From little things, big things can grow

The lesson from Woking: Real carbon emissions reduction is possible while enhancing the quality of civic life. [5 August 2008 | Peter Boyer]

Amid the gloom about climate are beacons of hope – individuals quietly going about their business of improving the environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these beacons are to be found more in local settings than on national and international stages.

Woking’s energy management system, showing inter-connecting heating, cooling and electrical arrangements.

Woking’s energy management system, showing inter-connecting heating, cooling and electrical arrangements.

An information session about the Rudd government’s “carbon pollution reduction scheme” last week was a dispiriting experience – not because the scheme is without merit, but because the discussion was several stages removed from the physical reality of carbon pollution.

It’s that disjunct that so bothers me, and I’m sure many others. Reducing the climate risk demands swift, direct, decisive – and physical action, most importantly to use energy more efficiently. So far there’s precious little sign that this is understood in higher political circles.

At a local level it’s possible to feel more hopeful. Not that local government doesn’t have its share of climate contrarians – it does – but because some of its people have found real ways to address their personal concerns about how we generate and use energy.

Hobart City Council engineers, for example, have managed to find new sources of energy in landfill and sewage systems, significantly reducing the council’s carbon emissions and electricity bills. This is quite an achievement considering the pace of reforms in state and federal spheres.

An enlightened local authority in the United Kingdom has gone several steps beyond the Hobart experience, with remarkable success. In 1990, a city engineer named Allan Jones began a push by the city of Woking, south-west of London, that by 2005 had achieved emission cuts of nearly 80 per cent and virtual independence from the national electricity grid.

Woking’s innovations came to the attention of nearby London, and in 2005 Allan Jones began applying his vision there, on a scale 80 times that of Woking. Eventually the Sydney City Council came to hear of him, and last month borrowed him, and his ideas, to explore such possibilities for itself.

Allan Jones sees today’s large-scale fossil fuel generating systems, distributing electricity from central power stations over long distances to factories, offices and households, as the biggest threat of all to the planet’s sustainable future.

Woking overcame legal and administrative obstacles to generate its own power while saving millions of pounds. Its energy comes from a “combined heat and power” system that draws on locally-generated gas and solar power to distribute heating and cooling as well as electricity, while also saving heat energy lost in transmission.

Woking’s population is a little more than Launceston’s and about half that of Greater Hobart. Unlike Tasmanian centres it’s close to a world-scale metropolis, so its experience is unlikely to be directly transferable to our own situations. But equally, there’s much that this truly pioneering effort can teach any community.

Tasmanian local councils have shown they can apply imaginative solutions to climate challenges. Perhaps one day our own pioneering civic innovators will, like Allan Jones, tread a world stage to pass on their knowledge and experience.

But before they do, they’ll need some more runs on the board, and for that they’ll need bold, visionary political leadership, at all levels of government. Is that asking too much?

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