Thursday, 3 July 2008

Are we serious about carbon emission reductions?

"Do as I say, not as I do," my parents used to tell me as they puffed up two-packs a day while discouraging me from smoking. Eventually, the evidence became so overwhelming, everyone quit. Today the family is 100% smoke free.

[NOTE: I drafted this post before Luke made his post above. Thanks again Luke. I'll leave the original links to Physical Insights, but the full post is also copied above.]

Hat tip to Luke a Physical Insights for his excellent post on a new brown coal power station on its way to Victoria.

The article from the ABC may be found here. Luke's got the detail in his post, but the bottom line is that despite considerable investment in renewable technologies [don't get me wrong, I support such investment] the resulting energy generation continues to fall well short of increasing demand. This shortfall - in the context of Australia's ongoing rejection of nuclear power - will result in the deployment of larger, carbon emitting, baseload stations [coal and natural gas] over time.

As one would expect, the talking heads are doing their stuff - holding a straight face while citing how this plant fits nicely into the emissions reduction strategy; etc. etc. yadda, yadda, yadda [see Luke's post linked above for the detail].

Luke includes a comparison of the projected emissions and cost per kilowatt. Nuclear power looks to be quite competitive if it were only given a chance.

More Australians are starting to speak out. Nuclear's potential role was emphasised by Prof Don Aitkin, who was vice-chancellor of Canberra University.

Wind power, solar power, tidal power, biofuels (that is to say, burning food) all work at the margins. They don't run steel mills, railways and city lights. Howes has been howled down by the union movement and the Australian Labor Party, although he is right.

Aitkin said he was not on his own, but he conceded that those in the scientific community, and political advisers and business leaders, were afraid to speak out.

In WA - where recent failures exposed an overreliance on natural gas - the Chamber of Commerce and Industry [CCIWA] chief executive James Pearson said the state needed to diversify its energy mix and look at the feasible energy options, including re-opening the debate on nuclear energy. [WA Business News - subscription required].

However, if Australia continues down its current path it is doubtful we will be able to achieve any credible emission reduction without inflicting considerable damage to Australian industry. Considering the launch of this power station in the face of Garnaut's report and the coming emissions trading scheme; I expect Australia [or at least large parts of it] will opt to forgo substantial emissions cuts [> 60% of 1990 levels] over the long term. Maybe State governments will provide subsidies to individual stations or maybe it will come from other source; but I doubt Victoria is investing in a $750 million coal station, to be operated for 40 years, without some confidence in its long-term viability.

Apologies for the drama, but this is a bad step in a horrific direction. There have been different reports in the media recently downplaying or outright criticising references to Australia's 'moral' obligation to reduce emissions. I understand why such an argument would make those who are politically aligned to the right or affiliated with different industries cringe; but if one considers the available data, the science and technologies - there is no other viable position to take over the longer-term.

I've posted about the moral and ethical angles several times [here, here and here] and still believe this position is justified. While Australia is responsible for only about 1.4% of global emissions, our per-person [or per-capita] emissions are inexcusably high and support a lifestyle far beyond that achievable by the vast majority of people around the world. Even a rank of total emssions shows we are punching well above our weight. If we fail to reduce emissions we are handing the justification for higher emissions to larger emitters and their emerging economies [China and India in particular].

India's recent announcement is exactly in line with this argument.

"Every citizen of this planet must have an equal share of the planetary atmospheric space," [Indian PM Manmohan] Singh said.

The plan commits India to gradually shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

But it also demands that big emitters such as Australia and the US take steps to ensure that per capita emissions move into line with the global norm.

India has very low greenhouse gas emissions per person, but its large population means its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is already significant and set to rise. Despite recent strong economic growth, about half the population — more than 500 million people — does not yet have access to electricity.

Mr Singh pledged that India's per capita greenhouse gas emissions would not exceed emissions of the developed countries and demanded justice in the international response to climate change.

"Long-term convergence of per capita emissions is … the only equitable basis for a global compact on climate change," he said.

How can Australia morally defend our lifestyle and the emissions we generate to achieve it [let alone demand developing countries such as India cut their emissions] when half a billion Indians [about 25 times our entire population] do not have access to electricity?

Kevin Rudd, Penny Wong and others in government repeatedly claim that Australia has the resources to meet emissions reduction requirements, but stop short of discussing any details beyond a simple list of popular renewables. At the same time most reject one of our greatest no/low carbon energy resources - uranium; which has proved to be part of successful energy cocktails within countries set to meet their emission reduction goals.

We are also in line to be one of the first and hardest hit by the effects of climate change. There is plenty of moral, technical and personal justification for every Australian to remain very serious about significant emission reductions.

The construction of Victoria's new coal station and other recent news from WA do not appear consistent with a serious approach to emission reductions.

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