Australia & Climate Change: the Moral Challenge continues

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In 2030, Australia’s combined (domestic and export) emissions from fossil fuels (2.2 gigatonnes) would equate to 11% of the world’s two degree carbon budget in that year. Source

Australia is in the midst of an international climate debate in which it has positioned itself further behind the rising influence of science and positive action.

During the week, the government announced a 26 per cent emissions emission by 2030 based on 2005 levels.

This objective is inadequate since it does not contribute towards limiting temperature increases two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The Climate Change Authority called for a minimum reduction of 45 per cent on 2005 levels. As a result, Australia will remain as the top emitter per capita while it continues to contribute to the global fossil fuel industry.

“Australia’s actions are not ‘irrelevant’ to global climate change efforts: we are materially worsening the chances of achieving the emissions cuts that are necessary if the world is to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change.” ~Beyond Zero Emissions, Laggard to Leader (Source) 

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Climate change in the Central West: A case study

Observations over the past century have shown that temperatures have been increasing in the Central West since 1970.

When compared to the otherwise natural variability in other NSW regions, the warming trend rate projected in the region is quite large.

The long-term temperature trend indicates that temperatures in the region have been increasing since approximately 1950, with the largest increase in temperature variables coming in the most recent decades.

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Projected air temperature changes for the Central West and Orana Region, annually and by season, daily maxium and daily minimum. Source

On average, Parkes and Forbes experience  20-30 hot days each year -mirroring the prolonged hot days which have the potential increase the incidence of illness and death amongst an ageing population.

Seasonal changes are likely to have considerable impacts on bushfire, infrastructure development and native species diversity.

While much of the media coverage has been dedicated to the increases in temperatures as a result of climate change, it is also worth noting the changes in cold nights that are equally important in sustaining natural ecosystems and agricultural/horticultural industries.

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In August 2015, the NSW government prepared a post-2020 carbon reduction report that was intended to make recommendations relating to the country’s national emissions reduction goals.

Spokesmen for Mr Baird and NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman both declined to reveal what the recommended target was or why the report had not made it to cabinet for discussion.

September 2011 set a future date in which 2021 would allow future state governments to establish goals and targets that support practical action to tackle climate change, including:

  • 20% renewable energy by 2020
  • Help for businesses and households to realise annual energy savings of 16,000 gigawatt-hours by 2020 compared with ‘business as usual’ trends
  • Support for 220,000 low-income households to reduce their energy use by up to 20%

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From denial to inaction? 

Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently stated that Australia would aim to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030, equating to a reduction of 19 per cent compared with 2000 levels.

Two in three Australians say the Abbott government should take climate change more seriously and more believe coal-fired power will eventually be supplanted, indicating a potential voter backlash if the Coalition adopts emission targets that have fallen short.

Half of those surveyed agreed with the statement that the ALP’s carbon policies would ‘just increase electricity prices and not do much about pollution’. 51 per cent of people surveyed said it be based on science rather than what other countries were doing.

The Climate Institute research comprises a national Galaxy survey of 1016 people over three days in late July. It found that 63 per cent of Australians believed the Abbott government should take climate change more seriously, up six points from last year. This jumped to 70 per cent among those aged 18 to 34.

The results follow an Ipsos survey in May that found a clear majority of Australians view global warming as already causing extreme weather, and reports over the past year by the CSIRO pointing to rising anxiety among Australians about climate change.

 

The 2011 Garnaut Climate Change Review found that even discounting exports of energy, Australia was found to be the worst per capital emitter in the OECD group of 34 developed countries.

“Australia’s per capita emissions are nearly twice the OECD average and more than four times the world average.”

“The goal of overall transformation via the lowest cost methods of emissions abatement towards the low carbon future desired by most people will not be achieved by topsy-turvey, politically-motivated policy.”

 

Several analyses have found Australia has at least four large coal plants more than it needs to keep the lights on across the national grid. As EnergyAustralia has noted, owners will face a bill in the hundreds of millions of dollars to cover redundancies for workers and mine rehabilitation costs if they were to shut.

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The Paris Climate Conference: An Uncertain Future. 

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As the preparations for the global climate change conference in Paris in December heat up in parallel with the planet, negotiators in the United Nations climate talks recently proposed a skeleton agreement. The draft includes the key pieces of a legal agreement that are meant to be finalized by nearly 200 countries in Paris.

Countries may more actively follow through on voluntary promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions by expanding renewable energy generation and improving energy efficiency.

The UN-organised Green Climate Fund is intended to generate $100 billion a year from public and private sources by 2020. Connected to a much larger and longstanding debate about funding for sustainable development, developing countries insist that financial contributions from donor countries should mandatory, but industrialized countries prefer voluntary mechanisms.

Developing countries are increasingly forced to quickly figure out how to best limit negative consequences of climate change and how to design working strategies to reduce vulnerabilities and enhance resilience.

Even after emissions are drastically reduced, the climate changes that occur will be around for the next thousand years. Thus, the Paris negotiations and the actions of the global collective in the next three decades will determine the future of the climate for the next millennium.

The government may lack authority to direct the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s funding

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) may fight back against the federal government’s war on renewables, with some claiming the Prime Minister is overstepping his authority.

Last month, the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation was ordered to stop investing in wind farms, in favour of “new and emerging” technologies.

However, director of the Central West NSW Renewable Energy Cooperative (CENREC) Rachel Young said the government has limitations in regards instructing the CEFC on what it can and cannot fund.

“The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has basically come out and said ‘we are just not sure whether the Prime Minister has the authorisation to tell us what we can and cant invest in’. Because their enabling legislation requires them to invest in financially viable renewable projects,” Ms Young explained.

“So the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has gone ‘Well our rules say something different to what you’re [the government is] saying”.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation was established in 2013 to mobilise capital investment in renewable energy, low-emission technology and energy efficiency in Australia

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation was established in 2013 to mobilise capital investment in renewable energy, low-emission technology and energy efficiency in Australia SOURCE: theconversation.com

Former Greens member for Bathurst and CENREC board member Tracey Carpenter believes Tony Abbott does not have legitimate reasons to try and nobble the CEFC.

“The Prime Minister has suggested that the clean energy finance corporation stop funding wind and solar power – for reasons mainly of his personal aesthetics it would seem… So it really is a question of whether they can comply with the captain’s call on that,” Ms Carpenter expressed.

These ‘personal aesthetics’ likely refer to the Prime Minister’s recent attack on wind farms, claiming they have health effects and are “visually awful”.

Mr Abbott instead would prefer the CEFC to fund only large-scale solar and undeveloped technologies such as wave and tidal energy.

He has stated his reasoning for this direction is that wind farms and small-sale solar can easily attract private funding, whereas these “new and emerging technologies” might not otherwise be financed.

A breakdown of Australia's investment into types of renewable energy SOURCE: climatechangeinaustralia.com.au

A breakdown of Australia’s investment into types of renewable energy SOURCE: climatechangeinaustralia.com.au

But with the Prime Minister reportedly intending the CEFC be abolished eventually, Ms Carpenter believes he is pushing Australia further away from tackling climate change.

“In terms of reaching any emissions reduction targets that the rest of the world is expecting Australia to meet, it really puts us back to square one,” she said.

If the CEFC were to no longer operate, Ms Carpenter stressed the Central West “would cease to have any major renewable energy projects that are supported”.

“So we’d lose a significant amount of investment and jobs in the region”.

News Story: NSW Uranium laws subject to change

Many believe it is now just a matter of time before the bans on mining and exportation of Uranium are overturned, despite the slow uptake of NSW Uraniam exploration laws.

Miss Kerry Laws of Uranium Free NSW, says that once further exploration takes place into the benefits of uranium as a renewable resource, changes to NSW policies will soon follow.

Last year the State government invited six companies to apply for exploration licences for deposits around Cobar, Dubbo and Broken Hill. However only one of the six invited, EJ Resources, have done so.

Most put this result down to the fact that the ban on mining in NSW remains. Making it difficult for companies to raise the necessary capital to fund exploration.

Resources Minister Anthony Roberts says the state needs to identify whether there is commercial quantities of Uranium before it can consider lifting the ban.

“I don’t know whether we’ve got any commercial levels of Uranium, and thats a major issue.”

The Minister said the government will extend its invitation to more companies as it’s really in “our great benefit that we allow exploration to begin in New South Wales”.

Miss Laws believes that once these invitations are extended and more are accepted, that exploration will take place and then the lifting of the mining ban will follow, having great consequences to our country and it’s environment.

She says Uranium Free NSW are “opposed to any development in the nuclear industry” due to risks in its transportation, construction of plants and the use of its waste product in nuclear arms.

Miss Laws says there are many other viable renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and Biothermal technology which should be considered before Nuclear energy.

“We hope to phase out the fossil fuel industry, but we shouldn’t be looking to nuclear to replace it.”

However Ian Hore-Lacy, senior Research Analyst of the World Nuclear Association, believes nuclear power is the most reliable, economic and clean form of energy. He says that the Australian public does not have a well formed view on Nuclear and rely on coal because we have such an abundance of it in our land.

He stated that if Australia has any real plans to take green house emissions seriously, that nuclear power is the only viable long term solution.

“We cant possibly generate continuous reliable supply of electricity on any scale from the renewables, it can’t be done”.

Feature Story: Should nuclear energy power Australia’s future?

Uncertainty over “nuclear energy” has stifled its introduction as alternative form of energy in Australia, due to it’s hazardous past. This includes the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown that occurred in Pennsylvania, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of costs and casualties, killing 31 people immediately and with long-term health effects still being investigated. The fear that similar catastrophes may occur in Australia – combined with the readily available abundance of coal in our ground – has prevented the nation from pursuing nuclear energy as an option.

The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine,

The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine,

However, with an increasing need to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, some experts believe Australia may very well have a nuclear future. Ian Hore-Lacy is a senior research analyst at the World Nuclear Association who has been involved with studying uranium and nuclear power since 1995. He perceives nuclear energy as “a reliable, economic clean source of energy for electricity” that is an inevitable solution to rising carbon dioxide emissions. “If there’s a view among the Australian public that we need to take greenhouse gas emissions seriously then we have nowhere else to go,” Mr Hore-Lacy said. “We can’t possibly generate continuous reliable supply of electricity on any scale from renewables. It can’t be done. It’s not been done anywhere else in the world.” Many environmentalists strongly oppose Mr Hore-Lacy’s view and believe a complete shift from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources is a viable option. Director of the Central West NSW Renewable Energy Cooperative (CENREC) Rachel Young thinks “it’s really possible that we could be 100% renewable powered and not have to rely on expensive and risky nuclear power”. The degree of ‘risks’ associated with nuclear power is central to the debate in Australia, alongside construction times, storage of radioactive material and investment and financing risks.

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The last public poll conducted on Australia’s support for nuclear was in 2009 and analysed by crikey.com.au

With analysts, preservationists and politicians sturdily divided on this issue, it’s imperative to separate fact from opinion and examine what is known for certain in regards to using nuclear power as an energy source. Mr Hore-Lacy is correct in his assertion that the use of nuclear energy emits barely any greenhouse gas emissions after plant construction is complete, which Research from the Swedish Energy Utility, Vattenfall, found that nuclear radiation emits less than one hundredth the CO2 of Fossil-Fuel based generation. In fact, it emits less CO2 than Hydro, Wind, Solar and Biomass (although all of these types of energy emit much less than fossil fuels). The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry and Resources also found there are additional environmental benefits from replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power, such as relief of general air and surface pollution. However, there are issues with the production, management, transport and storage of nuclear material, as radioactive waste has to be stowed for up to thousands of years. According to the Parliament of Australia website, one concern is that it could potentially leak into groundwater or ecosystems and consequently effect humans. It is also difficult to predict the costs of building and operating nuclear power plants, as fuel and technical prices are unpredictable, subject to the discount rate and time. Another issue of high water demand for nuclear power plants, which is far greater than fossil-fuelled power stations. While the chance of a major power plant accident releasing dangerous radiation is certainly real, it is an unlikely possibility. Most of today’s nuclear power plants are equipped with much more effective safety regimes. According to the World Nuclear Association’s website, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was set up as an auditor of world nuclear safety and its role has been strengthened since 1996. “Every country which operates nuclear power plants has a nuclear safety inspectorate and all of these work closely with the IAEA,” the website reads. “The use of nuclear energy for electricity generation can be considered extremely safe”. This is not to deny the fact that minor incidents still continue, but the nuclear power industry has around 12,000 reactor years of operation bridging five decades. Furthermore, research suggests there are far more risks of accidents associated with coal mining than at nuclear power plants. An international review of existing studies into the health impacts of electricity generation by the International Energy Agency found that nuclear power was the least dangerous energy source and coal was the deadliest.

Number of deaths caused by nuclear energy in comparison to other energy types  SOURCE: newscientist.com

Number of deaths caused by nuclear energy in comparison to other energy types SOURCE: newscientist.com

Mr Hore-Lacy believes coal-mining accidents are underrepresented in the media because they have lower priority in the news agenda than nuclear disasters. “Nuclear accidents are always high profile in the media,” he said. “Major accidents in relation to coal generation where like 30 or 40 people have been killed in Ukraine barely get any mention in the press at all,” he said. But Ms Young believes renewables are still a much better alternative to fossil fuels than nuclear power. “Why would we invest billions of dollars into a new nuclear power station when we have cheaper and more effective forms of power generation readily available… such as wind and solar?” she asked. Whether Australia will be investing in a power plant any time soon is doubtful, but there have been proposals in the past. In December 2006, a report of then-Prime Minister John Howard’s expert taskforce lead by former Telco boss and nuclear physicist Ziggy Switkowski was released. It considered nuclear power, and concluded that: “The challenge to contain and reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be considerably eased by investment in nuclear plants… [and] is the least-cost low-emission technology that can provide base-load power” But also, that “Australia’s greenhouse challenge requires a full spectrum of initiatives and its goals cannot be met by nuclear power alone”. Following the report, the Prime Minister planned to set up a regime that would remove any obstacles on prohibiting the construction of a nuclear power plant. A change of government in 2007 halted this move towards nuclear energy, however in February this year the Labor state government of South Australia set up a royal commission into the potential for nuclear power in that state. There are several acts in place forbidding this commission to be successful, however it is unclear how long these legal hurdles will remain in place.

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The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1988 will need to be amended to remove prohibitions against effective regulation of nuclear power SOURCE: http://www.world-nuclear.org/

Tony Abbott recently expressed he has “no theological objection” to nuclear energy and would be “fine” with someone putting forward a proposal. Whether nuclear energy is in the Australian Public’s interest is subject to opinion, but with the possibility of carbon restrictions being enforced in the future, it may be time to decide once and for all which opinion should lead our future. After all, the climate does not stand still while we spend our time debating.