A climate of change

05 May 2007Archived News Energetics in the News

PUBLISHED: The Age - By Liz Minchin - Jonathan Jutsen, Founder & Executive Director, Energetics Pty Ltd was asked by The Age to comment on Australia's response to its increasing demands on energy and release of emissions.

 

The world's leading climate scientists have warned that the planet is warming unnaturally fast, largely driven by human actions. Yesterday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that what we do in this generation will largely decide the fate of the planet. So how can we start? Liz Minchin reports.
THE world has less than eight years to arrest global warming or risk what many scientists warn could be catastrophic changes to the planet.

That's the bad news. But the good news is that achieving such a drastic turnaround in global greenhouse emissions may still be possible - albeit fraught with huge political barriers - and at relatively little cost.

Those are among the findings of a landmark international statement on climate change, signed off yesterday by the world's leading scientists, economists and government representatives from more than 120 countries, after a marathon meeting in Bangkok.

The latest volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, on how to slow global warming, found that making deep emission cuts will require significant changes to the way we live, from the types of power and transport we use, to how much we consume.

In the panel's strongest warning so far that time is running out, it said that the next two to three decades will largely determine how much the planet warms up and how severely climate change affects our lives.

Its conclusion that global emission cuts of between 50 to 85 per cent would be needed to stop the temperature rising beyond two degrees - enough to worsen water shortages across southern Australia and cause massive bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef - sparked a political storm in Australia.

Environment groups and opposition parties attacked the Federal Government for stalling on a decision to set targets to cut Australia's greenhouse emissions.

But federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded with a statement saying that "imposing unilateral and savage cuts to Australian emissions will just export our emissions and jobs to other countries".

The likely costs of acting to slow climate change is a key part of the latest panel report, which has been six years in the making.

The report says that countries that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, such as Australia, are likely to pay a higher price. But it found that slashing greenhouse emissions by up to 85 per cent could cost only 0.12 per cent of global gross domestic product a year to 2050.

This finding was questioned by a former climate change adviser to the Federal Government, and one of the panel's senior Australian members.

Dr Brian Fisher, cautioning that the 0.12 per cent global estimate was based on little evidence, also said that it was probably too late to try to stop the planet heating up by at least three degrees.

"That estimate (of 0.12 per cent) is based on very, very few studies, so we can't draw strong conclusions," said Dr Fisher, the former head of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

"And if you look at the table showing the peaking times for carbon dioxide for low level concentrations in 2015 - frankly that is exceedingly unlikely to occur. That's only eight years away and . . . global emissions are growing very strongly.

"So already from a practical point of view we are breaching those low levels. That doesn't mean you don't do anything, or that you can't overshoot and come back. But as soon as you go over it, it becomes much harder.

"On the current trajectories you would have to say plus 3 degrees is looking more likely."

In the best-case scenario, the panel said it would be possible to stabilise long-term greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere at about 475 parts per million, likely to result in temperatures rising by about 2 degrees.

But the time left to achieve that target is shrinking by the day. Greenhouse gas concentrations are already at about 430ppm, and to stop them going much higher in the long term means global emissions would have to be arrested and start falling by 2015.

One of the panel's lead authors, Australian scientist and Greenpeace International climate policy director Bill Hare, agreed that the chances of achieving this were slim, but he said he felt slightly more optimistic after this week's meeting.

"There's no doubt progress is going to be slow . . . but there was a very good spirit at this meeting; a lot of countries came in with quite hard-line positions but they ended up working quite constructively," he said.

"So if that spirit continues we can expect better progress towards an international agreement. And what this report shows beyond any doubt is we can act at low cost globally - essentially all that's holding us back is government inaction."

ENERGY

POWER TO CHANGE

THE best place to go to understand Australia's single biggest climate change challenge - cutting greenhouse gas pollution from burning coal - is a two-hour drive east of Melbourne.

On a hill overlooking the largest open-cut coal mine in the southern hemisphere, beside the Loy Yang power station in Traralgon, the vast scale of our reliance on coal is on display, as excavators twice the size of a jumbo jet dig away inside a pit 30 times longer and 10 times as wide as the MCG.

Each year, electricity generation alone produces about a third of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. Unless we slow our demand for power, consumption is expected to increase 67 per cent to 360,000 gigawatt hours a year by 2030.

But at least for the next decade or more, the most affordable solutions will be less about big power plants, but rather learning not to waste so much energy.

Globally, energy demand is on track to grow by more than 50 per cent by 2030 unless we start consuming less.

Yet over the past few decades, says the International Energy Agency, Australia has performed worse than any other major industrialised country in improving energy efficiency.

"I guess you could look on the bright side and say that means Australia has plenty of savings to make, because we're so inefficient to start with," jokes Jonathan Jutsen, executive director of consulting firm Energetics.

"I don't have any objection to politicians talking about nuclear power or coal plants that can capture and store their carbon emissions, although they're both very expensive and both have their problems . . .

"But what I don't understand is why all the political focus is on those technologies when we know neither can be built in the short to medium term, and that we need to do something about our growing demand for energy and increasing emissions now."

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change backs that assessment, showing that over the next 23 years, efficiency measures offer by far the most potential for major greenhouse emission savings from energy, followed by renewables and nuclear power. It also concludes that energy efficiency typically pays for itself, while boosting employment and energy security.

The panel shows scope for deep greenhouse cuts across the economy, including in industry, which is responsible for about 40 per cent of Australia's greenhouse emissions.

A recent report for Australian energy ministers found that, on average, industry could slash energy use by a quarter, with the costs of doing so paid off within four years.

Overhauling the buildings we live and work in could also make a big difference.

According to a study for the Australian Greenhouse Office, building regulations introduced last year to make all new housing meet 5-star energy efficiency ratings were still nowhere near enough to get Australian homes up to basic standards overseas.

The study found comparable homes from the United States, Canada and Britain rated an average of seven stars, with some rating as high as nine stars. The study's author, the director of the RMIT Centre for Design, Ralph Horne, attributed it to better insulation and tougher building laws.

"Australian building codes have started down the right track, but need to go considerably further before we can confidently say we have world-standard housing, which is important because most of today's homes will probably still be standing 50 years from now," he said.

As the Federal Government and Labor engage in a furious spending war on "green" energy initiatives, prices may start falling for one of the most effective ways to cut household emissions: solar hot water.

Only 5 per cent of Australia's 8 million homes use solar water heating, which costs about $4000 upfront, but usually pays for itself in five to 10 years and saves up to 3.5 tonnes a year in greenhouse emissions.

TRANSPORT - DRIVING DOWN EMISSIONS

At peak hour on the Eastern Freeway, there aren't many gaps in the traffic. Yet running down the centre of the road almost as far as Doncaster, there is one - a wide grassy strip, left clear by the road's designers for a proposed railway line back in the 1970s.

Thirty years on, Doncaster residents are still waiting for their train to arrive.

Greenhouse pollution from transport is accelerating fast in Australia. By 2030, it is on track to have almost doubled compared with 1990 levels.

There are many reasons why, not least the sheer size of Australia and that we have the fourth-highest rate of car ownership in the world.

Another reason, noted in the panel's latest report, is that many countries still subsidise fossil fuel use, undermining efforts to cut greenhouse emissions.

While the federal Coalition and state Labor governments talk up their increased spending on programs to tackle climate change, that spending is literally a fraction of their multibillion-dollar subsidies for fossil fuels each year.

Just one example in the transport sector is the federal fringe benefits tax, which offers more generous tax rates for company cars the further they are driven.

Company cars that travel more than 15,000 kilometres in a year are taxed at 23 per cent - but as soon as the odometer ticks over to 40,000 kilometres, that tax rate plummets to 7 per cent.

That concession alone costs taxpayers $1.1 billion a year.

But through a mix of policy and better technology, the panel says that major reductions in greenhouse gases from transport are possible.

For instance, current model hybrid cars are already about 40 per cent more efficient for inner-city driving.

The panel also predicts a much bigger role for biofuels in cars and planes, although there are debates about whether the emissions from clearing swathes of land to grow the crops outweigh the greenhouse benefits.

AGRICULTURE - WE ARE WHAT WE EAT

EVERY year, people living in developed countries such as Australia eat roughly their own weight in meat, up to an average of 80 kilograms in 2002 compared to 65 kilograms in 1970.

Demand for meat is growing faster in poorer countries, where meat consumption almost trebled to 29 kilograms over the same period.

Dairy foods are even more widely consumed, with global milk output set to climb to 1043 million tonnes by the middle of the century.

But the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation recently warned that if that happens, it will come at a high environmental cost, not only from extra greenhouse emissions but also massive land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.

The world's livestock (mainly cattle and sheep) are the fastest growing source of agricultural greenhouse emissions, already producing more greenhouse gases than all the world's planes, trains and automobiles.

While cows producing methane is a big contributor, clearing the vast areas of land needed to feed them is also a major source of emissions, particularly in Latin America where 70 per cent of the Amazon forest has been felled to make way for grazing.

University of Chicago researchers recently found that cutting meat from people's diets would save an average of 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse emissions per person each year.

But with no signs on the horizon of a global conversion to veganism, the Australian beef and dairy industry is working on ways to at least reduce methane emissions, through improved genetics and feeding practices.

However, the panel says that there is only limited evidence to show such research will deliver significant greenhouse savings.

Instead, it predicts the biggest cuts in agricultural emissions are likely to come from moving to more sustainable farming practices, such as improving degraded land.

EMISSIONS IMPOSSIBLE?

Greenhouse emissions in 2004

Per capita (tonnes)

AUSTRALIA 26.4

UNITED STATES 24.1

NEW ZEALAND 18.5

EUROPEAN UNION 7.8 to 17.7

CHINA 3.0

49 billion tonnes Global greenhouse gas emissions each year

HOW CAN WE SLOW GLOBAL WARMING?

The IPCC says the world already has existing technology that could help cut greenhouse gas emissions well below today's levels by 2030.

But to do so, polluters will need to pay a high price for their greenhouse emissions. For instance, with a carbon price of US$100 a tonne by 2030 - a significant cost, but one that is likely to be less than the long-term costs to human health and the environment from carbon pollution - the IPCC identifies potential savings of 30 billion tonnes.

That estimate also relies on the development of some promising but speculative technologies, including hydrogen cars, carbon capture and storage for coal and gas, and advanced renewable and nuclear power.

Because most greenhouse gases linger in the atmosphere for decades or more, without rapid emission cuts within this generation we may lose the slim chance we have to avoid what many climate scientists define as a "dangerous" temperature rise of two degrees or more.

HOW TO GET SMART AND COOL THE PLANET

ENERGY SUPPLY Greater energy efficiency; switching from coal to gas, nuclear power and renewables.

TRANSPORT More efficient vehicles; hybrid vehicles; cleaner fuels; improved public transport; non-motorised transport.

BUILDINGS Efficient lighting; insulation; improved design; energysaving appliances, heating and cooling.

INDUSTRY More efficient equipment; heat and power recovery; material recycling and substitution.

AGRICULTURE Managing crop and grazing land to boost soil carbon storage; better livestock management to reduce methane emissions; growing crops for biofuels; energy efficiency.

FORESTRY Regrowing and protecting forests; burning forestry products for energy instead of fossil fuels WASTE Landfill methane recovery; waste incineration with energy recovery; composting of organic waste; controlled waste water treatment; recycling and waste minimization.

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