Peter Dutton’s high-risk nuclear gambit

How does this work? The Coalition lost the 2022 election in large part because its decades-old climate policy of pretence, denial and delay hit a wall. Now it’s heading for another poll promising more of the same while it experiments with nuclear energy.

This makes no sense without one key factor. Certain influential people in the Coalition – mainly but not entirely in the Nationals part of it – have always believed that the science of greenhouse warming is at best wrong and at worst a cult, or a conspiracy to make us all poor. 

Barnaby Joyce MP and Senator Matt Canavan are leading examplars but far from alone. While pretending to remain committed to a net-zero 2050 target their leader, Peter Dutton, has now placed their climate denialism on centre stage for all to see.

These people have never taken seriously what the entire gamut of relevant sciences – physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, you name it – has been saying for decades with increasing unanimity. That is, that human carbon emissions are causing the climate to get warmer and wilder, that the threat is mounting rapidly, and that the only solution is for rich nations to eliminate carbon from their energy mix, quickly.

As if it’s just gossip or a scary fairy tale, Peter Dutton has let all this wash over him. In offering nuclear as an alternative to Labor’s all-out solar and wind rollout he’s kicking the can down the road for short term gain, counting on the near-term pain of rising living costs eclipsing all other concerns until after the next election.

The rise of populism in this month’s European elections suggests this tactic might work for him, just as it might work for Donald Trump in November’s US presidential elections. That bleak scenario would see climate action gone from the US agenda and the prospect of the same happening here.

The 2022 election promised to be a turning-point for fossil fuel fortunes. But coal and gas, supported as exports by the Albanese government, will both be buoyed by a Coalition energy manifesto requiring that old power stations keep going until nuclear is ready to plug into their transmission lines.

Last year I wrote that while Australia was right to focus on wind and solar, nuclear energy could not be ruled out long-term. CSIRO’s GenCost report last month advised that as the technology now stands nuclear power would be as much as twice the cost of wind and solar with batteries (a lot more if we go for much-touted small modular reactors or SMRs), and that the first reactor could not be up and running before 2040.

A current commercial move to extend operation of a Hunter Valley coal mine to 2050 has been described by the NSW Environment Protection Authority as the state’s “largest coal mining proposal ever”. The coal is intended for export, but a guaranteed long-term supply would fit neatly into the Coalition’s nuclear plans.

The impact on Australian carbon emissions of the Coalition’s coal-to-nuclear plan would be catastrophic. The desperately tight timetable for meeting Australia’s legislated 2030 emissions target of 43 per cent below 2005 levels would be gone (requiring new legislation) along with our recently-acquired reputation as a nation that cares about climate change. And we would effectively be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which expressly forbids weakening interim targets.

The diminishing number of city-based Liberals know all about the potential electoral cost of so carelessly reversing that target and the reputational gain that came with it. You could see and hear it on the airwaves last week, in their tense, glum expressions and trigger-happy responses to interview questions. 

They went through the motions of trotting out the Coalition talking points – the impact on power prices of Labor’s impossible 2030 emissions and renewables targets, exaggerated costs of carbon-free nuclear, their continuing commitment to Paris and net-zero by 2050 – but there can be no denying that they are deeply worried.

No such concern was evident from their leader, nor from leading proponents of the Coalition’s crash-and-burn policy shift, the likes of Joyce and Canavan and energy spokesman Ted O’Brien. They continue to pay lip-service to the science where convenient while patently rejecting or ignoring those parts that don’t fit. Their demeanour conveys the absolute conviction of a new-age Spanish Inquisition.

There’s a dark cloud hanging over Peter Dutton’s new energy narrative in the form of persistent questioning about the location of nuclear plants. Nuclear risks are doubtless being exaggerated, but given the Coalition’s record of misinformation about renewables and climate change, their leader is in no position to complain. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is there a bias in our land carbon reporting?

How is Australia tracking towards its commitment to cut carbon emissions by 43 per cent by 2030, and to reach net zero by 2050, and how much faith can ordinary citizens have in the answers they get? These are the questions for our age.

Since it began quarterly greenhouse reporting to the UN in 1991, Australia has been refining its methods of measuring emissions, using national inventory data and other sources covering manufacturing, energy use, transport, population, agriculture and weather.

Serving as a check against this “bottom up” approach are CSIRO “top-down” measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations at Cape Grim and Darwin, complemented by ancient air samples extracted from Antarctic ice.

Our reports are said to be well-regarded by the UN, but there remains a high level of uncertainty in one critical category, land use, taking in the huge quantity of carbon flowing in and out of soils and trees. It’s important to keep this under review because trees taking up carbon are the basis of most offsetting schemes – without which the world’s 2050 net-zero targets, including ours, would be unachievable.

Ketan Joshi, an Australian data analyst and writer now living in Norway, took a forensic look at Australia’s land-use emissions data in a post in Giles Parkinson’s Renew Economy last week. His focus was the parameters we use to determine which information is admissible and which isn’t, and how those parameters have been adjusted over the years.

Joshi began with an analogy from NSW public transport: “I remember the time that NSW solved the problems of late trains by changing the definition of late. It didn’t make our lives as commuters any easier, but hey: it did result in fewer late trains. Our problem was not solved. Their problem was.”

A similar mindset, where perceived success is more important than actual success, said Joshi, appears to be influencing the way Australia accounts for its land carbon. He got to work on the emissions data over the decade to last December, and came to the conclusion some sort of political influence was being brought to bear on the way successive Australian governments account for land carbon. 

There’s genuine scientific value in coming to grips with how land carbon works, and Australia is a prominent contributor to this work in gathering historical data and using models to refine that record in periodic revisions. But a trend in the effect of those revisions, previously noted in 2019 by policy analyst Michael Mazengarb and climate scientist Bill Hare, is starting to look disturbing. 

A fortnight ago, Hare observed that “every time the government recalculates how much carbon the land use sector is storing, the less work it has to do on actually cutting emissions from fossil fuels and industry sectors… 24 per cent by 2030, rather than 32 per cent. These changes to land use accounting may sound arcane, but they have very real consequences.”

Joshi commented: “You can see how this is a sort of pincer movement of adjustments: base year goes up to weaken the target, and recent years go down, to further narrow the gap of reductions required.” Adjusting 2005 emissions allowed scope for millions more tonnes of emissions to be released in the year 2030: “roughly equivalent to keeping one of the country’s biggest coal plants open. How lovely.”

“And how gloriously auspicious that every revision to Australia’s emissions accounting method results in the numbers tilting specifically up in the base year, and tilting specifically down in recent years.”

Just hours after Hare’s article was posted the Australian government published its latest emissions report, revealing, as Joshi described it, land use emissions dropping by about six million tonnes per quarter for the past three years – “the most significant downwards revision of recent history of emissions data ever.”

The 2005 baseline adjustments were the subject of some lively email discussion among members of Climate Tasmania last week. Scientists in the group advised that the revisions were part of the normal process of refining models and warned against inferring that there had been political conspiracy. 

We need to have enough faith in scientific processes and safeguards to discard any notion that the Albanese government or any of its predecessors have cooked the books. There is no conceivable avenue for direct political interference in that process – certainly not in Australia.

But governments face immense pressure to show policies succeeding and emissions declining (a pressure increased further by the Coalition’s new policy to defy the Paris Agreement and dump Labor’s 2030 target). In these circumstances bias – conscious or unconscious – is unavoidable.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Specks of light amid gloomy prospects

Out of the gloom come glimmers of light, reminders that while climate change’s worst case scenario may be truly disastrous, there will always be reasons to feel better about the future. 

Here’s a sampling from my inbox on just a couple of days last week. First, a technology that promises to help Tasmanian aquaculture move away from vulnerable coastal waters into more environmentally friendly offshore locations. Last week the Western Australian company Carnegie Clean Energy told the ASX that its wavepower system, MoorPower, had shown its suitability for commercial operation, replacing diesel power for, among other things, maintenance activities for offshore fish farming.

Something that every drought-afflicted farmer dreams about: Nature Communications has just published a paper by Australian National University scientists about a new method of using sunlight to get freshwater from the ocean or from saline groundwater. It uses just a fifth of the energy demanded by the complex membranes, high pressure and heat of conventional desalination plants. 

The technique of thermodiffusive desalination – TDD for short – relies on a natural process called thermodiffusion by which salt moves in liquid water from warmer to cooler conditions. Repeated cycles of water through a temperature-controlled chamber separates out water that’s fresh enough for most crops. 

Another low-tech climate solution involving use of trees and light-coloured, light-reflective roofs to reduce heatwave impact was investigated by a Los Angeles research team looking at how such simple changes might affect the wellbeing of city people subjected to the most obvious impact of global warming, more heatwaves.

The heat team, calling themselves the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative, examined data from thousands of visits to the city’s hospital emergency rooms and looked at how these cases might be affected by changes in two critical elements, tree cover and light-coloured roofs. They found the changes could lower ground temperatures by as much as 3C and cut heatwave deaths by a quarter. 

The Australian science news feed Scimex reported on a detailed analysis by the George Institute for Global Health of Australia’s food purchasing patterns, to identify best pathways to lower emissions, and on promising work at the University of Queensland to smooth the transition to electric vehicles.

With take-up of electric cars gathering pace here, as it is throughout the developed world, the UQ team identified key steps for a smooth transition: rolling out charging stations for all electric vehicles including trucks and buses, enabling EVs to supply power to the grid, training EV mechanics and introducing in stages EV road-user charges – rich pickings for every government needing to put together policies and laws for the coming transport revolution.

Scimex also reported on studies by Murdoch University (WA), Deakin University (Victoria) and the University of Technology Sydney to develop a “reconfigurable multi-microgrid system” connecting dispersed microgrids to enable a national clean energy network to meet highly variable, intermittent demands.

How about guilt-free chocolate? Swiss food scientists have produced a palatable chocolate made solely with ingredients from a cocoa pod – importantly containing no added sugar – to eliminate production waste while cutting manufacturing and transport emissions. The new process draws on the surprising discovery that cocoa pod waste contains a chemical that performs the sweetening role of sugar.

Smart technology delivering reliable clean energy and precious water, ideas to make cities cooler, smoothing the transition to EVs and lowering food emissions, low-waste sugarless chocolate… all of these are things to take pride in. The people behind them are working in the public interest to deliver ideas and products that will make lives better and lessen our impact on the planet. 

Every day, so many creative ideas and clever technologies. Multiply that by dozens, hundreds, thousands maybe, of the people involved in each of these ideas. Scientists, technicians, engineers, data specialists, accountants, planners, doctors, executives, company directors, ordinary workers… each of whom has made a personal decision to do something to help smooth the journey ahead.

Those great efforts and thousands more besides are in vain without a critical ingredient, government. Governments must support these good actors while also making the big decisions, however uncomfortable those decisions and however troublesome the world’s bad actors.

Some bad actors seek to dominate others. Others, better intentioned but equally threatening, conceal that threat because it affects their business. The gas industry, for instance, uses every opportunity to ram home its false message that our future wellbeing depends on it being allowed to release carbon from its present safe storage under the ground and under the sea, ultimately to add to all our troubles by supercharging atmospheric warming.

As always, government is the key.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Specks of light amid gloomy prospects