Sunday, 30 December 2012

Why we need to be simple and harsh about coal

Today's Australian has a strange article titled ‘Modern Don Quixote tilts at wind turbines’ which is a strange outline of Hamish Cumming, whom The Australian says:
“doesn’t fit the mould of an anti-environment crusader, climate-change denier or fossil-fuel industry stooge”
because of his interest in organic farming and the protection of brolgas in northern Australia.

What The Australian is saying about Cumming is that he has revealed the subsidies to wind farms have served to reduce the efficiency of coal-fired power stations so that they emit the same quantity of CO2 that they emitted before wind subsidies began. He says that a mockery is made of the carbon-saving ability of wind farms when much coal is burned without producing electricity.

Cumming’s major criticism is the inability of the Australian Energy Market Operator to obtain details for how much CO2 comes out of the exceptionally dirty brown coal-fired power stations of West Gippsland. What is telling is when Cumming notes:
“…when Inquirer asked International Power Australia, owners of the Hazelwood and Loy Yang power stations, for coal-use data it was told “this is a difficult time of the year; I’m afraid we will have to politely decline””
Such a result is very telling about the power of the coal industry in Australia – and it is totally unacceptable that the owners of such environmentally destructive machines should be permitted to get away with it. In fact, it has been telling ever since Australia failed to shut down these power plants when demands in that direction were made some time ago now and highlighted in publications like Green Left Weekly.

There is not doubt that a plan to completely shut down coal-fired power stations in Australia is the most essential step anywhere in the world to combating CO2 emissions. Australia has the highest per-capita emissions in the world and is at extreme risk from the likely loss of its winter-rainfall ecosystems in the south and the potential loss of its breadbasket in the Murray-Darling Basin. The environmental cost of shifting to nations with poorer regulations is minimal as I have outlined in 2009: most nations with poor regulations have neither coal reserves nor reliable hydropower nor the infrastructure to absorb smelting of metals like aluminum.

It is probable that a plan to shut down coal- and other fossil fuel-fired power stations would involve fewer and less expensive regulations than plans based merely on power output restrictions: the simplest laws are always the most efficient and effective if they attack a problem directly. Australia therefore needs a serious plan to phase out coal production and use the land where it stands for seriously needed expansion of its laggardly conservation reserve network.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Is this wisdom without a clue?

In today’s Australian, the chief of the UN’s climate change section, Christiana Figueres, has said:
“Each one of us needs to assume responsibility. It’s not just about domestic governments”
On the surface, this is a most welcome comment. The trouble is that many people may not know how to assume responsibility, or even who is failing to do this and is responsible for the present increases in greenhouse emissions.

It can very easily be established that Australia is the chief culprit, but the questions is how Australians and non-Australians can counter this urgent problem, and Figueres, like so many abroad, seems to have little idea.

The first issue is how to educate children on the key issues regarding climate change, which are not melting of polar ice caps, sea ice or permafrost, but rather changes in rainfall observed over many hotter regions. Most significant among these are Western Australia and parts of southern South America. In both regions, rainfall has declined dramatically over the west coasts in the subtropics and increased in the same latitudes further east due to the pushing of the subpolar westerlies southwards at a rate of about 18 kilometres per year. This has virtually made Perth’s water storages kaput: since 2001 the average runoff has been only 70 gigalitres per year, or around 20 percent the average from 1900 to 1967. In fact, the total runoff since 2001 has been less than that in July 1946 alone.
The consequences on observed climate changes – a 1 percent decline in rainfall per year over 45 years – would be the loss of almost all endemic species from southwestern Australia by 2050, and similar though less severe changes are possible in parts of South America.

The second issue, once Australia’s unique responsibility for the pollution that causes global warming is established, is how people concerned with Australia can be prepared to make the large sacrifices required to achieve a carbon-free lifestyle. Most Australians have no access to reasonable public transport and may not wish for it, but it is essential that young people in Australia’s suburbs volunteer to:
  1. refuse to use private motorised transport even where alternatives are inconvenient
  2. avoid using mains electricity wherever possible
A voluntary campaign involving education and practical use of these principles both by Australians and tourists – who seldom see beyond the central cities with their relatively usable public transport – is a definite key to solving the climate crisis. Those passionate about this issue – even if not from Australia - must work together to create a volunteer program with the basics outlined above.

Sad to say, people concerned about global warming are not prepared to make the sacrifices to do this even as I was a couple of days ago in Braeside, where there are no pedestrian paths or bike lanes or public transport whatsoever. Combining simple education of young people (maybe during school holidays) with this sort of mass campaign – with links to abroad – is the key to solving the climate crisis by shutting down the suburban Australian machine behind it.