Atmosphere reveals that we’re living a lie

Our governments have been cooking the carbon accounting books. It’s past time they stopped.

From Hugh Saddler’s National Energy Emissions Audit, June 2017 (The Australia Institute).

From Hugh Saddler’s National Energy Emissions Audit, June 2017 (The Australia Institute).


There are many measures of our performance in reducing carbon emissions, but only one that counts. As Bill Clinton might have said, it’s the atmosphere, stupid!

In the mid-1950s Charles David Keeling’s first analysis of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere put it at 310 parts per million (ppm). A few years later, after factoring in daily and seasonal fluctuations, Keeling discovered the rising trend we’re familiar with today.

In 2013 the level at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, rose above 400 ppm for the first time. It is now much higher everywhere – even at the South Pole – and for the past two years it’s been rising globally at an unprecedented rate.

Australia is among many jurisdictions that have claimed their national emissions are under control, including multiple statements to that effect by environment minister Josh Frydenberg and his predecessor, Greg Hunt. We will “easily” meet our targets, they say.

What’s happening here? We know that China and India are big emitters, but with global emissions rising so quickly could Australia be as squeaky-clean as it claims?

The letter of the law says Frydenberg and Hunt are right. National data collected under internationally-agreed formulas clearly show us under our 2012 Kyoto target and likely to be the same for our 2020 target. But science and common sense say otherwise.

Science warns that the main cause of warming is direct emissions from fossil fuels, and Australia’s fossil-fuel emissions rose by 28 per cent between 1990 and 2012. That the government is able to imply otherwise is due mainly to a deal known as the “Australia clause” of the Kyoto Protocol

Secured by the Howard government when it threatened to pull out of climate talks in 1997, this clause and the overarching Kyoto decision to cover land use and forestry allow federal and state governments to selectively use such data to “offset” (or conceal) increases in fossil-fuel emissions.

Tasmanian emissions, for instance, are made to look spectacularly good by including take-up of carbon by today’s regrowing forests, yet our fossil-fuel emissions have not moved for years. Greg Hunt called this sort of accounting “gold standard”. I call it cooking the books.

Real gold-standard emissions accounting is the aim of Hugh Saddler, of the ANU’s Centre for Climate Economics and Policy. The story told in his latest quarterly National Energy Emissions Audit, published by the Australia Institute, is in stark contrast to the official one.

There’s a lot to learn from Saddler’s graphs of energy emissions since 2010. Emissions from coal and gas generation dropped markedly during the years of a carbon price (2012 to 2014), but rose sharply from July 2014 when the price was abolished. We hear nothing of that from government.

Saddler’s latest report shows Australian emissions rising because of natural gas burned in the production process for liquefied natural gas, despite slightly lower emissions from electricity generation due to a fall in demand and more grid-connected wind and solar farms.

Latest official figures, for 2014-15, show a small annual decrease in total Australian emissions but a rise by 1.4 per cent when land-use data is removed. As Saddler points out, the official figure showing a big emissions reduction since 2005 was entirely due to land-use data.

There are similar lessons for the Hodgman government in some detailed analysis of Tasmanian emissions by Todd Houstein, an engineer by training who now manages the non-government organisation Sustainable Living Tasmania.

Extrapolating from the internationally-recognised global carbon budget (the permissible amount of fossil-fuel emissions for a safe climate), Houstein calculates that on a per-capita, business-as-usual basis Tasmania’s share will be gone in less than 10 years.

That must not be the end of the story. With community and business focused on a clean energy future, guided by a government with vision, Australia can make huge strides in a very short space of time. But first, people have to be properly informed.

We will only make real progress on emissions when governments find the courage and resolve to come clean about the data. Until then, we’re living a lie.

Posted in agriculture and farming, Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon offsetting, carbon pricing scheme, carbon tax, climate politics, coal-fired, electricity networks, energy, forests and forestry, fossil fuels, gas-fired, hydro, land use, renewable energy, solar, Tasmanian politics, wind | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some things are too serious for party games

The journey to common ground is a slow and tortuous process.

Education minister Simon Birmingham and PM Malcolm Turnbull celebrate the passage of Gonski 2.0 legislation last week. PHOTO AAP

Education minister Simon Birmingham and PM Malcolm Turnbull find something to laugh about after the passage of Gonski 2.0 legislation last week. PHOTO AAP

The big lesson from the parliamentary deliberations in Canberra and Hobart last week is that in the face of public division, the reasonable middle ground can still hold sway.

In Canberra, a government victory for its schools package set David Gonski’s needs-based funding model in concrete, however imperfectly, reversing a historic trend in school funding that has produced a notoriously inequitable education system.

Bill Shorten and his education shadow minister Tanya Plibersek bitterly contested the bill, arguing that it cut overall funding. But that’s party politics. Malcolm Turnbull’s policy reversal on schools was a win for equity; Labor should embrace it and then work to improve things.

In Hobart the Legislative Council tossed out two government bills, one to allow special-species logging in World Heritage-listed forests and the other to remove a judge’s discretion in determining punishment for child sex offenders, requiring a prison term in all cases.

Another contentious Hodgman government bill is under a cloud after debate was delayed until August. The bill, seeking to exempt from prosecution for offending people statements made for religious purposes, has been strongly opposed by minority groups.

The Hodgman government has vowed to continue pursuing all these issues, but the parliament has determined the middle ground. The government would be well advised to move on.

Which brings me to climate change.

It’s 25 years this month since Australia and other nations at the Rio Earth Summit, accepting scientific evidence, agreed to do all they could to prevent human greenhouse emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, from destabilising global climate. That’s a quarter of a century to do what we said we’d do. Plenty of time to get things right.

Yet with emissions remaining stubbornly high we still have no national strategy and no economy-wide levers to bring them down. Multiple federal and state jurisdictions are failing to fulfil their obligations.

We demand a solid baseline position across the party divide on school funding and Medicare. Is it too much to demand agreement on essential climate measures?

Opposing parties are at the heart of our Westminster system, and I’m not suggesting that each side should stop identifying with particular causes for electoral gain, as Shorten and Plibersek were trying to do over school education, and resources minister Guy Barnett over forest harvesting.

But for everything worth pursuing there comes a time when divisive debate must end. We know we’re at that point when the noise of claim and counter-claim – parties staking out their territories – drowns out sound logic and underlying messages.

All these debates – public versus private school funding, forest conservation versus harvesting, mandatory versus discretionary sentencing, special treatment for religions and climate mitigation – have been sapping the energy of our parliaments for far longer than they should.

For the record, I believe it was a mistake to offer public funds to private schools in the first place. I think that logging and wilderness values cannot coexist, that there should be no protection for religious bigotry, and that judicial discretion is essential to good governance.

I know that others genuinely see things differently, so in a spirit of finding common ground I accept (with limitations) aid to private schools, allowances made for forest harvesting and religious communities, and a political interest in judicial processes.

As for climate, science tells us that we are in a full-blown global crisis. Most people in authority sense this but the political discourse doesn’t accommodate existential threat. In the game of politics everything is a matter of opinion, responsibility can be passed on, and delay matters little.

So we search for a reasonable middle ground, a place from where there can be no retreat, such as the retreat that happened in 2014 when Australia ditched its carbon price.

Perhaps the Clean Energy Target recommended by chief scientist Alan Finkel will be that middle ground, but a decision has been postponed another couple of months. That’s politics.

Posted in Australian politics, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, climate politics, climate sensitivity, forests and forestry, future climate, inequality, leadership, modelling, Tasmanian politics | Leave a comment

Pussy Riot brings its defiant message to Hobart

Brave young warriors put their case for a more civil Russia Russia.

Pussy Riot members Sasha Bogino (left) and co-founder Masha Alyokhina at a panel discussion in Los Angeles ahead of their visit to Australia. PHOTO Carl Pocket, Spaceland Presents

Pussy Riot members Sasha Bogino (left) and Masha Alyokhina at a panel discussion in Los Angeles ahead of their visit to Australia. PHOTO Carl Pocket, Spaceland Presents

Enormous, harsh, lonely, puzzling, stubborn, crazy. Unique.

I visited European Russia in 1978 during Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet regime –not for the politics, which thoroughly repelled me, but because I thought that the land that gave us Anna Karenina and Uncle Vanya and the Rite of Spring had to have something going for it.

For all the difficulties in travelling there – not least the surveillance of my every move – I cherish some special memories of St Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow, including a walking tour of Moscow churches, neglected under communism, with a local architecture devotee.

The sudden collapse of Russia’s communist security blanket in 1991 was followed by a spectacular capitalist boom and then a devastating economic crash. With that came institutional failure and the rise of a despot, Vladimir Putin.

The country ought to be on its knees, but it isn’t. The official attribution for this would include strong government and a revived Russian Orthodox Church. But it goes wider and deeper than that.

In Hobart last week, thanks to the wondrous Dark Mofo, a packed Federation Hall audience got a rare insight into Russian resilience in the 21st century in an outstanding documentary film, Act and Punishment, followed by a panel discussion featuring leading figures of Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot women are usually represented as punk rockers, but music isn’t what they’re really about. Complacency is their target and shock is their weapon, using funny, loud, very public, in-your-face performances about things they believe are wrong in modern Russia.

Three months after getting together in 2011, they donned knitted masks, climbed on to a scaffold in a Moscow subway station and released feathers from pillows on to waiting passengers while urging strong protest action against the rigging of elections for the national duma, or parliament.

A month later they performed outside a prison, in full view of political protesters jailed for protesting electoral fraud, and a month after that let off a smoke bomb in Red Square as they sang, or rather chanted, “Putin has wet himself”.

The next month, during the 2012 presidential elections, came the event they’re best remembered by. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch endorsed Putin as “a miracle from God”. In response Pussy Riot loudly castigated church and state while dancing at the altar of a Moscow cathedral.

For Putin and his Orthodox allies that was a bridge too far. Instead of the normal fine for disorderly behaviour, three of the group’s most prominent members, including Masha Alyokhina who was on stage in Hobart last week, were seized, tried and sentenced to two years’ jail.

One of the three was released on appeal, but the other two, including Alyokhina, served their sentences by working up to 17 hours a day in different labour camps in remote parts of Russia. Far from breaking them, that just seemed to energise them.

On their release these thoroughly unorthodox artists set up MediaZona, an online channel that reports violence in Russian court and prison systems and against lesbian, gay and transgender people. A young female journalist, Sasha Bogino, represented MediaZona at Dark Mofo.

Russia’s strongly patriarchal society is generally indifferent or hostile to LGBTI people. That, plus the murders of 26 journalists in Russia since Putin first became president in 2000 (data from the international Committee to Protect Journalists), tells us Bogino’s job is nothing if not risky.

On stage in Hobart with Aloykhina and Bogino was Alexander Cheparukhin, a mild-mannered older man who gave up a career as an international music festival producer to take on what must be one of the world’s most dangerous management jobs, looking after the affairs of Pussy Riot.

“You are heroes too,” Aloykhina told her Hobart audience, which made us all feel good, except that we weren’t putting our bodies on the line. But hearing such tough, brave, creative people speaking so generously about their lives and art, you tend to feel positive about their prospects.

Pussy Riot, like all Russian artists working for a strong civil society, richly deserved their prolonged standing ovation last week. As does Dark Mofo for bringing them here.

Posted in inequality, international politics, public opinion, religion, social mindsets, youth activism | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment