Climate Change: Government needs to face facts before it can face the future

Whatever your opinion of nuclear power generation, the announcement of the Switkowski-led nuclear inquiry may be a signal that John Howard finally realises he must take more decisive action on climate change.

The inquiry, however, misses a perfect opportunity to define the right mix of electricity generation to bring about deep emissions cuts. Unfortunately failures like this have put the global effort to reduce carbon emissions at least 20 years behind where it could be.

All levels of government will be seriously affected by the negative economic and social impacts of climate change. They could even be found liable for their current inaction in future lawsuits.

Across the Pacific no less than twelve of America's fifty states, including Massachusetts, California and New York, are bringing court cases against the federal Environment Protection Agency.

The cases maintain that the chief of the EPA has failed to effectively regulate emissions of new vehicles that “contribute to air pollution which may be reasonably anticipated to endanger the public health or welfare”. European passenger vehicle emission and efficiency standards are around three times more stringent than those in the USA.

Recent alarming reports have probably been behind John Howard's apparent recognition of the seriousness of climate change. The Lowy Institute report 'Heating up the Planet: Climate Change and Security' is an example. It outlines a string of dramatic threats to Australia's security environment.

Renewable Energy Generators Australia (REGA) have also just released a report by McLennan Magasanik Associates. The report finds that if the business-as-usual path is followed, Australian emissions from electricity generation will grow to 250% of 1990 levels by 2050.

Climate Change Graph
Fig 1: Emissions from electricity generation in Australia 2005 to 2050 , McLennan Magasanik, 2006

To reach 50 % emissions reduction by 2050 the report states: ‘…the requirement will likely be met from a range of low emission technology types including all forms of renewable generation and clean coal technologies with geosequestration.'

There are strong forces in the Coalition government against any carbon pricing measures or emissions cap and trading systems. Hence their debatable argument that "we could do nuclear power for the same price as coal fired electricity".

The coalition's current climate change strategy is based on the failure to recognise that today's carbon emissions will have high medium and long-term economic and social costs — until they face this fact, their response to climate change will not succeed.

The sources of renewable energy available in Australia include geothermal, biomass, wind and solar energy as well as other less researched sources such as tidal and wave energy. Geothermal power has excellent potential to be a major source of base-load electricity.

Wind is currently the cheapest form of renewable energy. Major geothermal power projects have begun and will continue in the right economic environment. Australian advances in solar photovoltaic technology are complemented by exciting developments in solar-thermal technology. The CSIRO's important research on the latter includes a technique to dramatically enhance the efficiency of gas-fired electricity by transforming gas with solar energy before burning it.

The Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) helped establish a fledgling renewables industry. However the government's failure to extend it means that credits will be fully subscribed by 2007 and an ‘investment cliff' will be reached. World-beating renewables technology and groundbreaking Australian R&D are already starting to move offshore.

We need to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to have the best chance of slowing the progress of climate change. Because of lack of government leadership, all sources of Australia's CO2 emissions, apart from the reduction due to the slowing of land clearing, are growing rapidly.

Illustration by Sean Leahy

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Coal fired electricity generation will become significantly more expensive when CO2 emissions are captured and stored via geosequestration. Sustainable economic policies would recognise this and gradually introduce carbon-based incentives beforehand to drive medium term investment in renewable and low emissions generation capacity. Commercial geosequestration or ‘clean coal' electricity generation in Australia is probably still 15 or 20 years away.

Susan Jeanes, CEO of REGA, says that market mechanisms could cover all low-carbon electricity generation. She states that the renewables industry is very happy to compete with clean coal and, for that matter, nuclear power.

Options for carbon-pricing mechanisms or requirements that new generation meet strict emissions limits are outlined in the McLennan Magasanik report. The report also explores the enormous potential for Australia to be a supplier of clean energy and renewables technology to South East Asia if industry momentum is maintained with progressive government policy.

Australia is already lagging behind US carbon trading systems, such as the Chicago Climate Exchange and many other successful state-based schemes.

The NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme is showing promise in reducing electricity generation emissions. Sadly the state has had to delay its 7.27 tonne per capita CO2 target from 2001 to 2007. Support for a coherent national approach, such as John Howard has championed on water trading, would go a long way towards ensuring its success this time.

Our ability to help slow global warming will need a change of attitude from political leaders such as the Treasurer and Industry Minister. Exclusive pursuit of short-term, balance sheet economics at the expense of climate stability is very short-sighted and hinders the push for global emissions reduction. With the right policy foresight we can slow the alarming growth in Australia's emissions from electricity generation – we just need some visionary politicians!

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