The price of clean technology

Climate policy decisions – or their absence – in both global and local debates are bringing into focus something we have always known about greenhouse warming: the actions needed to mitigate its impact are not just up to leaders, but us personally as well.

The heart of the problem is fossil fuel emissions, and the failure of the UN climate meeting in Egypt (COP-27) to address that intensifies the spotlight on what we in Australia are going to do about natural gas – methane from the ground. 

Early this century gas was touted as the cleaner alternative to coal, but subsequent studies of its extraction, transportation and use show that to be wrong: gas may turn out to be every bit as hazardous as coal. Yet COP-27, led by states fronting for the fossil fuel industry, carefully avoided strengthening national commitments to phase out its use.

Many households still rely on gas for water and space heating, while instant heat has made it the best option for serious cooking. Now there’s a push to replace gas with electric cooktops that use magnetic induction to deliver instant heat, with professional cooks telling us they’re the way of the future.

No doubt that’s true, but there is a replacement cost, mainly the stove itself but your pans too if they happen to be copper-based or aluminium, neither of which work on an induction cooktop. And gas is not affected by loss of electric power – important if you live in a place where grid electricity is often disrupted by nature.

Heating living spaces is the other big energy issue for Tasmanian households, which brings all sorts of things into play including windows and insulation. In my brick home we have added ceiling insulation, but we do lose energy through walls and floors.

Life-changing improvements for us some years ago were solar hot water, double-glazing and a reverse-cycle air conditioner. The work was straightforward – all our windows are easily accessible from the ground – and for the space heater we were able to access a no-interest government loan, but it took a big chunk out of our retirement savings.

Our electric space heater is efficient and convenient (except when the power’s out), but a wood fire is something else. On bleak winter evenings our 30-year-old firebox gives us that added, indefinable feeling of comfort that humans have enjoyed down the ages. I’m sure most Tasmanians share our love of a good fire.

In terms of contributing to global warming, burning renewable wood fuel is not comparable to burning non-renewable fossil fuels, but today’s standard heater releases much more carbon into the air than the most advanced designs, while also posing a threat to our health.

Limiting wood fires’ fine-particle pollution has been a research focus over many years for John Todd, a retired University of Tasmania teacher and atmospheric physicist. Recently he’s been investigating how the burning of wood affects air quality and climate change.

The findings from this work will have big implications for how Tasmanians heat their homes in a climate-constrained future. Based on CSIRO calculations of firewood consumption, it seems our wood-burning heaters produce enough greenhouse gas to make a significant dent in the government’s current claim to carbon neutrality.

But all may not be lost for wood-fire aficionados. Ultra-low-emission burners (ULEBs), including a New Zealand design, cut 90 per cent of emissions of fine particles, methane and carbon monoxide while improving burning efficiency. Eucalypt firewood yielded similar results in ULEB tests funded by the University of Tasmania.

Rollout of these heaters along with reverse-cycle electric heaters, induction cooktops, solar hot water and power appliances, home insulation and double-glazing – not to mention fully electric cars – can reduce carbon emissions, but it needs to happen quickly and on a large scale. 

That will not happen if people must rely entirely on their their own resources. Buying new technologies is not cheap, and a laissez-faire approach to energy transition is bound to end up in a society even more unequal and divided than it is now.

Official encouragement is needed to help low-income households improve their situation. Ideas submitted to the public review of Tasmanian climate legislation that sought to minimise stranded assets like ageing petrol-driven vehicles or poorly-equipped, poorly-insulated homes – a “just transition” to a post-carbon future – were not taken up by the government.

The take-home message from last week’s CSIRO-Bureau of Meteorology State of the Climate report is there’s no time left for messing around. Without effective planning to minimise disruption while supporting that all-important just transition, the tough times we find ourselves in will only get tougher, financially as well as physically.

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