JONATHAN PAUL MARSHALL. Barnaby Joyce and fantasies of Climate Technology

Feb 12, 2020

Fantasies about improved technologies, often seem to inhibit effective responses to climate change. This is illustrated through a brief commentary on Barnaby Joyce’s comments on climate policy after his closely failed challenge for leadership of the National Party.

After he failed to win the Nationals leadership, Barnaby Joyce commented in writing about climate policy and technology. His comments demonstrate how people can avoid climate change through technological fantasy. He starts by saying:

“If you want a macro climate policy to show the world our leadership on reducing carbon emissions then we must bring in nuclear power”

Good, but will he suggest a nuclear reactor in his electorate? It might be welcomed, given the extended drought. But he probably won’t, and there is no water for cooling. One of the main functions of talk of nuclear power appears to be its use to discomfort the ‘irrational’ Left. People rarely, if ever, agitate for nuclear power in their local areas, or move for it in Parliament, even when they have the numbers. It seems pure politics. Nuclear power is expensive and requires taxpayer subsidies, such as fixed high energy prices, to be economic as with Hinkley Point in the UK. While it is generally safe, the possibility of catastrophic accident exists. Although people argue over exactly how severe Chernobyl [1], [2] and Fukushima were, their problems continue.

Mr. Joyce argues that we need:

“development of the most efficient coal power technology that uses the least units of coal for the greatest output of power. Wanting to develop the most efficient coal fired power technology in the world is not disavowing the realities of climate change it is actually something that could be provided to substantially curtail emissions.”

Emissions would be better curtailed by not emitting them, rather than by cutting them by small fractions and emitting for longer than otherwise. More importantly, as with nuclear energy, nobody in Australia seems interested in developing the “most efficient coal fired power technology in the world”. We hurled money at the coal industry to develop carbon capture and storage, and clean coal, and they did close to nothing. At the time, the Coalition said the industry spent the money on a few dinners, but that’s about all. New coal fired energy is cleaner than it was but does not significantly lower the emissions causing climate problems.

Without strong evidence we have to assume that efficient coal is not happening. It is unlikely because coal is not competitive anyway. It seems no one will build coal fired energy in Australia without government subsidies, certainly the government keeps suggesting subsidies, and if the builders are going to develop real low emissions coal based energy, then that will take money, research and time. It will be likely to cost more, and be even less competitive.

Local coal mines, add to problems. They consume, disrupt or pollute water supplies when we face longer and harsher droughts. Adani has been promised unlimited groundwater. If renewables took and polluted as much water, then Mr. Joyce would probably complain.

He continues: “We have to recognise that the public acceptance of wind towers on the hill in front of their veranda is gone, and the public dissonance on that issue is as strong as any other environmental subject. We have to understand that there is no sure thing in a political debate. If wind towers are a moral good and environmentally inoffensive why can’t we have them just off the beach at Bondi so we can feel good about ourselves while going for a surf? It would cause a riot.”

This again is a rhetorical fantasy. Choice is rarely offered in development. No one has offered wind turbines on Bondi Beach. I’ve no idea whether there would be enough wind there, but why not? He states “there is no sure thing in a political debate,” yet it’s a sure thing that wind turbines at Bondi would cause riots. Can he be sure? Why not give Sydney’s Inner West a choice between Wind turbines and toll-roads? Currently residents have no choice but to have a tollway with unfiltered exhaust stacks which will cause sickness. We have people’s homes shattered by vibration. We have people thrown out of their houses, without enough compensation to buy back into the area. If view is important, then Westconnex seems less attractive than Wind turbines. Cities may be privileged but residents rarely get a choice between developments.

We could think about installing ‘vertical’ or ‘helix’ wind turbines on office buildings. These don’t take up much space, and add to the free electricity of the building. They may not make as much power as standard turbines, but they would diminish emissions. With the right legislation, people with energy generation on their rooftops could sell directly to neighbours. However, this seems forbidden. Local councils in NSW can’t use the roof of one building to provide power for another building, even if it’s across the road. They have to sell their power to the grid operator, and then buy it back at the standard price. This is a known inefficiency which could be remedied.

“Do you want a 3000 hectare solar farm next door to you? Lots of glass and aluminium neatly in rows pointing at the sun. I am not sure others will want to buy that view off you when you go to sell your house!”

Would Mr Joyce prefer the view of a coal fired power station, or a coal mine? I don’t know, perhaps he would. There is no accounting for taste. However, standard issues of pollution, water risk, highways and building developments, are just ignored in a fantasy of open fields. At least solar panels are quiet, and don’t poison residents.

“When politicians do stand behind a global climate policy the only certainty is that it will be the policy that has the least direct effect on them…. Simple answers are generally wrong.”

The simple answer, if you want to ignore climate change and its consequences, is more coal and more coal exports. But “simple answers are generally wrong.” Mr. Joyce’s answers depend on fantasies that fossil fuels have no cost, and that it is easy for Australians to adapt to their consequences of those costs.

The climate trajectory we are on is likely to mean more drought, so we cannot afford to pollute water by mining, or lose water through mining, or through processing the products of mining. Water depletion will mean that farms will collapse and country towns will die. Renewables might help give the towns some way of existing. That requires some thought about extending and freeing up the grid. This, however, is a real problem without misleading fantasy, as opposed to burning coal with low enough emissions to make a difference, or gaining nuclear power without political will.

Jonathan Paul Marshall is a researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney, investigating problems with climate technologies.

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