Australia most at risk in developed world

The Australian: Bell tolls down under on warming.

Australia has been identified by the Stern report as one of the most vulnerable countries in the developed world to the economic and social impacts of global warming.

Enough to prompt our fine leader to reconsider his current position? I sure hope so, but I’m not holding my breath…

I’ve seen some reports that the suggestions on how to resolve the problem that appear in the report leave a little to be desired. But I sure hope the ruckus it’s causing prompts some serious change all the same.

Running out of power – so let’s use less

SMH: We’re running out of power (on the front page of today’s broadsheet).

NSW faces blackouts and skyrocketing electricity prices within five years unless it increases supply, the national energy market regulator has warned.

The article does not take into consideration the most cost-effective method for avoiding the need to increase supply – using less energy.

WWF recently put out a report A prosperous low carbon future. It shows how energy efficiency is one of a potent and immediately actionable technique for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But it has a flow-on benefit: less use means the existing (and future) supply goes further.

Long enough, at least, until renewable energy technologies come into play, and as existing coal-fired power stations begin to be decommissioned.

Of course Costello has jumped on the nuclear band-wagon again. “They’ll be ready in as little as 10 years time” he says (paraphrased). We have solutions now – solar, wind, gas-fired power (which has significantly less emissions than burning coal and is suitable for base-load power) – all these technologies exist today and can meet a significant portion, if not all, of our energy requirements.

We can start reducing our emissions today, not in 10 years, while still meeting demand. I really wish that message was getting as much play as nuclear. Better still – put a price on carbon and let the market decide… I’m confident non-nuclear options will win in the end.

Disclosure: I work for WWF-Australia. The views expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Climate fears “tempered”

You may have seen the news over the weekend that the peak scientific body studying climate change, the IPCC, has reduced it’s worst case scenarios for climate change.

After reading the piece, I think you could be excused for thinking that this is really good news and the pressure is off.

In 2001, the scientists predicted temperature rises of between 1.4C and 5.8C on current levels by 2100, but better science has led them to adjust this to a narrower band of between 2C and 4.5C.

The basic gist of the piece is that if we can contain the CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels in the atmosphere to the same that they are today, the minimum temperature rise will be 2°C.

Sounds ok, right? Actually, a 2°C rise is the generally accepted threshold before global warming becomes “really dangerous”. And even at 2°C, we will see significant impacts on our planet, affecting many, many people.

What is also important is that population growth (estimated at around 25 million by 2050) and growth in economic activity will place upward pressure on energy consumption – i.e. we will be using a lot more energy than we are now (50% growth by 2020 according to the government). This means that under a “no action” position our emissions are expected to grow significantly.

It is vital that we start to introduce renewable and lower-emissions technologies to generate our energy to keep the atmospheric CO2 levels at their current levels. As the ACF says in the Australian piece:

Australian Conservation Foundation energy program manager Erwin Jackson said the projections required an urgent and immediate response from the federal Government to drive accelerated investment in low-emissions technology in Australia.

“Every day we delay taking action, the problem gets worse,” Mr Jackson said.

“The Government keeps throwing up the costs of action but totally ignores the costs of inaction.

Later in the article:

A recent Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics report on the cost of cutting greenhouse gas emissions estimated Australians would incur a fall in real wages of about 20 per cent if the nation was to unilaterally cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.

Note the “unilaterally cut”. I read that to mean ‘outside international mechanisms such as the Kyoto protocol’. If my reading is correct, I suspect that the high cost is a result of our inability to take advantage of the carbon trading mechanisms that Kyoto, and potentially other future international schemes, provide. In other words, by choosing not to sign Kyoto, as Howard has done, the Australian government is putting our economy at risk.

But even if my reading is incorrect, a recent report produced by AGL, Frontier Economics and WWF-Australia came to a quite different conclusion. From the media release related to the report (excuse the technical language):

The study shows that reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector could be limited to between $5.19 billion net present value (NPV) and $24.16 billion NPV, depending upon the reduction pathway chosen. This represents a one-off cost of between $250 NPV and $1,172 NPV per Australian today, or 43 cents – $2.00 per person per week to 2030.

Emphasis mine. What does that mean? Well – the report estimates that the total cost to the Australian economy would be a maximum of $2 per person per week. Or less than one coffee.

To be clear, the report doesn’t suggest that we each individually have to spend that money – just that the effect of change won’t cost the economy as much as some are suggesting.

But regardless of the scenarios, the longer we wait to act the more expensive reductions become. The environment minister goes on to say:

“It highlights the need for an effective global response to climate change as Australia alone cannot alter the pattern of world emissions,” Senator Campbell said.

“We are taking a leading role internationally to achieve effective engagement by all major greenhouse gas-emitting countries.”

It is true that a global response is required (e.g. the Kyoto Protocol). It’s also true that major emitters need to engage (e.g. Australia – the biggest per-capita emitters in the world – and the U.S. – with the biggest total emissions in the world – not signing the Kyoto Protocol).

But, for the government, “effective engagement” seems to mean doing very little at all. The AP6 agreement, which I can only assume is what the minister is referring to, will result in a doubling of Australia’s emissions by 2050. Does that sound like an “effective response” to you?

What does all this mean, then? It means that despite the apparent “good news” on the weekend, nothing has really changed – we still need serious action from the government, businesses and people to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. And we need to remain vigilant and continue working towards a sustainable future.

Update 2006-09-05: Via Andrew Bartlett I came across John Quiggen’s take on the same article.

In the comments “carbonsink” says:

Anyone who has actually read the ABARE report can tell you that ABARE examined six scenarios, most of which show significant reductions in GHG emissions with minimal impacts on the economy. The Oz has plucked the scariest number from most extreme ABARE scenarios and presented it as the likely impact of any attempt to reduce GHG emissions.

The fact is, ABARE’s modelling shows that significant reductions could be achieved with just a 0.07% percentage point reduction in the annual rate of GDP growth

Update 2006-09-07: Seems that the report doesn’t even say what the Australian article suggests. That’s the impression I get from reviewing some of the commentary in the links in another post by John Quiggen at Crooked Timber. Tim Lambert’s explanation is probably the most clear.

Renewable energy in Australia

I’ve been participating in some interesting discussions over at ActNow! (namely these threads: Nuclear power for Australia and Sustainable energy sources) and they got me thinking.

One of the primary criticisms I hear/read about renewable energy is that it won’t solve the problem by itself – that we need more than renewable energy to support our population’s energy needs.

And I generally agree with that – except it’s often used as an argument not to use renewables (e.g. that we need nuclear)! I think I’ve worked out my response to that line of argument now: “is the glass half empty or half full?”

Let’s say wind energy, in its current form, can only provide 20% of our power needs. And lets say solar can only provide the same amount. (Both of those figures are completely plucked out the air btw, I don’t know what our true capacity would be). And let’s say we agree with the scientists that we need to reduce our emissions by 60% below 1990 levels by 2050. Let’s also say that we can reach full capacity for both wind and solar in 10 years time.

That means that based on current technology (which will improve) we can in 10 years time (the earliest that the government reckons it will take for nuclear power to be a reality in Australia) reduce our CO2 emissions by 40% – over half of a 40 year target in 10 years!

And that’s not taking into consideration energy efficiency (say 10%+) and improvements in wind and solar technology (recent developments suggest that a 30%-50% improvement in efficiency is not out of the question). And in that time we might well have found the right solution to reduce the remaining 20%+ too.

There are obvious political and commercial realities that would impact this, of course. Placement of wind farms and the phasing out of existing coal power stations among them. But don’t you think this can be overcome with some political will?

Certainly it seems this is a much easier path than trying to establish a nuclear industry in Australia. What do you think?

(BTW, I just realised that this all links to what I was saying the other day in my review of Who killed the electric car. Seems to be the same tactic – promising technology, meets part of the demand, but vested interests and political maneuvering see it postponed for some “just around the corner” solution.)

WWF stuff

I’ll keep this reasonably short – yesterday we posted a news article that I thought was pretty cool: Sony to lower its CO2 emissions. Sony has committed to reducing it’s emissions by 7% of 2000 levels by 2010 – that’s for all it’s operations globally.

We need to collectively reduce our emissions by 60% by around 2050, so I suspect they’ll still have a way to go after 2010, but it’s still a good step forward.

The other thing is we’re running a petition at the moment calling on a firm target and timetable to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, the primary driver of global warming, by 30% by 2030. It’d be great to get heaps of signatures for the petition, so it’d be great if you can check it out, add your name and pass it on if you can.

It’s not anywhere near as fancy as Amnesty message in a bottle campaign, but a start nonetheless…

More on carbon sequestration

The other day, in response to Al Gore’s speech at the TED conference, I mentioned that “the jury is still out on Carbon Storage and Sequestration (CSS)”. Today, the SMH reports that issues have been found with one method of storage:

CARBON dioxide buried underground has dissolved the minerals that help keep the dangerous greenhouse gas from escaping, US scientists have revealed.

Researchers testing the viability of injecting CO2 into saline sedimentary aquifers, in a US Government experiment in Texas, found it caused carbonates and other minerals to dissolve rapidly, which could allow CO2 and brine to leak into the water table.

CSS may one day present an option, and may be one of many solutions to the climate crisis. But the government and many in industry keep waiting and waiting for untested or problematic technology to allow us to keep a “business as usual” attitude. Solutions exist today. We simply need the political will to make it happen.