Mike Steketee. Politics vs Science.

Sep 14, 2014

“THE laws of physics are non-negotiable,” observed Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation, this week. https://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_1002_en.html

You wouldn’t think so listening to the often frenzied debate about global warming or, according to Tony Abbott’s senior business adviser Maurice Newman, what is really global cooling http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/were-illprepared-if-the-iceman-cometh/story-e6frg6zo-1227023489894 .

Jarraud was commenting on the release of the WMO’s annual greenhouse gas bulletin https://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/documents/1002_GHG_Bulletin.pdf  , based mainly on data collected by 50 countries. It shows a 34 per cent increase in the warming effect of greenhouse gases between 1990 and 2013. Most of this is attributable to carbon dioxide, atmospheric concentrations of which have risen by 142 per cent since the start of industrialisation in the 18th century, “primarily because of emissions from combustion of fossil fuels and cement production”. The WMO recorded an increase of 2.9 parts per million in 2013 – the largest rise since 1984 – although it added the figure was subject to seasonal and regional variations, such as a changing balance between photosynthesis and respiration or the amount of biomass burned.

The figures put the best face on things, more or less. The WMO’s bulletin reports on concentrations of greenhouse gases rather than emissions – that is, what remains in the atmosphere after the estimated 25 per cent of emissions that are absorbed by the oceans and a similar amount by the biosphere, particularly plants. That means we are producing around twice as much long-lived greenhouse gases than can be taken up by the earth and the oceans. Moreover, the increasing amounts of CO2 going into the ocean is causing acidification at a rate that “appears unprecedented at least over the last 300 million years”. The consequences are not fully known but include reduced calcification, relied on by corals, molluscs and other organisms.

Jarraud said the bulletin “provides a scientific base for decision-making. …Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.”

So much for the science. Back in the world of politics, where just about anything is negotiable, apparently including the future of the planet, Australia has decided that it has been doing far too much to deal with global warming. The price on carbon emissions has been removed, despite the evidence, both direct and indirect, that it worked. Most of the sharp increase in electricity prices in recent years has been due not to the carbon tax but the cost of upgrading infrastructure – the poles and wires – often unnecessarily because of perverse incentives. But the response from consumers has been exactly what you would expect from a price rise, whatever its origins – they have reduced their demand for electricity. This has been one of the factors in the break since 2010 in the long-term trend towards rising electricity demand. file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Kate/My%20Documents/Downloads/IP%2014%20Power%20down_0.pdf

Prices in the electricity market have responded in another way. In the words of the report https://retreview.dpmc.gov.au/ret-review-report-0 of the inquiry established by the Abbott government into the renewable energy target, “analyses suggest that, overall, the RET is exerting some downward pressure on wholesale electricity prices. This is not surprising, given that the RET is increasing the supply of electricity when electricity demand has been falling”.

Indeed, if the reduction is passed on in lower retail prices, as it should be in a competitive market, and offsets the higher cost of producing renewables, it might be thought of as a positive outcome by a government that hails the reduction in electricity prices brought about by the abolition of the carbon tax. However, the inquiry into the RET, headed by businessman and climate change sceptic Dick Warburton, had another purpose: to find a way of scaling back or eliminating the RET. As a result, the report argued that “artificially” low wholesale electricity prices could distort investment decisions.

Thankfully, the report did not ignore some other facts, even if it put its own peculiar interpretation on them. Modelling it commissioned found the net impact of the RET on retail prices was small, including into the future. It concluded that the scheme had broadly met its objectives, with output from large scale renewable generators, mainly wind farms, almost doubling and that from small scale systems, mainly solar, already exceeding levels forecast for 2020. The cost of renewables had fallen, particularly for rooftop solar and the small scale renewable industry was becoming commercially viable.

All this might sound like good news but the report thought otherwise. It found the RET to be a high cost approach to reducing CO2 emissions – $35 to $68 a tonne and $100 to $200 a tonne for small-scale renewables.

So it is but it depends on the alternatives. At the moment there are none. The Gillard government set the carbon price at $23 a tonne and the international market price has moved much lower since. The report suggests the Abbott government’s direct action policy would produce cheaper abatement than renewables. But that remains to be seen – that is, if the policy is ever implemented in a viable form, given that it currently is blocked in the Senate.

The government says it remains committed to reducing emissions by 5 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020, although the Climate Change Authority, among others, argues that this is less than required for Australia to meet its fair share of the international effort. The RET is the only remaining significant mechanism for at least heading in the right direction. Its role is to increase the share of emissions-free electricity, not, as the Warburton report argues, to solve the problems facing fossil fuel generators because of falling demand by winding back the RET.

According to Andrew Blakers, director of the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian Natonal University, Australia could achieve 90 per cent renewable energy by 2040 by replacing coal and gas fired stations that are due to be retired over the coming decades http://theconversation.com/renewable-energy-target-review-experts-respond-31050 . Solutions would need to be found for storing power from wind and solar, given their intermittent nature, but developments in battery technology suggest that this is in prospect. Blakers offers another option that he says would be cheaper: “pumped hydro”, under which water is pumped up to a reservoir when there is spare electricity from renewables and then run downhill through a turbine when needed. http://theconversation.com/how-pushing-water-uphill-can-solve-our-renewable-energy-issues-28196

In a world that gradually is doing more to address climate change but still not enough to meet the target of limiting warming to 2C, Australia  has become the international laggard, despite being one of the highest producers of greenhouse gases per capita in the world. The International Energy Agency has estimated http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/25recom_2011.pdf  that taking a range of measures merely to improve the efficiency with which we use energy can reduce total global energy consumption by 17 per cent by 2030, making a big contribution towards cutting greenhouse gases.

But according to an American study http://aceee.org/portal/national-policy/international-scorecard , Australia ranks 10th out of 16 OECD countries in overall energy efficiency and last in transport. Under the Abbott government, it “has dramatically reduced its investment in efficiency and has rolled back its efficiency incentive programs, causing its score to decline.” An example is this year’s budget, which withdrew commonwealth funding of public transport projects and increased it for roads.

Given the relentless long-term trend towards global warming (memo Maurice Newman: periods of short-term cooling have been declining http://theconversation.com/99-999-certainty-humans-are-driving-global-warming-new-study-29911?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201899&utm_content=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201899+CID_02ac31e1fe595615139d593549d1aefb&utm_source=campaign_monitor&utm_term=99999%20certainty%20humans%20are%20driving%20global%20warming%20new%20study ), it should be a case of all hands on deck. The opposition already has voted against direct action legislation in the House of Representatives on the grounds that it is a poor substitute for an emissions trading scheme. Perhaps it is but that does not mean the kind of projects that could attract funding under direct action, such as for increased energy efficiency in commercial buildings and industry, reafforestation and improved soil carbon, are not worth doing.  Labor should reverse its position and support the legislation in the Senate.

As the WMO’s Michel Jarraud put it this week, “we are runnning out of time”.

This article was first published in The Drum on 12 September, 2014.
















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