Monday, 7 October 2013

Two fallacious plans

Over the past week, I found a plan that set about what is required to “halve” global greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050, comparing a number of scenarios for various regions of the globe. Today, I found another, more critical plan that aimed to achieve the same goal regarding the aversion of global warming.

Of the two, the first is greatly more detailed and easier to commend because it focuses on a wider range of nations than the second, which only discusses China, India, the United States and Russia. However, the reality is that those nations are an extremely limited threat compared to Australia, for reasons I will tabulate below:
Country Area of non-cryospheric
land under 11˚ slope
Population Density CO2 emissions per capita Median virgin soil available P Median coastal
animal plankton density
Species richness (vascular plants) Species endemism (plants and vertebrates)
China 700,000 km2 1,200,000,000 1,714 7,200 kg 0.015% 1,000 mgm-3 31,000 25%
India 2,200,000 km2 1,050,000,000 477.5 1,610 kg 0.0075% 750 mgm-3 20,000 30%
USA 2,000,000 km2 300,000,000 150.0 14,000 kg 0.0075% 500 mgm-3 18,000 10%
Russia 2,000,000 km2 131,000,000 65.5 9,000 kg 0.01% 750 mgm-3 10,000 under 5%
Australia 7,400,000 km2 22,000,000 2.9 28,000 kg 0.0003% 75 mgm-3 15,000 80%
Note: All values are approximate but should give reason to propose radically different requisite ecological standards for Australia
The table above should demonstrate very clearly the problems with a focus on China, Russia, India and the United States.

Firstly, their supply of land relative to population is small (Russia) to tiny (China), which creates incentives for efficiency in land use. Efficiency in land use via high-density development encourages low emissions, as when road space becomes expensive public transport becomes more viable economically.

Secondly, this limited supply of land allows  a free market to effectively conserve resources, since most land in China, Russia, India and the United States is too steep or too icy for farming or housing. This creates a natural system of conservation reserves without government interference. It is potentially superior to government-based systems, since governments may have a short-term focus on extracting resources from wildlife areas (e.g. timber, animal products) that a private owner would not.

Thirdly, the very high fertility of their soils and oceans means environmental destruction is repairable, because soil replenishment is continuous and vegetation grows relatively rapidly.

In Australia, by comparison, the last soil replenishment was 300 million years ago, so that when Australia’s fragile soil structure is altered by cropping it cannot replace itself. Australia’s vegetation also grows slowly on soils with negligible concentrations of P and chalcophile nutrients. Nonetheless, the uniquely abundant land supply in Australia encourages exactly those land uses causing soil loss. Even with low yields, Australia’s supply of land is such that mechanised farmers can make profits unattainable with more dense populations. As input level increases, the ratio of Unenriched to Enriched World yield increases, multiplying the latter’s economic disadvantage. The next step in a free market – not taken for political reasons – would be for  the Enriched World to wholly abandon agriculture and have farmland converted to housing. This would logically further expand “non-renewable” farmland in Australia and Africa, with unproven but probably severe consequences because of the inherent unsuitability of their soils for exotic crops.

For both economic and political reasons, there is no incentive in Australia for energy-efficiency. Rather, the incentive is to find the lowest-cost living possible. This tends to be exceedingly backward in energy-efficient practices. Examples are frequent use of 4x4s, expansion of coal-fired power, and extremely poor housing insulation leading to very high use of energy-guzzling air conditioners.

Lastly, of course is fertility and population growth. Whereas Russia, China and India are affected by lowest-low fertility, Australia has near-replacement fertility and Liberal policies are likely to increase it, especially if they “take the plunge” with welfare cuts that in the Enriched World would have them overthrown by revolution.

For all these reasons, along with the results of September’s election, focusing only on the four “major” emitters undoubtedly constitutes a “do-nothing” policy. Australia must be a central part of every greenhouse negotiation and singled out for its extremely high per capita emissions before any hope of progress exists.

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