The climate challenge

On the election night of 7 November 2000, the American public held its breath as a cliffhanger result in Florida produced a near-tie between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat contender Al Gore. A month later, Bush won a legal challenge to stop the statewide manual recount that was underway, effectively sealing the presidency with a narrow margin.

While Bush settled into power, Gore started to travel the country armed with a slideshow, warning about the risks posed by global warming. Last year, his presentation was expanded into An Inconvenient Truth, a compelling documentary film conveying the message that we have only a decade left to act against climate change. There is a growing sense of urgency, with 68 per cent of Australians now believing global warming poses a critical threat to the country’s interests over the coming decade.

Until recently, scientific opinion was divided, but today scientists share a near-unanimous consensus that we are seeing human-created climate effects and, as the data has hardened, former sceptics have been jumping ship. Many of those who remain have links to industry-funded think-tanks.


The warming greenhouse

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is generally considered the greatest contributor to planetary heating. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric levels of this gas have shot up from around 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380ppm and are still rising. The picture is further complicated by other natural and human-made greenhouse gases including methane, nitrous oxide, fluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride.

James Hansen of NASA has been issuing alerts for the past three decades, while the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King considers climate change to be a greater global threat than terrorism. Leaving aside the more apocalyptic future predictions, the outlook is nevertheless worrying: glaciers are melting across the world; the vanishing Arctic ice pack is threatening the future of the polar bear; and rising tides are eroding the low-lying Pacific island of Tuvalu. In the future, we may see an exodus of millions of environmental refugees from coastal cities.

A few years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted a temperature rise of somewhere between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees by 2100. As nature tends to operate in non-linear ways, among the more insidious climate risks are feedback loops. These mechanisms could cause climate change to spiral out of control in a cycle where increasing temperatures destabilise the natural balance, in turn accelerating greenhouse gas releases. Some feedback cycles appear to have begun already, while others could be triggered by further temperature rises:

  • Permafrost has started to melt in tundra regions of Alaska and Siberia, changing them from carbon sinks (net absorbers of CO2) into carbon sources (net emitters).
  • Although forests have traditionally been carbon sinks, the balance could easily be tipped by climate-related factors.
  • As the Arctic ice cover disappears, the ocean’s reduced albedo (intensity of light reflected back into space) causes the earth to absorb more heat via the Arctic Ocean.

Perhaps indicative of feedback scenarios, some observations from around the world indicate warming is taking place significantly faster than anticipated: last year, Greenland’s ice sheet was estimated to be melting three times faster than in 2004.


The human factor

Most greenhouse emissions can be traced back to the burning of fossil fuels, particularly oil and coal. More indirectly, the construction industry with its demands for energy-intensive concrete, steel and aluminium plays a significant role. Other factors include modern soil-disturbing farming practices; forest destruction and land-clearing; and methane released by landfills, farm animals and rice paddies.

As awareness of this global problem grew during the 1990s, the world came together to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, an emissions-reduction agreement that came into force two years ago. At the time of writing, Kyoto had been ratified by 166 countries, and under the first round of targets, developed nations have agreed to a collective emissions cut of 5.2 per cent by 2012.

Because of their governments’ refusal to participate in Kyoto, Australia and the US have both marginalised themselves within the international community and are locked out of the international carbon trading market, which experts believe may be worth billions of dollars within a decade.

However, the exchange of carbon credits is arguably weakened by one major flaw: tree planting is counted as a carbon offset. In the short term, such projects generate emissions by disturbing the soil, while established trees may be destroyed by harvesting, bushfires, drought or insect attack. Even worse, Tasmania has lost areas of native forest to make way for monoculture “carbon sink” plantations.


Defying the world

Al Gore and various scientists believe Australia stands to be affected more severely by climate change than any other nation through fires, cyclones and changed rainfall patterns. Conditions are becoming warmer and drier, with most large cities under permanent water restrictions. Tourism will suffer if the Australian Alps lose much of their snow cover, and the future of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by the prospect of further massive coral bleaching caused by abnormally warm ocean temperatures.

Thanks to a focus on energy-intensive export industries such as mining and aluminium smelting, Australia is also the world’s highest greenhouse emitter per head of population. Unlike many other industrialised countries, we have so far been unsuccessful in decoupling our energy use from economic growth. According to the most recent Australian Greenhouse Office figures, major emissions-generating sectors include electricity (50 per cent), agriculture (16 per cent) and transport (13 per cent).

Rejecting Kyoto (in which it had earlier negotiated an 8 per cent emissions increase) on the grounds that developing nation competitors such as China and India are not participating, the federal government argues that, despite not signing up, it is on track to meet the target figure. This is the result of a significant reduction in land clearing since the baseline year of 1990; over the same period, power generation emissions have undergone a huge 51 per cent increase.

While Federal Ministers’ views on the greenhouse issue often tend towards scepticism, different conclusions have been reached by three senior CSIRO scientists. Early last year, they appeared on ABC’s investigative program Four Corners, claiming to have been pressured to avoid putting the government’s climate policies in a bad light. Equally unsettling is the government’s closeness to the fossil fuel lobby: Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute asserts that industry representatives have been included in climate change delegations.


Coal – the tragedy

Although coal burning is a major contributor to climate change, as the world’s largest coal exporter, Australia has chosen to stand behind the industry at the expense of support for renewable energy. While China prepares to build hundreds more coal-fired power stations to feed the steel mills of its exponentially growing economy, a new open-cut coalmine is slated for Anvil Hill in the Hunter region of NSW and coal exports from Newcastle’s port are set to double. Through coal sales, we are responsible for a share of climate change extending far beyond our current 1 per cent of the global total.

Government strategy, outlined in the 2004 energy White Paper, focuses on mitigating the climate impacts from coal burning through innovations such as “clean coal” and geosequestration. This proposed underground storage of carbon emissions remains unproven and in the estimation of Greenpeace would nearly treble the cost of electricity sourced from coal, making it uncompetitive without large government subsidies.

Last January, the AP6 partnership of nations, which includes Australia, met in Sydney to discuss climate issues. The lack of reduction targets and deadlines led some to suggest an alternative agenda centring on the meeting between two coal exporter countries (Australia and the US) and two large and growing coal markets (China and India). With renewable energy missing from the agenda, attention was instead devoted to carbon sequestration, a range of “clean coal” technologies and nuclear power. It was dubbed a PR exercise by detractors.

According to the government’s own modelling carried out by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, adoption of the AP6 plan would deliver modest curbs on a business-as-usual scenario in which global emissions shoot out of control, trebling by 2050.


Renewable energy

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are widely considered an important means of combating climate change. After years of exponential growth, aided by government support particularly in EU countries, they currently supply 19 per cent of the world’s power. Spain now mandates the installation of solar panels on all new and renovated shopping centres, offices, hotels and warehouses.

In Australia, where around 90 per cent of electricity comes from coal-fired power stations, there is a clear economic incentive for homeowners to install solar hot-water systems. For grid-connected properties, photovoltaic arrays are less economically viable because of the low “feed-in tariffs” paid for surplus solar energy in all states except South Australia.

Another renewable option for consumers is the purchase of Green Power; in the south-eastern states, customers have the option of switching to utilities (Origin Energy, Integral Energy and TRUenergy) that offer pure wind or solar products. Similar to Green Power, two “carbon neutral” programs (Climate Friendly and GreenSwitch) offset emissions from electricity via investment in renewables rather than tree planting.

At the political level, over the past few years, Australia’s renewable energy industry has unfortunately received little more than minimal government support. In 2002, the Cooperative Research Centre for Renewable Energy closed down when its funding supply was cut off. This has slowed growth and in some cases Australian solar technology has been commercialised overseas. By contrast, Labor’s environment spokesman Anthony Albanese has expressed a desire to see our photovoltaic industry expanded to the present size of the coal sector.

In 2001, the Government’s Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) was set at 2 per cent of that year’s power generation by 2010. This modest target was reaffirmed in 2004 following a public consultation, despite energetic lobbying from environment groups and the wind industry to boost it to 10 per cent, a figure closer to other Western countries’ goals. The low target has discouraged investment, resulting in some promising wind-farm projects being abandoned.

An insight into the thinking behind the low 2 per cent goal was provided last year on the ABC’s 7.30 Report. This revealed that in 2004, federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane told a meeting of fossil fuel CEOs that the MRET had worked “too well” by being met five years ahead of schedule and that investment in renewables was running ahead of the original planning.

Evidently, the federal government’s refusal to either introduce a carbon tax or mandate emissions reductions is partly underpinned by the huge advantage such a step would provide to solar, wind and geothermal energy. Such power sources provide far more jobs per kilowatt-hour consumed than energy from coal; when John Howard introduces employment as an argument against stronger climate action, his concerns appear to be specific to the coal industry. It’s interesting, though, that in the political wake of the Stern Report, Treasurer Costello has begun mooting his interest in carbon trading.


Peak uranium

As Germany, Sweden, Italy and Belgium move towards a complete phase-out of their nuclear power sectors, Australia has recently seen a debate over whether nuclear sources should supply some of the country’s power needs.

Temporarily ignoring the issues of plant safety, terrorist targets and dangerous nuclear waste, from a climate standpoint there are a couple of reasons why nuclear might not be the solution.

The lead-up time to an operational nuclear plant may be up to 15 years and construction will entail significant additional carbon emissions. By this time, the outcome of the climate crisis will probably have been determined already.

At current usage rates, the world will run out of high-grade uranium ore in about 20 years. According to nuclear expert Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, the use of lower-grade ore necessitates increased CO2 emissions and within 60 years the operation of nuclear plants will indirectly cause the consumption of more power than they generate.


Time to act

From a psychological standpoint, climate change faces the challenge of apathy and the distractions of trivia. Through the development of a spectator approach to negative news and regular exposure to disaster movies, extreme weather is treated by some people as entertainment. At the other end of the scale, there are great dangers in presenting a grim future scenario as a foregone conclusion.

One criticism that has been levelled at An Inconvenient Truth is the lack of attention given to solutions. Although it would be a mistake to place all responsibility in the hands of households, many actions can be taken at this level. According to World Wildlife Fund statistics, Australia’s direct household emissions can be divided into electricity (64 per cent), transport (31 per cent) and waste (5 per cent). Often overlooked is the fact that these climate impacts are dwarfed by the emissions embodied in the products and services a household consumes.

A stereotypical planet-warming citizen will be driving a large car or 4WD, purchasing non-renewable energy, eating a meat-based diet with many imported foods, frequently flying and taking cruises, and regular buying new big-ticket items. In each case, opting for a simpler lifestyle mitigates the climate impact. To curb electricity use, three strategies are to find alternatives to air-conditioning, install compact fluorescent bulbs and turn down the hot water thermostat to 55-60°.

Assuming climate change is really occurring, questions arise that cut to the heart of society and its goals. Nearly all consumption is linked to greenhouse emissions resulting from prodution and transport and, although this places responsibility in everyone’s hands, there’s nothing to be gained from guilt.

Climate change is essentially a moral issue and it’s encouraging to see Australian churches take a stand. The Melbourne Anglican magazine has published a strong criticism of the 2004 energy White Paper and last year a climate conference was organised by the ecology-faith group, Catholic Earthcare Australia.

Fortunately, leadership is being shown by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who voted last August on a 25 per cent reduction in California’s greenhouse emissions by 2020. Even more impressive is South Australian legislation (currently at draft stage) to slash the state’s emissions 60 per cent below 1990 figures by 2050, the same level considered necessary by the IPCC to achieve climate stabilisation. South Australia leads the country in both wind and solar power generation and its draft laws require that 20 per cent of power consumption is sourced from renewables by 2014.

Ostensibly a non-believer in renewable energy, the federal government is making a modest concession in the form of a $75 million allocation to its showcase Solar Cities “trials”. An aggressive set of climate policies will probably arrive only when pollsters observe that climate concern has become a pivotal voting issue. In the meantime, individuals, communities and local governments need to be seen leading the way.


Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).



Climate Action Network Australia W:

Rising Tide W:

The Dirty Politics of Climate Change W:

Australian Greenhouse Office W:

South Australia’s greenhouse strategy W:

Green Power W:

12 Steps (Greenpeace electricity saving guide) W:

Cities for Climate Protection (Australia & New Zealand) W:

ClimateArk W:

Kyoto Protocol W: Climate Movement Australia W:





Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

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