Weather events and other opportunities

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Last Wednesday brought record breaking rain and winter temperatures to Melbourne. Next Wednesday brings into force the Kyoto Protocol. The two events may be unrelated but they speak volumes about the same issue. An issue the Howard Government sees no need to take seriously.

The issue is whether Australia should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and lead the world to do the same. The single way to combat climate change is to reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, Australia has the world’s highest emissions per capita and they are rising.

With the US, the Government argues it is not in our economic interest to ratify Kyoto. The Government argues it is unfair to restrain our carbon emissions; and besides, we will meet our negotiated Kyoto target of an 8 per cent increase without such restraints. It’s a convoluted argument and one largely dependant on Kyoto having stalled.

With Russia’s ratification, enforcement of the Protocol has obliged the Environment Minister to publicly accept the scientific basis and genuine threat posed by human induced climate change. This development raises hopes but exactly what does the Government now understand to be the whole truth?

If the Government knows we should reduce our greenhouse emissions how can they justify not actually doing so? Or, on the other hand, if the Government knows there’s no need to reduce our emissions, why do they not prove their case? If the Government were serious about climate change they’d be able to answer one of these questions.

In another shy development, the Environment Minister has on one hand rejected emission trading under the Kyoto Protocol, citing it as an ineffective global response, but on the other is considering a domestic emissions trading scheme, using coupons as currency. Do closed and protected markets operate more efficiently than open international markets?

According to virtually all the world’s scientists and leaders, there is an urgent need to take climate change seriously. Driven by innovation and investment there are two ways Australia can influence the 21st century for the better.

Firstly, we can install bulk renewable energy generators. Technical advances and economies of scale continue to lower the price of bulk renewables, and in a carbon constrained world the cost of fossil fuel energy will only increase. The meeting of these prices will be an investment tipping point. In 2005 these prices are now only a few cents per kilowatt hour apart.

As a sector, renewables are not limited by inconsistent wind or sunshine. Just as coal power stations can have up to 20 per cent of their generators off-line at any one point, so too may 20 per cent of wind farms around Australia be becalmed. In further support, the facility to store energy during peak supply and reconvert during peak is increasingly economical via hydrogen and fuel cells.

The UK recently tendered permits for off-shore wind farms to deliver a collective capacity that exceeds the peak demand of Victoria, equivalent to 7 per cent of UK supply. Private developers, supported by effective national renewable energy targets, will expend less in equivalent dollars than it cost Australia to build the Snow Mountain Scheme.

The solar tower project near Mildura will cost far less than a conventional power station, it requires no fuel, causes no pollution, and will produce twenty-four hour electricity for a city the size of Geelong.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we can ensure that developing nations develop in a carbon-lite fashion. Emission reductions in Australia would provide a moral basis upon which to lead the world. Technical and engineering expertise gained will provide additional know-how to deliver win-win development and business opportunities in China, Indonesia and India; three countries whose emissions are current projected to boom.

The Environment Minister, echoing the Bush Administration, likes to cite ‘technology’ as the answer to climate change. Technology is a tool not an answer. The answer lies in having the moral courage to act in good faith. It doesn’t take much courage to argue that Australia’s leadership is conditional upon the participation of the US and developing nations.

Being able to predict something like climate change is a godsend. But what is the point of being able to predict the future if the endowment leaves us impotent?

With the science skeptics properly dismissed, the next step is to expose the cheap objections of the Howard Government and a minority of business leaders. Then, even they will embrace ‘global opportunity’ rather than cry ‘insidious burden’.

(c) Greg Day

(c) Greg Day

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