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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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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.

Our love affair with burning stuff

Our governments’ addiction to fossil fuels won’t matter if the financial tap is turned off [19 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Fire and the fuels that feed it have been our bosom companions for as long as we’ve walked the earth. Maybe, after all those millennia sitting around the flickering flame, fire is part of our DNA.

Since its dizzying peak in mid-2008, the world coal price has declined by three-quarters, and is half what it was in April 2011.

The world coal price is now a quarter what it was at its dizzying peak in mid-2008, and much less than half its April 2011 price.

That may help explain why, knowing how carbon-based fuel emissions affect the climate and being fully aware of viable alternatives, we continue to burn coal, oil and gas at an increasing rate. And why we still clear and burn forests.

This last activity suddenly came back into the picture last week with a new proposal from the federal government that burning residue from forest operations should be defined as a source of renewable energy for the purpose of achieving Australia’s 2020 target.

The idea appeals to state MPs from both major parties, as if it’s the silver bullet to lift the industry out of its deep and abiding morass. But forest biomass energy has its own set of problems.

For a start, it’s neither renewable nor clean. Long-established biomass plants in the US have been shown to degrade forest carbon stocks and are frequent offenders against air pollution laws. Add to that handling and transport fuel costs to get the waste to generators and it’s looking very dubious.

Industry advocates hungry for ideas may be tempted, but if they set out down this road they face a lot of trouble and strife for very little return.

It’s a dumb idea, and its chief political proponents know it is. They don’t care about forest biomass energy; their main aim is an ineffectual renewable energy target. Here’s hoping they fail in that aim too.

What of fossil fuels? The companies that produce and burn coal, which remains the biggest single source of carbon pollution, back carbon capture and storage (CCS) to sort everything out. But we have little to see for billions of dollars invested in CCS, much of it coming from public sources.

The designers of 16 large-scale CCS projects operating or being constructed around the world today plan for them to store a total of 36 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in a year. That amounts to less than 0.1 per cent of current fossil fuel emissions.

CCS won’t fix the problem and we must stop pretending it will. Recognising this, the International Energy Agency advises that the only way to keep below a dangerous 2C of warming is to prevent most of the remaining coal, oil and gas from being burned.

If this were to happen, currently-undeveloped coal reserves such as Queensland’s vast Galilee Basin would have to stay untouched, and BP and others will have to be told they can’t exploit deep-water oil and gas deposits in the Great Australian Bight. Can you see that happening?

Fossil fuels are the life-blood of Australian governments, as they are of the corporations that mine them. They say they accept that burning fossil fuel destabilises the climate but they don’t dwell on it. Perhaps they figure they won’t be around when the climate has the final say.

There’s an alternative scenario. The coal, oil and gas industries discover that they can’t raise the huge amounts of money needed to develop new reserves. Their capital dries up as banks turn away. If they’re smart they cut their losses and get out; if not they collapse and die.

The University of Tasmania has one of Tasmania’s larger investment portfolios. A study by a group called Fossil Free UTAS has found that in the 10 months to the end of April 2015, the falling value of fossil fuel investments cost the university nearly $93,000.

The UTAS stocks reflect a global decline in fossil fuel investment. Coal stocks are now worth less than a quarter what they were in 2011. There’s reason to think the industry is close to an endgame.

So should universities divest from fossil fuels? Should banks support coal mining? These and other questions are being posed in “Raise the Heat”, a global campaign instigated by US-based 350.org.

In Hobart on Thursday (6.30pm, Stanley Burbury Theatre, Sandy Bay) a panel of representatives from 350.org, the University of Tasmania, the legal profession and the superannuation industry will debate the ethics of investing (or not) in fossil fuel.

At 12.15 pm on Friday there’s to be a public demonstration outside Commonwealth Bank offices near Elizabeth Mall, Hobart, where Hobart financial adviser Stuart Barry will speak about the power of consumers to change banks’ attitudes to coal and other fossil fuel investments.

• THE HOBART City Council invites community input for a survey (closing Monday) on the Nutgrove and Long Beach Coastal Adaptation Project, an initiative of the council and the state government.

Local government: voices from among us

With higher tiers of government falling victim to ideology and big business, we need to hear the voices of ordinary people. [12 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

It’s hard to ignore the solemn, deliberate voice of leading US climate scientist James Hansen talking about the “unthinkable” consequences of today’s emissions and what has to be done.

An ordinary person: Alderman Sue Hickey, Lord Mayor of Hobart  PHOTO Hobart Observer

An ordinary person: Alderman Sue Hickey, Lord Mayor of Hobart. PHOTO Hobart Observer

Last week Hansen told Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National of his proposal for an “honest” price for fossil fuel: a fee for pollution payable at the source by responsible companies, with revenue to be distributed equally to all individuals regardless of standing or wealth.

Hansen is a physicist by training, but on economic policy he’s an ordinary layperson. Some might say he should stick to what he knows best, but I wonder if that’s relevant. The climate debate is no longer about specialist information, but about what ordinary people think.

Here in Australia, the unprecedented threat of climate change is proving beyond the imagination and brainpower of governments at both federal and state levels. The prevailing attitude in the political and business elite is to take the foetal position and avoid mentioning it.

Today’s MPs operate in a bubble. Their ability to serve the public interest has been seriously compromised by the rise of ideology and by well-heeled business lobbying that’s taken over their lines of communication, cutting them off from the rest of us.

Another tier of government – the local one – has two advantages over its state and federal masters: it’s not weighed down by party politics, and it’s closest to the lives of ordinary people.

Councils have always been on the front line of climate change impacts: heatwaves, wildfire, drought, storm, flooding and erosion.

The failure of higher tiers of government have exposed local government’s scant resources to complex financial and legal issues arising out of climate events. But with climate impacts already in train, it has no option but to get involved.

Tasmanian councils are well-attuned to the need to adapt to changing climate. Thanks to a multi-year southern councils project part-funded by the Hobart City Council, all councils now have access to a regional adaptation strategy, a comprehensive basis for their own local planning.

Some councils including Hobart, Kingborough and Clarence have staff dedicated to environmental issues, including planning for climate change and addressing climate-related issues as they arise. The question isn’t whether they should plan and act, but how.

Take the example of Hobart City Council. Having joined Cities for Climate Protection in 1999, it launched its “Greenhouse Local Action Plan” in 2001, seven years before Tasmania’s climate laws were enacted.

By 2006 the city administration had cut its own emissions by 75 per cent, including electricity generation from captured methane emissions at McRobie’s Gully landfill site. It’s since used heat-exchange technology to cut the Hobart Aquatic Centre’s heating bills by 65 per cent.

From 2007 to 2013 it gave rate rebates for solar hot water and energy-efficient homes, and worked with other councils, including Launceston, in helping householders improve their home insulation.

Currently pursuing a five-year low-energy LED street lighting plan, council officers are also looking at ways of saving transport energy, including charging stations for electric cars.

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with Hobart’s new Lord Mayor, Alderman Sue Hickey, to explore her vision for the city’s future and her response to the city’s climate programs and policies.

Acknowledging that humans are influencing climate, Hickey emphasised that she considers herself an ordinary person. “I’m not a scientist, but I am a realist, and I know we have to do something.”

In preparing itself for future challenges, says Hickey, Hobart will be economically better off and a better place to live. She’s proud of the council’s achievements to date, but wants to open more doors to change and innovation in transport and recreation, building and planning.

On the day of our meeting the council voted to seek information from the major banks about energy projects in which its funds are invested and tell them it wants to ensure these meet ethical standards. That doesn’t yet amount to divestment from fossil fuels stocks, but it’s a good starting point.

Most of Hickey’s fellow-aldermen have expressed positions which would support strong climate action, all of which gives hope that this city may yet be a spark to fire up the public imagination.

Learning and expertise must now take a back seat. Climate change isn’t about other people but about us. We need authenticity that comes from among us, from ordinary people like Sue Hickey.

YMCA solar array a beacon for the rest of us

Solar power isn’t going to solve global warming, but it’s a great motivator [5 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Great news for YMCA Launceston’s bottom line: a big new rooftop solar array now on line at its Kings Meadows recreation centre will cut its big electricity bill by 80 per cent or more.

99 solar panels adorn the roof of YMCA Launceston Recreation Centre, Kings Meadows. PHOTO YMCA Launceston

99 solar panels adorn the roof of YMCA Launceston Recreation Centre, Kings Meadows. PHOTO YMCA Launceston

On a bright day its 25-kilowatt system will handle virtually all the heavy heating load imposed by the city’s cold winter weather and enable the organisation to redirect thousands of dollars annually into its core business of helping people enjoy a fit and healthy life.

The array resulted from a collaboration between YMCA and the Australian Conservation Foundation to deliver a program called Spark: Energy for Change. YMCA Launceston also got financial help from Tasmanian Trustees.

Spark, which seeks to improve knowledge and skills in energy efficiency, is funded out of the federal Energy Efficiency Information Grant. That’s a pat on the back for the Abbott government.

The solar panels, culmination of many years’ work by YMCA Launceston to improve its buildings’ energy efficiency, were “a big win for us and the environment”, as CEO Jodie Johnson put it.

Let me anticipate some criticism. Solar panels are made using fossil fuels. They can’t provide continuous base-load power. They’re only for rich people and depend on public subsidy.

There’s some truth in that, but there’s also a lot wrong with it. For example, the fossil fuels now used to make solar panels are steadily being replaced by renewable energy.

Solar panels won’t meet demand by themselves but they’re making inroads. Sooner than many of us think, using new battery technology being rolled out in the US and Germany will routinely provide 24-hour coverage.

They used to be expensive, but no more. The cost of solar power was more than US$75 per watt in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter had panels installed on the roof of the White House (removed in 1986 by Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan.)

By 1990 the price per watt was below $10. It was around $5 by the turn of the century and has now dropped below US$1 a watt. Driven by unprecedented demand, the cost of solar continues to drop.

Millions of people now pay market prices for solar panels, unsubsidised. YMCA Launceston did have government support for its large installation, but eventually that sort of help won’t be needed.

The journey to our energy future passed a tipping point in 2013. Since that year, energy analysts Bloomberg concluded recently, renewable energy capacity being added globally has been greater than the capacity of all new coal, natural gas and oil plants.

There’s no going back, says Bloomberg. The trend for new fossil-fuel capacity is heading steadily down while that for renewable energy is rising sharply, so that by 2030 the output from new renewable energy plants will be more than four times that of new fossil-fuel plants.

Odds in the near-term seem stacked against renewable energy in Australia. With our 2020 renewable energy target in limbo while political forces continue to debate the appropriate level, venture capital for renewable projects has all but vanished.

But as the Bloomberg report shows, the Australian domestic scene is definitely not the norm elsewhere. Australia will eventually fall into line with the global trend, and fossil fuels will lose out.

That’s a hopeful sign we can achieve a better future. But hope is one thing; blind optimism another altogether. I’m very conscious of the danger of slipping into what the English climate writer George Marshall calls “bright-siding”.

Borrowing from the movie Life of Brian, Marshall refers to something we’ve been brought up to do: always look on the bright side of life. But as he says, too much reliance on technology and growth hides the every more pressing need to act decisively to cut emissions, and that we don’t need.

Repairing the damage done by our use of fossil fuels has to come from within us. Individually and collectively we must acknowledge the danger ahead, accept our responsibility to mitigate that danger, and get on with the job, together.

Solar arrays and wind farms attract attention. They’re a powerful statement about our predicament, a reminder that something has to change, a point confirmed by the expressions of irritation about them coming from people who disbelieve the evidence for global warming.

But that’s a small minority’s view. As genuine contributors to lower emissions, the YMCA Launceston array and many others like it are visible symbols of a better future, something to lift spirits and motivate stronger mitigation efforts. That we do need.