This is a war we must fight, and win

Australia’s efforts to cut emissions are floundering and the government needs help.

Australia is slipping behind where it needs to be to be in line with the global ambition of a 2C warming limit, as determined by the Climate Change Authority. GRAPHIC by Ndevr Environmental

Australia is slipping behind where it needs to be to be in line with the global ambition of a 2C warming limit, as determined by the Climate Change Authority. GRAPHIC by Ndevr Environmental

There’s plenty to talk about. Anzac Day talk is about life in the forces, but war in this century is also about terrorism and civil conflict. To add to the confusion we’ve invented new wars – on crime, drugs, diseases and the like – as a way of saying that we have a real battle on our hands.

The climate war is such a conflict. It is a war within and against ourselves, demanding new rules and paradigms. It will be the longest of all our long wars, and will have no decisive conclusion.

This war is being fought on many levels, from individual action all the way up to multi-national arrangements. It has no defined combatants, and the only clear boundary is our planet itself.

As is often the way with wars, the greatest impact of this one will be on young people, already under the hammer from various socio-economic pressures. When we make a decision about getting involved, their needs should be uppermost in our minds.

The best measure of success in this war is carbon dioxide emissions. In Australia, official data indicate some progress, with overall emissions down by over 15 per cent since 2005. But it’s worth unpacking that data. I’m using analysis by Melbourne-based carbon consultants Ndevr.

Science and other authorities say we need to cut emissions at an accelerating rate, but in Australia the reverse seems to be happening. All of that emissions decline happened before 2014. Since then our emissions have remained unchanged, or in some sectors even risen slightly.

Unpacking further, we find just one sector – forest management – that’s shown any marked decline, but most of that happened before 2011. There’s been little to show since, despite some big spending out of the Emissions Reduction Fund on projects to manage trees, land, soil and waste.

The drop in forestry emissions correlates not with ERF funding but with the 15-year decline in forest harvesting, which begs the question: Why do federal and state climate change ministers remain mute when others in their ranks seek to crank up the forest industry?

But forestry isn’t the main game in cutting emissions. It’s electricity generation, and its emissions have remained stubbornly high since 2013. It’s a similar story for stationary energy, land transport, waste, agriculture, fugitive emissions, industrial processes and product use.

Successive climate change ministers have repeated the mantra that we’re winning this war. Climate minister Josh Frydenberg took that optimistic position in the discussion paper for the long-awaited review of climate change policies. But the discussion paper itself gives the lie to that optimism.

It lists a collection of largely discrete programs: a revenue-funded scheme favouring agriculture and forestry over fossil fuels, a “safeguard mechanism” that penalises no-one, a renewable energy target with just three years to run, and peripheral support for innovation and efficiency.

We need coordinated, integrated programs targeting the big sources of carbon emissions – fossil-fuelled electricity, stationary energy and transport. Most economists say that the most cost-effective solution is to put a price on carbon through one of several possible mechanisms.

Malcolm Turnbull has said a lot about innovation, but there’s precious little sign of it in the way his government has addressed climate change. To me, the discussion paper is a well-disguised cry for help from a government that’s floundering and doesn’t know what to do.

We shouldn’t pass up the chance to help. This is a war we must win. We owe it to ourselves to make the effort, but also to those whose will be living later this century, when the perils of a changing climate will be all too real.

Anyone can put in a submission. It can be general or specific, long or brief. You are free to criticise, but you should also be positive and constructive. A call to arms would not be out of place.

We have until Friday week to submit our ideas. Search for “Australian climate change policy review” to find the discussion paper and instructions about making a submission.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, climate politics, community action, forests and forestry, land use, transport, waste | Leave a comment

Realists, butterflies and the lunacy that is Carmichael

It’s up to science, not Barnaby Joyce, to determine what’s real and what isn’t.

Barnaby Joyce engaging in some political theatre with Scott Morrison. PHOTO The Australian

“Don’t be afraid of coal,” said Treasurer Scott Morrison to the Parliament on 10 February, before handing a lump of the black stuff to Barnaby Joyce. PHOTO Kym Smith, The Australian


In Barnaby Joyce’s eyes, people who support schemes like Queensland’s proposed $21.7 billion Carmichael coal mine are “realists”.

Those who don’t are people who prefer to “live with the butterflies”, and for them he had a grim warning last week on ABC Radio National’s Breakfast: “If you’re going to live with the butterflies you’re going to die with the butterflies.”

The deputy prime minister has a gift for the memorable image. Butterflies are the sort of species that, to the annoyance of many, can sometimes hold up a resource venture, and their brief, colourful lives conjure up flighty, frivolous behaviour. It fitted his purpose for that moment.

It also says everything about where he and his government sit in the great debate about climate, energy and the economy. He says developing one of the world’s biggest coal mines is realistic, when by any objective measure it’s pure lunacy.

Consider the outlay of nearly $1 billion of public money on a $2.2 billion railway line to carry vast quantities of coal to Abbot Point, on the coast near Bowen, so that it can be shipped through the Great Barrier Reef to India.

MAP: SouthWind

MAP: SouthWind

That’s despite an earlier statement by a spokesman for Adani, the Indian proponent of the mine, that the company could manage without government help. Multiple banks have declined to fund the project.

Barnaby Joyce and others in the government have been flaying renewable energy over its cost to taxpayers. But when you add the railway line to other rebates available to coal miners, nothing in renewables comes near the level of subsidy being proposed for the Carmichael venture.

In February Geoff Summerhayes, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority board member responsible for insurance regulation, warned that directors who fail to consider foreseeable climate risk will be personally liable under law for breaching corporate care and diligence obligations.

If the board of the Northern Australia Development Facility approves the Adani loan, its members open themselves to legal action for breaching not just the Corporations Act but also public governance laws identified last week by environmental lawyers.

The financial risk from climate change referred to by Summerhayes threatens to make Carmichael a gigantic stranded asset, which is a big problem for the NAIF board right now. But there are more material issues around this mine.

Not unreasonably, indigenous traditional owners don’t like what the mine will do to their land, and local farmers have objected to their state government’s gift to Adani of rights to an unlimited quantity of groundwater, in a normally dry part of Queensland lacking surface water infrastructure.

The plan to ship the coal via the Great Barrier Reef signals contempt for an incomparable natural resource. The Reef is already being damaged as a direct consequence of carbon emissions. The mine would be a substantial contributor to its further destruction.

The federal and Queensland governments have said they want other players mining the vast coalfields of the Galilee Basin, over three times the size of Tasmania. Even without those extra players, Adani’s segment would yield nearly eight billion tonnes of greenhouse gases when burnt.

At our current greenhouse gas accumulation rate, science tells us to expect well over 3C of warming within the lifetimes of babies alive today, with a climate getting steadily more unstable. Future climate will be nothing like what we grew up with.

This is not my personal opinion, nor anyone else’s. It’s science. Scientific knowledge has been built over centuries by thousands of people using time-honoured methods to observe, record and analyse planetary systems. Their findings are tested and re-tested in the exacting process of peer review.

It’s up to science, not Barnaby Joyce, to determine what’s real and what isn’t. Our governments are treating that noble pursuit as something that can be shoved aside when it suits, arrogantly assuming that people will fall into place behind them. Australians are better than this.

Show your support for science by joining the March for Science, this Saturday from 1pm on Hobart’s Parliament Lawns. More information at

Posted in atmospheric science, Australian politics, business, investment, employment, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate sensitivity, coal-fired, divestment, economic activity, economic threat from climate, energy, fossil fuels, future climate, land use, mining, modelling, renewable energy, science, scientific method, stranded assets, temperature | Leave a comment

The big, ugly mess that is national energy policy

The story of rising power prices is very different from what our political leaders tell us.

Gold-plating transmission networks seemed like a good idea when energy demand was high. PHOTO Pixabay

Gold-plating transmission networks seemed like a good idea when energy demand was high. PHOTO Pixabay

There’s an idea doing the rounds that rising power bills are a direct result of rich people putting solar panels on roofs. It’s vaguely plausible, often repeated – and wrong.

It’s true that Australian electricity, once comparatively cheap, is now among the most expensive in the world. But the causes have almost nothing to do with the cost of renewable energy.

Solar energy is no longer the preserve of the rich. In the 1970s the total retail cost of a home system in Australia was as high as $200 per watt of electricity produced; now it’s around $1.60 a watt. An average-sized system, fully installed, now costs between $4000 and $4500.

So it remains feasible to install rooftop solar systems in Tasmania even though the return on electricity is now less than a quarter what it was four years ago. Here and elsewhere, the low feed-in tariff is a net gain for retailers. So there’s no price pressure from that quarter.

After a state-wide blackout in South Australia last September, triggered when a windstorm flattened power pylons, senior politicians including Malcolm Turnbull have argued that accelerated rollout of intermittent solar and wind energy has disrupted the smooth functioning of the grid.

Over summer, other blackouts occurred elsewhere in the national electricity market (NEM), which covers all of eastern Australia, including Tasmania, and South Australia. But it was the latter state, with its high proportion of wind and solar power, that copped most of the flack.

Tasked with investigating the NEM, chief scientist Alan Finkel won’t finish his final report until mid-2017, but his preliminary report gave a strong hint that he would not be advocating any cutback in the rollout of renewable energy.

Parameters have changed in the 18 years since the NEM was established, said Finkel. He saw the rapid emergence of new power sources and technologies combined with declining demand for grid electricity as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” for NEM reform.

Wind turbine controllers, batteries, synchronous condensers and other new technologies could improve system security, he said, but “the NEM does not currently encourage their adoption.”

More open-cycle gas generators would be a good complement for variable wind and solar, but export contracts had led to a tight domestic supply of gas, the report said. “The need for greater gas supplies for electricity generation is increasingly urgent.”

But there’s a much bigger factor. A decade ago, projections of rising electricity demand persuaded power utilities, notably state-owned ones in NSW and Queensland, to spend billions of dollars over multiple years to upgrade transmission towers, poles and cables.

Instead, demand went down, leaving a huge debt burden to pay off. Householders wanting to understand why power bills keep rising need look no further than that.

Tasmania was more prudent in managing its transmission infrastructure, as TasNetworks CEO Lance Balcombe pointed out at last week’s excellent Social Change Institute (UTAS) future energy panel discussion. But like all participants in NEM it has to wear some of the consequences.

We can expect all this to be thoroughly explored in an investigation of retail electricity prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, ordered a fortnight ago by treasurer Scott Morrison and due to report back in late September.

Hopefully this and the Finkel inquiry will provide ideas for fixing our failing electricity market. One certainty is that neither investigation will be putting any blame for those rising retail prices on the much-maligned carbon tax, killed off in 2014.

In fact, an ultimate solution has to include some sort of price on carbon, the Grattan Institute’s energy specialist Tony Wood told the UTAS event last week. His view is that it’s a key element in bringing stability to energy markets.

A growing chorus of economists and business interests – including some coal-power generators – supports that view, but it’s going nowhere for now. The Turnbull government faces a roadblock of anti-carbon price diehards in its own ranks.

So national energy policy has come down to partisan pride. The result is a big, ugly mess.

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