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Saturday, March 6, 2010

From Australia: Seize the Initiative -- the Race for the Clean Energy Economies

The Australian
SINCE before he was elected US president, Barack Obama made clear who he thought would dominate the world economy in the 21st century.

It would be, he repeated in his State of the Union address last month, the country that led the transformation in the clean-tech and clean energy sectors.

The US has watched its early dominance of the silicon solar panel industry being assumed by China and Japan.

It now fears that not only China but India, Brazil and others will seize the initiative to dominate other emerging industries and technologies.

The Copenhagen climate change talks may have ended in disarray, hopes for a binding treaty anytime soon may be in retreat and some conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may be under the spotlight, but it seems clear that the transition to a low-carbon economy and towards clean technology is inevitable and accelerating. "China is not waiting to revamp its economy," Obama said in his speech. "Germany is not waiting. India is not waiting. They are not standing still . . . They're rebuilding their infrastructure. They're making serious investments in clean energy because they want those jobs."

The question for Australia is how it seeks to position itself in what some are branding as the new space race.

Present policies, particularly the proposed emissions trading scheme and faltering renewable energy target, have been framed, or at least justified, with a global climate change treaty in mind.

But too little of the push to innovate has been sold on the need to maintain pace with companies equally concerned with energy security and other environmental measures as about climate change. And too little about gathering some share of the trillions of dollars that will be directed towards clean technology and investments.

In the absence of an international treaty, most leading economies are pushing for change, as a national or regional initiative, in the form of an ETS, mandated clean energy targets, green stimulus packages and a host of subsidies, taxes and financing initiatives.

"The lack of a binding international agreement on any of these issues at the Copenhagen summit last December has understandably created uncertainty in the minds of many potential climate change investors," Deutsche Bank's head of asset management Kevin Parker says in a recent report. "This is unfortunate because what matters far more is that national and local governments all over the world are not waiting for a supra-national framework. They are already pushing ahead with their own policies that will do far more than international regulation in the short to medium term to stimulate private investment."

Deutsche Bank notes that immediately before and after the Copenhagen summit ended in disarray, more than 25 significant policy announcements were made from nations and states worldwide, with some of the most notable coming from the US, China, India, Taiwan, Brazil, Japan, Britain and South Korea.

"All this new national legislation is a hugely encouraging sign that many countries not only understand the urgency of the climate change problem but see the competitive advantage of moving towards a low carbon economy," Parker writes.

He describes it as the "opportunity of a lifetime", but warns investors to focus on the quality of regulation provided by individual countries because huge differences are emerging. "We believe these disparities will, over time, translate into massive differences in the amount of investment capital countries attract and the jobs they create in renewable energy and other climate change industries. Investment capital will find the best returns, wherever they are. Countries that fail to provide them will get left behind."

In a small but symbolic sign of the changing nature of technology and established industries, the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla last month signalled it would conduct a $US100 million ($111m) initial public offering this week. It will be the first IPO in the US auto industry since Ford listed on the stock exchange in 1956.

Tesla may well be a loss maker, but its public float has attracted the support of four heavyweight financiers -- Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley -- which clearly have a vision of where their future bread will be buttered.

Morgan Stanley and HSBC also have taken principal positions in the $US350M raising by Better Place, the electric car battery network provider, which has completed the largest venture capital raising in the world in the past two years. And Warren Buffett, long touted as the world's smartest investor, is sitting on an eight-fold return on a $US230m investment made two years ago in BYD. The Chinese battery and EV maker has ambitions of being the world's largest car manufacturer and is already the biggest manufacturer of any sort in China.

Closer to home, Ausra, the company that began as an academic case study at the University of NSW and was then taken to the US to gain some financial backing, has been sold to Areva, the world's biggest nuclear energy group. Areva intends to use the Ausra technology as a flagship product in its push to dominate the solar thermal energy industry.

Numerous other Australian clean-tech and clean energy developers find themselves at a similar crossroads. A report by the advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions found that Australia, in theory, could be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. But at its present rate of progress it seems unlikely that more than a few villages and hamlets, along with a handful of desalination plants, will be renewable at that time.

Meanwhile, talented and innovative Australian developers are packing their bags for greener pastures overseas, where broader market-based subsidies, tax incentives and loan guarantees are encouraging innovation in wind, solar, marine, energy storage and a host of other areas.

The irony is that while the likes of Scotland declare their intention to be the Saudi Arabia of marine battery and energy systems, and Chile and Arhgentina make similar claims in regard to lithium ion batteries, the key technology for EVs, Australia's natural resources could give it the ambition to become the Saudi Arabia of whichever energy source it wants. It has the capacity for geothermal, solar, wind or marine energy and advanced battery technology, and to develop a corresponding industry.

So while the cadence of Australian policy continues to be directed by the pace of international agreements, what of the future of UN climate change talks? Is there any prospect that such an agreement could be enacted?

The absence of a legally binding agreement did not surprise those who followed these negotiations closely, but there was no doubt they were stunned by the chaotic and dysfunctional ending to the two-week conference in Copenhagen in December.

And there are now few who believe an agreement can be struck in Mexico later this year, or can be struck at all if under the auspices of the UN.

Even the status of the so-called Copenhagen Accord, produced at the last minute by a group including the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, is under doubt. India and China this week indicated they were unsure if they wanted to be associated with the accord, which sets a goal of limiting global warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial times. "This does make it less likely that we will see a global agreement," says Graham Stuart, head of the European climate change practice at Baker & McKenzie. "What we will get is a bottom-up approach [from individual nations]. At some point, maybe, those national pledges will coalesce into a binding treaty."

Nevertheless, Stuart says there will be much activity in the realm of national actions, bilateral agreements between, say, China and the European Union on carbon credits and the power sector, as well as regional agreements. "We are looking at a whole set of national actions and bilateral treaties," Stuart says.

This a view supported by Freehills, another legal firm closely following the action at domestic and international levels. It says a global consensus may not be possible and smaller bilateral and multilateral treaties may be more productive.

On the domestic front, however, the positions of the government and the opposition appear intractable, and may be resolved only through an election.

"The signs still remain that some form of carbon regulation in Australia is inevitable," it says. "But the precise format is not certain."