Wedges of hope, or despair?

Tony Abbott’s climate “policy” and Tasmania’s emissions analysis confirm what we’re up against in our battle to reduce emissions. [9 February 2010 | Peter Boyer]

Five years ago, with no climate policies in place, Australia’s challenge to cut carbon emissions seemed immense. A couple of events last week strengthened my view that it’s now ten times harder.

First there was Tony Abbott’s release of his party’s climate policy. I call it a policy because that’s the name he gave it, but the word suggests focused, coherent, organised thinking, which was clearly absent when these ideas were cobbled together.

Tony Abbott has succeeded in one thing. His policy makes the Rudd Government’s “carbon pollution reduction scheme” (CPRS) look like a real, cohesive plan — some achievement given the mess that was the CPRS legislation in the dying days of last year’s parliamentary sittings.

There are parts of the Liberals’ “tax-free” option that are worth holding on to, but only as peripheral measures. Where the CPRS offers faint hope of some sort of signal that emitting lots of carbon comes at a cost, the Opposition policy offers none at all. Yet it may resonate electorally, for all the wrong reasons, and that’s cause for dismay.

I’ll take a more detailed look at the Federal scene next week, but for Tasmanians, facing an election in a little over a month, the more significant development last week was the release of a report modestly titled “Understanding the potential for reducing Tasmania’s greenhouse gas emissions”.

This first systematic look at Tasmanian carbon emissions contains valuable data and good ideas for cutting emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, as required by legislation, and its signposts imply a clear future path. But there are some nagging questions (graffiti on the signposts?) that suggest the pathways are anything but clear.

The study, by the Melbourne-based energy-environment consultants McLennan Magasanik Associates, utilised a US-developed “wedges” approach, in which the most effective actions to reduce emissions to achieve the 2050 target are identified for different sectors (shaped like wedges on pie charts) of the Tasmanian economy.

Releasing the report, the Minister assisting the Premier on Climate Change, Lisa Singh, said it provided critical information for moving Tasmania to a low-emission economy in the most efficient and cost effective way while pointing to opportunities available from a low-carbon economy. All very positive, which is what you’d expect of the minister.

Ms Singh has some reason to feel pleased. The report, a result of Paul Lennon’s efforts a couple of years ago to register climate action as a top government priority, is a handy guide to Tasmania’s emissions performance in the recent past and likely sources of savings in the future.

Energy, transport and industry were identified as the three sectors with the greatest potential to contribute to cuts, while agriculture and forestry were seen as valuable though less measurable contributors.

The report indicates that without any abatement measures Tasmania’s greenhouse gas emissions will increase from today’s figure of about nine million tonnes annually to 13 million tonnes in 2050, plus an additional 11 million tonnes if imported coal-fired power is included. Electricity demand is expected to double by 2050.

As the report points out, with most of its electrical energy derived from renewable sources (hydro and wind), Tasmania is unique among Australian states. But with less than five per cent of carbon emissions coming from electricity generation, the task of finding savings is that much harder.

Caution was the watchword of Walter Gerardi, a director of the consulting company, at the release event last week. To meet its target, he said, Tasmania would need to explore every possible abatement avenue.

Ms Singh said a federal CPRS was an important factor in the Tasmanian plan, without which “it will be much more difficult and much more expensive for Tasmania to reduce emissions”. As we know, there’s no guarantee that we will ever get such a scheme.

The report provides other reasons for caution. It factors in availability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. There’s been a well-resourced CCS research effort for many years now, with nothing to indicate that it will become cost-effective or widely applicable any time soon.

The report offers the prospect of agricultural land being given over to forest for purposes of sequestering carbon, an already-controversial idea which presupposes that the trees will remain unharvested and which seems somewhat counter to David Bartlett’s “foodbowl” plans.

These are big questions that entitle us to be doubtful about prospects for reducing emissions in Tasmania. We need somehow to avoid that forecast doubling of energy demand by 2050. There is a proven solution, but governments will never countenance it — a good old economic downturn.

My biggest concern about last week’s event was the absence of the Premier. Lisa Singh’s portfolio is called “minister assisting the premier on climate change”, implying that climate change is primarily David Bartlett’s responsibility (though it doesn’t get a mention in his portfolio list).

This report ought to be the foundation of his 2010 policy for re-election. His continued absence from this discussion — along with that of his opposite number, Will Hodgman — speaks volumes.

Signposts to a better future

MMA’s report recommends that to facilitate the shift to a low-carbon economy, the government needs to:

Foster development of  renewable energy resources, notably geothermal, marine (tide and wave) and biomass.

Help people and organisations become more energy-efficient.

Create planning frameworks for building design and location to maximise energy and transport efficiency and accommodate low-carbon transport.

Foster research and development into adapting abatement technologies for the Tasmanian environment, such as algal carbon capture and agricultural mitigation measures.

Investigate emissions reduction benefits from increasing forest harvesting rotation periods.

Improve public transport facilities, including walking and cycling tracks.

Support development of networks for electric vehicle battery recharge and replacement.

Develop education programs for farmers on new emission reduction practices.

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One Response to Wedges of hope, or despair?

  1. Chris Harries says:

    I noticed the Mercury appended a photo to this article – an electric car – with a simplistic caption suggesting that electric cars would reduce greenhouse emissions.

    We have to be a tad careful about any such grand premise. Anyone plugging in an electric or hybrid electric car to the Tasmanian grid at present would simply add to power demand growth and consume electricity supplied from the brown coal power stations in Victoria. The inefficiency of deriving such motive power from coal is worse than burning petrol in an internal combustion engine.

    Conversion of the world’s private car fleet to electric vehicles equals only one thing: massive upscaling of nuclear power in every country in the world. Advocacy of electric cars to maintain large scale private transportation = advocacy of nuclear power.

    In an ideal world we would focus firstly on reducing private transport needs (via such things as urban design and IT) and provide most of those needs by public transport. Very small electric cars will have a role in the future, but only after there is a massive upscaling of renewable power, over and above that required for our other needs.

    Many well meaning people having little or no technical expertise maintain a romantic notion that we can magically switch over the present day car fleet to electric or hydrogen vehicles, imagining a few rooftop solar panels providing the energy for them. Not possible, the sums simply don’t add up.

    The worst thing human civilisation can do at this juncture in its history is to try to make dilute energy sources do what concentrated energy sources have done in the past. Laws of physics don’t allow it and even if we try to the environmental consequences would be horrific. The only viable (non fossil fuel) concentrated energy source available is nuclear power.

    That aside, the Wedges Analysis was quite interesting. I was particularly interested to find out that a new technological breakthrough with aluminium production (carbon-free furnace anodes) may, in one fell swoop, enable Comalco’s Bell Bay smelter to reduce Tasmania’s carbon footprint by more than all the efforts that all of Tasmania’s households can muster together by such things as high level insulation and turning off their stand-by power. Let’s hope that industrial breakthrough becomes real.

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