Archive for February, 2012


Rudd’s political tantrum must be opposed

25 February 2012

Yesterday in Australia, a politician I once believed in, Kevin Rudd, challenged our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party. I responded by doing something I never thought I would do: I emailed every Labor MP and Senator urging them to oppose Rudd’s attempt to regain the Prime Ministership.

Although I was too young to vote in the 2007 election, if I had had a vote I probably would have voted Labor, because I misguidedly believed Rudd would take serious action on climate change. For the first two years of Rudd’s government, I felt reassured the Government knew what it was doing and had the problem under control. Rudd and the Labor Party accepted the science of climate change, while the opposing (conservative) Liberal Party, currently led by Tony Abbott, tended towards denial. I assumed the Rudd Government believed its rhetoric.

I was right about the Liberals, but I was wrong about Rudd. The more I learned about Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, the less I liked it. I realized Labor wanted to set weak targets diluted by dubious international offsets and unnecessary compensation to polluting industries. The scheme’s most fundamental flaw was that it would have locked in Rudd’s pathetic targets for at least five years, and a target range for fifteen years.

Rudd’s policy was repeatedly blocked by the Senate – by the Liberals because they generally oppose any action, and by the Greens because of the policy’s locked-in targets and numerous other flaws. Still Rudd refused to even talk to Greens leader Bob Brown during the last year of his Prime Ministership. For Rudd, emissions targets were non-negotiable. Finally, when he could have called an election to resolve the deadlock, in April 2010 (on Gillard’s advice) he chose to walk away from emissions trading. To me this was the last straw – Rudd was demonstrating he didn’t really believe in climate action or even his own policy. Read the rest of this entry ?


US energy sources could be mostly renewable by 2030

21 February 2012

A US government agency has found renewable energy could become the country’s major energy source in two decades.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) compared the geography of electricity demand with potential supply from solar and wind resources. They concluded 70% of US electricity demand in 2030 could be met by wind and solar as well as 15% from hydroelectric and nuclear, leaving only 15% of power dependent on fossil fuels.

The NOAA analysis joins a growing number of studies concluding renewable energy can repower at least some of the world within decades:

The new NOAA study is particularly notable in that it comes from one of the world’s most fossil-fuel-addicted governments.

To avoid dangerous global warming, we urgently need to shift our global energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources. All these studies are telling us we can make this transition if we put our minds to it. It’s time to get on with it.


Get ready for the carbon bubble

20 February 2012

Remember the sub-prime mortgage bubble? The next economic bubble could be caused by investing in the unsustainable fossil fuel industry. The idea might sound incredible, but it results from our failure to seriously address the science of climate change.

The science tells us we can’t burn all fossil fuels

Fossil fuels formed over millions of years from dead plants that were quickly buried, removing carbon from the atmosphere in the process. Thus fossil fuels contain carbon which has been out of circulation for up to hundreds of millions of years. Yet humans are digging up this carbon and burning it in the space of a few centuries. When carbon (C) is burned, it reacts with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), a heat-trapping greenhouse gas.

Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning is the main cause of anthropogenic global warming, now far outstripping natural influences on climate. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is like radioactive waste: much of it hangs around for a very long time. As long as humanity continues to burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and the Earth will continue to warm. The urgent need to prevent further warming leaves us with no choice but to phase out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible.

In the words of NASA climatologist James Hansen, saying what other scientists have generally failed to communicate, “we cannot burn and emit to the atmosphere most of the remaining fossil fuels”. If we wish to avoid unimaginable global catastrophe – or to meet the target the world’s governments have agreed to – let alone to limit global warming to a level anywhere near what scientists consider safe – we must leave the vast majority of the planet’s fossil carbon in the ground. Read the rest of this entry ?


Real-world measurements confirm gas is no cleaner than coal

14 February 2012

Figure 1: Methane emissions from natural gas fields are much larger than the industry claims. (Nature, 2012)

I have written before about why natural gas is not, as is fashionably believed, a bridge fuel to a zero-carbon economy. Even if gas were cleaner than coal, it’s still a fossil fuel and switching to it would still cause dangerous levels of global warming. But whether you can call gas a low-carbon fuel in the first place is very questionable.

Natural gas is composed of methane (CH4), and when burned for energy it results in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). Both carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. While only carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for millennia, methane has a much stronger warming effect on human timescales (~100 times more powerful on a 20-year timescale; ~25 times greater on a century timescale). A methane spike in the next few decades could set off slow feedbacks also leading to greater warming over the long term.

The gas industry and its friends in government advertise gas as “clean energy” because the carbon dioxide emissions from burning it are less than those from coal. What they don’t tell you is that along its journey to being burned, unknown amounts of methane leak out. This is particularly evident during the process of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) used to extract unconventional forms of gas like shale gas and coal seam gas. A 2011 study estimated that when these leaked methane emissions are taken into account, shale gas is comparable to coal over 100 years, and much worse over 20 years.

Because the industry has been uncooperative, real-world measurements of these emissions have been elusive – until now. Read the rest of this entry ?


Australia’s real climate policy

12 February 2012

If you live in Australia you’ve no doubt heard of the Gillard Government’s climate and energy policy: a carbon price branded as the way to a “Clean Energy Future”. But just as a magician misdirects an audience’s attention, the Clean Energy Future diverts attention from Labor’s real energy policy. The Draft Energy White Paper (EWP), released on 13 December while you were distracted by the holiday season, makes clear that despite the rhetoric, the Government still intends Australia’s energy future to be as dirty as ever, and has no qualms about allowing global warming to spiral out of control.

The wrong objective

The main objective of any government energy plan in 2011 should be transitioning to zero-carbon energy sources, as is urgently needed. But according to the EWP, the core challenge is “ensuring that our energy markets deliver efficiency to minimize costs for consumers while also providing a commercially attractive environment for investment” (p. ix). It also lists four policy priorities; one is “clean energy” but as I will explain the actual policies will ensure the opposite. The others are review, deregulation, and – in direct conflict with climate action – developing Australia’s energy resources.

A fossil-fuelled future at home…

Figure 1: Sources of electricity generation in Australia from 2011 to 2050 according to two different Treasury models. Red = renewables; blue = gas and oil; purple = brown coal; black = black coal; teal = gas CCS; green = coal CCS. Read the rest of this entry ?


Energy double standard: Australia subsidizes coal, but not solar

10 February 2012

Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson today announced the extension of the Government’s $100 million grant for the proposed new coal power station HRL in the Latrobe Valley, despite a petition signed by 12,667 people urging the Government to withdraw the $100 million and spend it on renewable energy instead.

The grant was first awarded by a Liberal government in 2007 and continued by Labor. Five years later, HRL has failed to meet conditions for the grant, failed to get environmental approval for a commercial-scale project, failed to secure private finance, and missed a string of deadlines (most recently 31 December 2011). Today the Government decided to extend the deadline by yet another six months (apparently to 30 June 2012).

The Government claims the HRL power station is “clean” because it lowers the emissions of brown coal, but that still makes it as polluting as black coal. If the Government is serious about climate change, the least it should do is stop supporting new coal power plants (indeed if they were really serious, they would ban new coal plants, start closing existing ones, and start phasing out coal exports).

The Government does not seem to have the courage to say no to HRL. However, it decided earlier this week to withdraw a $307 million grant for a solar farm in Moree. Today, Ferguson also announced $100 million for carbon capture and storage.

This is illustrative of a broader double standard in energy policy: subsidies are considered okay for fossil fuels but not renewables. When renewables are subsidized, everyone makes a big song-and-dance about “market distortions” and suchlike; yet when fossil fuels are subsidized, everyone pretends it isn’t happening.

Ferguson today said in the very same statement “the Government is absolutely committed to a technology-neutral approach”, and “I hope today’s announcement takes us one step further [to] shoring up the value of Victoria’s brown coal resource”. Somehow I don’t think Ferguson would see “shoring up the value” of renewable energy resources as technology-neutral.


Maldivian President Nasheed overthrown

8 February 2012

The first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, President Mohamed Nasheed, has been overthrown in a dictatorial coup. Nasheed’s climate change advisor Mark Lynas writes in the Guardian:

Using violence and then taking over the TV station, as well as recruiting converts among the police, the anti-democratic opposition faced Nasheed with a choice – to either use force or resign. Ever the human rights activist, he chose the latter option and stepped down to avoid bloodshed. Even as I write, his whereabouts are still unknown, and though he is supposedly in the “protection” of the military I fear desperately for his personal safety and that of his family. I have heard that he is currently being held against his will under military house arrest, in which case he must be immediately released. All I can do is take comfort from the fact that the struggle can only continue for a man famous in the west for his outspokenness on climate change, but whose real lifelong cause has been his commitment to bringing democracy to his Indian Ocean island homeland.

Over two decades of campaigning against the Gayoom regime, Nasheed set up the Maldivian Democratic Party in exile, and was imprisoned 16 times. He spent six years in jail, and 18 months in solitary confinement in appalling conditions, also suffering torture at the hands of Gayoom’s thugs. Nasheed’s resignation speech says a lot about the man: “I don’t want to run the country with an iron fist,” he said. I can only imagine what he must be going through now, and what he has gone through already in the past. He was declared an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience in 1991. I don’t think I have ever met a braver or stronger person.

I was lucky enough to work for president Nasheed over the last two years, as his climate change adviser. His commitment to turning the Maldives into the world’s first carbon-neutral country was typically ambitious, and – although all bets are now off – serious progress has already been made. He personally stood up to bullying by China at the ill-fated Copenhagen talks in 2009, helping secure a better deal for vulnerable island nations like his own.

I just sent this email to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard:

Dear Prime Minister,

The first democratically elected leader of the Maldives, President Mohamed Nasheed, has been overthrown in a dictatorial coup. Nasheed was forced to resign and is reportedly now being held under house arrest.

In addition to being a champion of democracy, Nasheed has led the world on climate action, committing to make the Maldives the world’s first carbon-neutral country. I urge you to do everything you can to support Nasheed.

Yours faithfully,
James Wight

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