Friday, 16 March 2012

A simple lesson for the normal continent

Yesterday, the Australian produced some statistics that damn Australia's dictatorial coal lobby which says that renewable energy is inherently extremely inefficient and challenges to a small (but insufficient) extent my own fears that Australia's politicians are much too tied to the energy lobbies to do something about the continent's greenhouse gas emissions.

This study – produced by a newspaper generally regarded as conservative – shows that South Australia is a world leader in renewable energy and its per capita development of wind power is the highest in the world. For a state like Western Australia facing loss of its urban water supply and some of the most unique-in-the-Holocene, (as Antoni Milewski points out in a discussion with me) ecosystems to the loss of the winter Ferrel cell known to be certain from modern CO2 concentrations and temperatures, there ought to be absolute demands for energy efficiency enormously greater than nations that possess the most ephemeral and short-lived ecosystems, which developed on soils that allow for extremely easy manipulation to produce large and reliable food supplies for storage during a long gelid or near-gelid season where food can easily be stored.

In Australia, by comparison, ecosystems have not changed radically since the Paleocene, when mean annual temperatures over the globe were similar to those in Australia today at an average maximum of a hot 28°C. Average soil fertility – indicated by fossil laterites in heavily glaciated Scotland and Antarctica – was also relatively similar to modern Australia at maximally one-fifth to one-seventh the levels of non-occluded phosphorus found in soils of the Enriched World today. Such conditions create greatly more complex ecosystem relations than found in the hypereutrophic, fast-paced (in metabolism) and extremely competitive Enriched World where a very small number of species able to use large and extremely soluble nutrient supplies can drive huge numbers of taxa to extinction. (For instance, such exclusively hot-climate bird taxa as the Coliiformes, Gabulidae, Bucconidae and Todidae all originated in pre-glaciation Europe but are extinct in even the hottest parts of the Enriched World today).

In the Unenriched World, manipulating ultra-cheap land to produce food outcompetes any food production in the Enriched World, but the consequences for the very complex ecosystems on geologically commonplace soils are severe. Australia’s and Southern Africa’s native plants cannot tolerate Enriched World levels of soluble nutrients, and creating them can severely damage soils especially in areas like the Murray-Darling Basin that have spent most of geological history as shallow seas. Runaway climate change could also affect productivity in hot environments by changing rainfall or requiring crops that could cope with more heavily leached soils.

In parts of the Tropical World where young mountains erode to soils of Enriched World or even greater fertility, population densities can rise much higher than anywhere in cooler latitudes because the hot climate allows extremely rapid growth of very high-yielding crops. Paradoxically, however, this places the more fertile parts of the Tropical World in the same position as the Enriched.

The real surprise that is so critical is how, even with a government failing entirely to support renewable energy, South Australia has come very far in this respect. Although South Australia is receiving very little from the minerals boom, it still has been shown by the Australian Energy Market Operator to have the lowest energy prices in the country. If such can be verified, there are some severe lessons to be learned for our governments. These are:
  1. eliminate subsidies to the mining and aviation sectors
  2. eliminate disincentives to renewable energy development
  3. aim to use simple regulations that cannot be circumvented to phase out fossil fuel energy

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