The worst polluting companies in Australia are responsible for nearly a third of our nation’s climate pollution. Together, they pour more pollution into our atmosphere than Switzerland, Ireland and Denmark combined. And current federal government policies are discouraging them from making a swift transition to a cleaner energy future.

While Australia is stuck with 20th Century energy and policies, the rest of the world is changing.

Globally we are in the midst of a clean energy transformation. In Paris in December, 195 countries agreed to keep “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.” To achieve it all countries are going to have to work hard to cut pollution. Australia was one of the signatories.

Yet in 2014-15 Australia’s pollution actually increased by 1.3 per cent. That’s 7 million additional tonnes of planet warming pollution pumped into our skies in just one year. Last year was the hottest year on record globally and a year in which we saw dramatically increased incidents of extreme droughts, bushfires, heatwaves and other extreme weather events across Australia.

Australians could be forgiven for being confused on which way the country’s pollution is trending. Our government spruiks its climate policies as amongst the world’s best, while pollution and the deadly weather resulting from global warming are on the rise.

More responsible nations are responding to the Paris Accord by adjusting their energy policies to make the required shift. Even in Australia, some states are taking a lead. South Australia has already hit 41 per cent renewable energy powering the state add is expected to reach 50 per cent this year.

But as a nation we are failing to rise to this challenge.

Twelve months ago, when the Australian Conservation Foundation put out its first list ofAustralia’s biggest polluters, the energy sector itself was already calling out for leadership from the federal government to help make the transition to a zero-pollution future.

In the year since then, AGL has officially gone from being the third biggest polluter to being Australia’s top polluter – a result of AGL purchasing Macquarie Generations coal-fired power stations in NSW.

AGL’s Chief Executive Andrew Vesey is well aware of the challenges ahead. He recently said: “We need to be out of the CO2 emissions business… We’ve done a lot of thinking around this and we believe our view of the future will be restraints on carbon emissions.”

What is sorely lacking is leadership from government to let industry get on with the energy transformation. Perversely, the opposite is the case. In axing the carbon price, the government removed the one policy Australia had to reduce pollution from the energy sector, leaving electricity generators – and the rest of us – largely reliant on coal for our power.

That’s the price of ‘axing the tax’. We are now shackled with energy policy settings that actively encourage Australia’s biggest energy companies to pollute, even as our political leaders talk about being a forward thinking and agile nation on the international stage.

At an energy forum hosted by ACF last year, representatives from energy companies, superannuation funds, financial services companies and investors agreed the early closure of coal-fired power stations was inevitable and there was a need for a federal government plan to manage this transition. They see the writing on the wall and want to act.

Last month, in its five-yearly review of the nation’s infrastructure priorities, Infrastructure Australia called for governments to “work with the private sector to develop a cohesive strategy for supporting a transition to a lower emissions electricity generation sector”.

So the calls and signs are there from anyone who cares to join the dots – from the energy companies, from investors, from environmentalists, from infrastructure experts. Now, the government must act.

Obviously we can’t close all Australia’s coal fired power stations tomorrow. That’s why we are urging the government to come up with a plan for their phased closure. This should start with the dirtiest and least efficient power stations. And it must include help for affected workers and communities and comprehensive plans to clean up and rehabilitate old mines sites and power stations.

The 10 biggest polluters own 13 coal fired power stations across Australia, including some of the world’s dirtiest power stations in the Latrobe Valley. Every day they are spewing out pollution into the surrounding local communities and into the atmosphere we all share. And every day they are making climate change worse.

The task before us is substantial but not insurmountable. Every day we delay adds to the cost of making this inevitable transition, of taking the great leap forward that the times we live in require of us. It’s time for Australia to get out of last century’s energy sources and leap into a brighter future powered by clean energy.

  • This article first appeared at SBS Online
  • Image by Peter Bowdidge / ACF

Geoffrey Cousins

Geoff Cousins is a past president of the Australian Conservation Foundation; ACF Life Member