Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Climate Tasmania is the new voice of climate advocacy in Tasmania, an expert body committed to lifting the profile of climate change across both government and business sectors.

Groom’s chance to help make history

Tasmania is uniquely placed to make a big impact globally in the battle for a stable climate, but it needs a minister to stand up and speak out. [25 August 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Blokes love all things that move, as we know. And the moving thing they love best is the car.

Sex appeal: Tesla’s sleek all-electric Model S. PHOTO Tesla Australia

Sex appeal: Tesla’s sleek all-electric Model S. PHOTO Tesla Australia

You could see that 10 days ago in the male-dominated audience at North Hobart’s State Cinema, where energy minister Matthew Groom launched the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.

The AEVA began in 1973, but Tasmania hasn’t had enough members for a local branch until this year, when writer-publisher Warren Boyles, planning consultant Clive Attwater and other Hobart-based enthusiasts began a push to put electric road transport on Tasmania’s public agenda.

Organisers of the launch event were surprised to see the auditorium packed to capacity, an indication that people are becoming aware that electric transportation is now a substantial global development that looms ever-larger in our future.

The Tasmanian AEVA’s inaugural chair, Penny Cocker – living proof that men can cope with a woman in charge – introduced the minister by noting that on average Tasmanians spend more on transport fuels than on household energy, amounting to over a billion dollars each year.

She also said that our spend on petrol is three to four times the cost of energy to run an electric car. That being so, a wholesale shift to electric transport would bring savings to the Tasmanian economy of many hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Clive Attwater pointed out that his Nissan plug-in electric car, which has a maximum range of 160 km between charges, is most economical in low-speed, stop-start city traffic, making such vehicles ideal for urban use.

For those wanting to drive long distances he’s devised a $1 million network of charging stations to allow these vehicles to be driven all over all the island’s roads. At strategic locations, high-power stations would provide a full charge in 20 minutes.

Matthew Groom heard all this, and is no doubt aware that the Tasmanian Climate Change Office, Tas Networks, Hydro Tasmania and the RACT have been active in developing these ideas.

But he missed a long and spirited Q&A session at the end. It continued outside, in an adjacent laneway among a range of electric and hybrid cars from a Lexus hybrid and a shiny new Tesla Model S all the way down to Boyles’ low-cost converted mini-Daihatsu.

It’s taken me a while to see a positive role for private cars in the sustainability story. At this crunch time in our battle to contain climate change, I have to concede that sprawling cities aren’t going to give way any time soon to compact urban centres with space-age public transport.

With emission cuts now an urgent priority, the developed world needs people in big numbers getting behind strong action. Electric cars powered by renewable energy are shaping as a practical, and sexy, option with the potential to change how whole populations see and do things.

The all-electric US car-maker Tesla Motors has sparked people’s imagination in a business that always seemed immovably dependent on fossil fuel. Tasmania’s combination of natural beauty, social stability and carbon-free electricity makes it uniquely placed to take advantage of this.

The Renewable Energy Target could help us develop power generation to serve an expanding electric car fleet. Australia’s Clean Energy Council has assessed that more than $40 billion worth of investment and 15,200 jobs are available nationally under the scheme.

On a population basis Tasmania’s share of this investment would be about $900 million, which could do a lot to ramp up solar and wind power to drive a new generation of electric transport. But if this is to get anywhere, the Hodgman government has to put its full weight behind it.

Matthew Groom has a rare opportunity to stand up, speak up and make a mark in history. As energy minister he could be the harbinger of a new Tasmania, an important agent in a transformative shift that could make us a beacon for the world. It’s an opportunity he mustn’t let slip.

WILD FLICKS, a monthly film night on current environmental issues, starts at Wild Island Gallery, 33 Salamanca Place, Hobart, at 6 pm tomorrow with Chasing Ice, James Balog’s breathtaking documentary that uses time-lapse photography to capture Earth’s dramatically changing glaciers.

Europe’s gold standard should be ours too

Our own economic future is being compromised by our failure to join the heavy lifting on climate policy. [18 August 2015 | Peter Boyer]

All things are relative, and carbon emissions targets are no exception. What we think of Australia’s 2030 target depends on which countries we choose to compare it with.

The government has claimed the biggest cut in per-capita emissions by 2030 of any country, but that still leaves us well above any other developed country as this Guardian Australia graphic shows.

The government has claimed the biggest cut in per-capita emissions by 2030 of any country, but that still leaves us well above any other developed country, as this Guardian Australia graphic shows.

Last week Tony Abbott singled out Japan, Korea and China for special mention when pointing out that his government’s 2030 target – 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels – was above theirs.

He’s right about that. Korea’s elusive target, based on rubbery “business-as-usual” forecasts, is inadequate whichever way you look at it. Japan has opted for a cut of just 25 per cent by 2030 while China’s goal is actually a 150 per cent increase.

But both the latter two can claim special dispensation. Japan has had the double challenge of chronic recession and the ongoing Fukushima disaster, and China seeks to develop its economy in a quarter the time it took us. In both cases, ambitious emissions targets could threaten social stability.

Australia’s target looks good in that company, but it’s notable that the government has been more evasive about the countries we see as most like us: New Zealand, Canada and the US, and especially western Europe. Those comparisons aren’t so flattering.

The US has the same figure as Australia but with a deadline five-years earlier, plus a longer-term target that will require a cut of about 40 per cent by 2030. Across the ditch, New Zealand has set itself a target of 30 per cent below its 2005 level, 2 to 4 per cent better than Australia’s.

Canada has set the same 2030 target as New Zealand, which is a surprise. Stephen Harper’s fossil-fuelled government has for many years stridently opposed reining in carbon emissions. The new target is likely to require some tough decisions about Alberta tar sands.

Then there’s the gold standard, Europe.

In the 1990s western European countries were more alert than most, including Australia, to the need to transform their energy economies. The heavy lifting they did then might have enticed them to go easy today, but they’ve opted instead for even more ambitious targets.

Germany’s target requires emissions in 2030 to be 46 per cent below their level in 2005, while the United Kingdom has gone further, 48 per cent down by 2030. Most ambitious is Switzerland, pursuing a cut of 50 per cent over the same time span.

There’s nothing especially honourable in this. These governments have strong targets largely because a healthy majority of their electors want it that way.

And it works. Previous strong European targets fostered extraordinary effort to improve energy efficiency and roll out solar, wind, wave, tidal and biomass power. Many targets were reached with room to spare. The result is a continent far better prepared than Australia for a low-carbon future.

We took a different route. At the Kyoto climate talks in 1997, while European countries were knuckling down to cutting emissions, Australia campaigned successfully for an escape clause in the agreement that allowed it to raise fossil-fuel emissions by 8 per cent.

That “Australia clause”, as it’s known around the world, is the basis of the common claim that while others have failed, Australia met and surpassed its Kyoto targets. Like shifting base years and so much else around climate policy, this is pure political spin.

Government modelling appears to confirm that a 45 per cent 2030 target would lower Australia’s GDP by, at most, 0.7 per cent. We can afford to do much more. In fact we can’t afford not to.

Europe and increasingly the rest of the world recognise that developing clean energy while phasing out fossil fuels is more than a scientific imperative; it’s also an economic necessity. Countries choosing to defy that reality are seriously compromising their own economic future.

Public events

HEALTH, wildfire and coastal experts will discuss the ups and downs of Tasmania’s climate future at Climate Tasmania’s free public forum on Monday at Aurora Theatre, IMAS Building, Salamanca Place, Hobart, from 5.30pm.

WINGS of the Sun, a film about the world’s first overnight solar-powered flight, will be a special Science Week event starting at 6pm on Sunday (University of Tasmania’s Stanley Burbury Theatre, Sandy Bay). Entry by gold coin donation.

The drawn-out dethroning of King Coal

The prime minister’s belief in King Coal is financially foolhardy and bad for the health of the planet. [11 August 2015 | Peter Boyer]

If, perhaps encouraged by last week’s snow, you still harbour a secret belief that global warming isn’t really happening, you can now safely abandon it.

A giant scoop lifts coal on to a conveyor belt at an open pit coal mine. PHOTO Bloomberg

A giant scoop lifts coal on to a conveyor belt at an open pit coal mine. PHOTO Bloomberg

A week ago the Journal of Glaciology published a paper, “Historically unprecedented global glacier decline in the early 21st century”, compiled by the Zurich-based World Glacier Monitoring Service.

For the study, WGMS scrutinised what we know about the world’s mountain glaciers, analysing about 42,000 glacier-front observations since 1600, about 5200 more detailed observations since 1850, and written and illustrated material going back to ancient times.

It confirmed what glaciologists have long understood, that the world’s glaciers are retreating and getting smaller, and that the net rate of ice loss since 2000 is unprecedented, “at least for the time period observed and probably also for recorded history”.

Instrument records showing rising surface temperatures are accepted among scientists but disputed by some in the wider world who claim the data are corrupted. But doubters would surely not dispute the evidence of ice vanishing from our mountains.

And if you still think the main cause of this ice retreat has to be non-human, it’s way past time you abandoned that too. Decades of concerted study of natural influences has found nothing that comes close to the warming impact of human-produced greenhouse gases.

Earth is warming at a potentially dangerous rate because carbon has been released from the Earth’s crust in unprecedented quantities. About three-quarters of this comes from mining and use of coal, oil and gas, and of these three, as someone once said, coal is king.

In Australia, carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal for electricity are on the rise again. According to last week’s Pitt & Sherry CEDEX report, since the end of carbon pricing in June last year they’ve jumped to levels last seen in mid-2012, when the carbon price began.

Coal’s impact goes way beyond carbon emissions, to devastated landscapes, coal dust, tainted groundwater and pollution from heavy metals including uranium, arsenic and mercury. The fact that we still burn coal for energy is testament to the power of old habits.

A staunch defender of old habits, prime minister Tony Abbott, felt the (metaphorical) heat last week when the Federal Court, on environmental grounds, set aside his government’s approval for India’s Adani Group to develop its giant Carmichael project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

The Carmichael mine, he claimed, would “create about 10,000 well-paid jobs in Australia, and… provide for decades to come for 100 million people in India who currently have no power.”

But Adani’s own figure over the project’s life is fewer than 1500 full-time equivalent direct and indirect jobs. And India’s government has declared a preference for distributed renewables over centralised coal-power. If coal must be imported, it prefers the lower-cost Indonesian product.

The PM went on to attack the court’s integrity: “If the courts can be turned into a means of sabotaging projects which are striving to meet the highest environmental standards, then we have a real problem as a nation.” This begs for more information, but none was forthcoming.

The real root of Tony Abbott’s frustration isn’t the law, but business reality. Despite his best efforts to talk it up, money for coal is disappearing around the world. If Carmichael is to be commercial, coal must sell at close to $100 a tonne. Currently it’s at $60.

Adani confirmed in June that it had halted development of the project. Then last week, after the court decision, the Commonwealth Bank announced it would withdraw as Carmichael’s financial adviser, joining a growing list of big lenders and advisers pulling out of coal projects.

This argument wouldn’t be happening if big business and government took account of the huge threat that coal poses to our climate future, but in those circles it’s impolite even to raise the subject. What have we come to?

AT NORTH HOBART’S State Cinema at 10.15 am on Saturday, energy minister Matthew Groom will launch the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association. There will be a Q&A panel and electric vehicles to see, with their owners. More information, RSVP.