years ago, our political leaders must act in Australia's long-term interest to ensure that such a project becomes a reality.

Leigh Ewbank is a graduate of RMIT University's Bachelor of Social Science Environment degree with honours. He is a summer fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, an energy policy think-tank based in Oakland, California.

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