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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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Strong emissions targets are the real leadership test

The government looks the goods on terrorism, but climate change presents a much bigger challenge. [30 June 2015 | Peter Boyer]

When federal parliament voted last week to cut by 20 per cent the amount of clean energy it aims to have in 2020, Australia became the first country in the world to pare back a climate measure.

The Climate Change Authority’s plot of Australia’s emissions trajectory to the 2C goal (blue line; black for the period to 2020), compared with the United States (pale green) and Europe (deep green). Note that the black line is nearly flat, due to lower emissions resulting from less electricity usage and an economic slowdown. A stronger 2020 target would have made the dotted blue line beyond that less steep. SOURCE: Climate Change Authority (April 2015): Australia’s future emissions reduction targets, Fig. 7

The Climate Change Authority’s plot of Australia’s emissions trajectory to the 2C goal (blue line; black for the period to 2020), compared with the United States (pale green) and Europe (deep green). The black and orange bars at the right indicate different estimates of the global reduction needed to reach 2C of warming above pre-industrial levels. Note that the dotted black line is nearly flat, due to lower emissions resulting from less electricity usage and an economic slowdown. A stronger 2020 target would have made the dotted blue line beyond that less steep. SOURCE: Climate Change Authority (April 2015): Australia’s future emissions reduction targets, Fig. 7

This has never been done before under any jurisdiction – not even in North America, home of climate denial. Who says Australia can’t be a world leader?

Another world first: the bill to cut the renewable energy target also empowered the government to appoint a wind farm commissioner to check out complaints that wind turbines make people sick.

This is despite two studies by the National Health and Medical Research Council, in 2009 and again last year, that found no evidence linking wind turbines and poor health. At least two state investigations and numerous overseas ones have reached the same conclusion.

The Renewable Energy Target changes may not do much damage. The delayed outcome caused uncertainty about investing in major projects, especially wind farms, but rooftop solar continues to make inroads into the electricity market. Market momentum in Australia and globally is all on the side of renewables.

That sorted, the government now faces the big decision. Australia’s post-2020 emissions target will identify how much effort we’re prepared to put in to keep global warming below 2C above pre-industrial levels, which we and the rest of the world signed up to in 2010.

CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and all other major scientific institutions, and global authorities in energy economics including the World Bank and the International Energy Agency, say that if we don’t cut emissions deeply now we face stupendous costs in coming decades.

Multiple international studies have concluded that developed countries, taken together, must halve emissions by 2030 to give the world an even chance of staying below the 2C limit. On that basis, Australia’s Climate Change Authority recommends a 2030 target of between 40 and 60 per cent. It also recommends a target for 2025, just 10 years away, of at least 30 per cent, a long way above our present 5 per cent.

So how will our leaders respond to this significant challenge?

Leadership is currently in short supply. Last week, opposition leader Bill Shorten had a leadership moment when asked if Labor would continue to fund the Gonski school reforms, arguably the most important educational advance in all our lifetimes. He failed that test, spectacularly.

His party is trying harder with climate change. Its Environment Action Network will push at the July national conference for a target of 50 per cent lower emissions by 2030. The Greens have gone further, backing 40-50 per cent by 2025, 60-80 per cent by 2030 and net-zero by 2040.

These targets are based on Australia’s emissions in 2000, about 560 megatonnes. Five years later, with the minerals boom in full swing, they’d jumped by 50 megatonnes. Five per cent below 2000 emissions is 13 per cent below 2005. The outcome is the same, but the latter looks much better.

The government has already started its window-dressing in preparation for announcing its target in mid-July. Environment minister Greg Hunt has begun expressing our measly 2020 target in terms of the more flattering 2005 baseline.

The government won’t accept advice from the Climate Change Authority, which it has tried and failed to abolish. Instead, the prime minister’s department is doing its own investigation.

Don’t expect the physical imperatives of climate change, including the fast-vanishing prospect of limiting warming to 2C, to figure in this inquiry. When the department called for public submissions in March it signalled that it would be focusing on economic growth and trade.

Progress in reaching the 2020 target seems to be due mainly to what market analyst RepuTex calls “systemically overstated” official emissions figures. It says that lower export growth and electricity demand are likely to shave 200 million tonnes off emissions currently projected up to 2020.

All this may look good domestically but spells trouble for Australia at the Paris meeting in December. As RepuTex sees it, “Australia risks being perceived as pocketing the benefit of its own error, and therefore not fairly contributing to the international emissions reduction effort.”

Being strong on national security is one way to look like a leader. The government’s focus on protecting borders and banishing jihadists resonates when terrorism is in the headlines.

Climate change, demanding substantive, transformative actions that will determine our country’s long-term future, is a much tougher issue than the threat from terrorism. But that’s the kind of challenge real leadership thrives on.

Francis recasts the debate about climate change

The papal encyclical on Earth’s ecological crisis will shift the political landscape on climate change [23 June 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Pope Francis has spoken, and he says this: Life on earth is in danger as a result of human excesses, including the burning of fossil fuels, and we must act swiftly and decisively to limit the damage.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

His long-anticipated encyclical “on care for our common home” is a ringing declaration that Catholics and the rest of us must change how we exercise and regulate our power over nature.

This power, says Francis – made possible by the fossil fuel that’s driven the industrial revolution – is unprecedented in the governmental and financial muscle behind it, in its advanced technology and in its ubiquitous presence everywhere on the planet.

Francis has asked those of us in developed economies to pause in our headlong rush (to where?) and consider the bigger implications of what’s happening.

At the core of his message is the impact on the natural world of high consumption levels in developed societies: “We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions.”

He has challenged all of us – not just Catholics but “every person living on this planet” – to each consider “the violence present in our hearts… reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air, and in all forms of life”.

“We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth; our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”

“A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system… [which is] a common good, belonging to and meant for all,” says Francis. That last point is important. Some people behave as if they have all the rights.

He continues: “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications… one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”

This is much more than a homily on abused nature. Looking through the eyes of the Assisi friar whose name he adopted, Francis urges us to see “how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace”.

Francis points out that all of today’s big global issues – climate change, water scarcity, species extinction, quality of life, social breakdown and global inequality – arise out of a mindset of domination and acquisitiveness. We won’t solve any of them, he says, without addressing them all.

He urges “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet… a conversation which includes everyone.” His is a plea for governments and the rest of us to recognise and act on the principles of long-term justice over short-term profit, for common rights over private ones.

Opposition by entrenched interests is one limit on effective environmental reform; another is “a more general lack of interest”. Says Francis, “we require a new and universal solidarity.”

The Pope has got to the heart of our problem. In our fractured political landscape in Australia, as in North America and elsewhere, solidarity is notable only by its absence. Once-universal positions on difficult issues – immigration is an example – are now victim to populism and partisan crossfire.

Resource extraction interests and their political allies have branded all environmentalists “extreme” and spuriously sought to link them with past extremism, but this is a diversion to mask their own excesses. A concern for the natural environment is anything but extreme.

Francis’s message has huge import in Australia. We’ve had religious leaders speak out for the climate and the planet before, but never a leader of such stature in our own country, and never so decisively and comprehensively, with no wriggle room for misunderstanding.

Given Cardinal George Pell’s past scepticism it will be interesting to see how Australia’s Catholic hierarchy manages the Pope’s message. In talking about it last week, Archbishop Denis Hart struggled with what he clearly found to be unfamiliar terminology around climate change.

For his part, Francis brings his own, different language to a debate that has hitherto been all about science. His words are the words of religion and poetry, telling of our sins in despoiling our planetary home and our sacred duty to put things right.

We’ve heard all about the science of climate change. Reason has brought us this far, but there comes a time when reason isn’t enough, and it’s now.

Francis is right: this is a deeply moral matter, or as Kevin Rudd famously said once, the greatest moral challenge of our time. We must all acknowledge our human responsibility for both causing and fixing the problem.

I’m not a Catholic. I was once Anglican, but decided that a religious path was not for me, and I can’t see myself returning to the fold. But Francis’s message resonates strongly with me. I see now that religion can lift this debate to another level.

And it can inspire. We must not lose heart, says Francis: “In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God… Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”

Whatever the huge obstacles ahead, and whatever our conception of God, that is a noble and worthy aspiration. With explosive power, Francis has recast the climate change debate. All strength to him, and to those who follow him in faith.

• It was disappointing to hear news that there are moves in the Labor Party to drop Lisa Singh, opposition climate representative in the Senate and a tireless advocate for strong emissions action, to an unwinnable position on the party’s Senate ticket for the next election, due later next year. Climate action needs all the champions it can muster in the years ahead, but a move like that would strongly indicate a return to the dark days of 2010, when Labor under Kevin Rudd backed away from fighting an election over his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. At a time when public opinion is moving strongly towards more effective climate action, that’s the last thing Labor needs.

The surprising achievements of Elon Musk

A US entrepreneur is revealing one of the many positive sides of curbing emissions [16 June 2015 | Peter Boyer]

The splash of light that Dark Mofo brings to Hobart tells us a lot about ourselves. As much as we need steady, predictable patterns in our lives, there’s nothing like a good surprise.

The surprising Elon Musk. PHOTO www.technobuffalo.com

The surprising Elon Musk. PHOTO www.technobuffalo.com

David Walsh is a surprising person, bless him. So is another gambler, the South African-born, Los Angeles-based entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Musk is especially surprising to me. I confess to a prejudice against the idea that corporate America can save the world. Whatever their “vision”, squillionaires look after themselves, and that includes the bright sparks of Silicon Valley, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages.

I’d heard years ago about this particular bright spark, but was disinclined to follow up. It was my view that as a climate fixer, Musk’s technology rated somewhat below political and social matters. But last week, on a friend’s recommendation, I watched a recent presentation by Musk about a new battery system being developed by his electric car company, Tesla.

I expected a slick, breezy show, like the late Steve Jobs selling an iPhone, but in stark contrast to Jobs, Musk comes across as diffident, uncertain, modest; also friendly and funny. He didn’t seem like a person I should take too seriously. Climate is, after all, a serious business.

But his is a truly audacious vision. You got a hint of it in his description of the sun: “this handy fusion reactor in the sky [which] just shows up every day and produces ridiculous amounts of power.” It’s a vision he pursues with determination and resolve.

He already has a formidable record of achievement. As a young physics-economics graduate in California around 2000 he became a multi-millionaire from the sale of financial management systems (including a fledgling PayPal). But Musk had grander dreams.

Like the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, he combined a fascination with planetary and space physics with a concern for the future of humanity. With Mars settlement in his sights he established a rocket research and manufacturing company called SpaceX. It looked like overreach, but the company has survived early launch failures and the global financial crisis to produce a rocket good enough to win multiple contracts from NASA.

In 2004 Musk founded a car company named after engineer-physicist Nikola Tesla (1856-1943). Honouring Tesla’s innovative spirit, Tesla cars would be powered by electricity only. Musk’s one-finger salute to doubters was to make the company’s first model a high-performance sports car.

Like SpaceX, Tesla Motors has had its times of crisis. With the financial world in near-meltdown in late 2008, US$70 million from Musk’s own pocket was needed to keep the company solvent. It went on to produce its most successful car to date, the family-sized Model S.

With advanced battery technology delivering a range of over 400 km, Model S sales numbers are increasing exponentially year-on-year. Nissan has sold many more of its Leaf electric cars, but that’s a small short-range vehicle with an established manufacturer and dealer network behind it.

Tesla aims to release its large utility vehicle (able to tow caravans) at the end of this year, and to have a mid-sized sedan on the market in 2018 at a price competitive with similar petrol-driven cars.

All very well, but my main interest in watching the Musk presentation was in how Tesla battery technology might be utilised more widely. I wasn’t disappointed.

Tesla has now launched “Powerwall”, a sleek wall-mounted battery for homes that stores energy from the grid or solar panels. That, says Musk, will help to meet power utilities’ need to even out demand.

This is where converging technology streams come into play. In 2006 Musk funded a new company called SolarCity, now one of the top two US rooftop solar power providers, which has given him a foothold in a potentially huge market: large-scale energy storage.

“The obvious problem with solar power,” Musk told his audience last month, “is that the sun does not shine at night…This problem needs to be solved.” So now he’s about to start building a “gigafactory” in Nevada to assemble batteries powerful enough to energise whole cities.

Many questions remain about electric vehicle and energy storage technology, and innovators face stern opposition from the huge array of established businesses threatened with disruption. We don’t know how it will all pan out, but it won’t be boring. That’s life at the cutting edge.

Musk saw long ago the multiple converging roads toward serious advances in curbing emissions. The driver of change is going to be economic disruption. Political action will follow in its wake.

• THE European Union is staging events in seven Australian cities including Hobart as part of a worldwide effort to promote informed debate in the lead-up to this year’s decisive Paris climate summit. Tomorrow from 6 pm at the University of Tasmania’s Aurora Lecture Theatre on Castray Esplanade, a showing of the film The Climate Blueprint will be followed by a public discussion.