Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Clean future starts now

Ian Lowe
The Age, December 31, 2008

"CURRENT global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable — environmentally, economically, socially … What is needed is nothing short of an energy revolution." I have said similar things myself, but this quote is from a new "World Energy Outlook" by the International Energy Agency.

The change is as amazing as if the Pope were to support contraception or the Business Council to call for stabilising the population. Until last year, the energy agency was still deep in denial about the problems of climate change and peak oil, and was talking about world energy use doubling and an increasing use of coal.

The agency's conversion is only the latest and most dramatic example of a new global attitude. The changes leave the Federal Government suddenly looking out of touch, its recent climate change announcements more like a white flag than a white paper.

The Government's weak emissions trading scheme design is not just a surrender to the big polluters, but appears to give up on saving precious national icons such as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu and the Murray-Darling river system. It is also bad news for the economy, as Professor Ross Garnaut wrote in these pages recently.

It is dishonest to claim that our per capita pollution reductions are comparable with those of Europe. Increasing population is not being forced on us by Martians, it results from 20th century policies to boost immigration and encourage larger families. The Earth's natural systems don't understand how many Australians there are, only our total impact. As global citizens, we should curb the growth in our numbers and set serious targets to cut pollution.

The UN's 2007 Bali conference noted that countries such as Australia need to reduce greenhouse pollution by 25 to 40 per cent to give the Earth a fighting chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.

The latest science is more alarming. Until recently, methane levels in the air had been stable for a decade, but there has been a surge. Unpublished research shows the methane is coming from the Arctic. This is the sign climate scientists have been warning about, a possible tipping point.

Temperatures have increased more at the poles than in the tropics. Warming is releasing methane from tundra, increasing warming and causing further methane releases, possibly setting in train an unstoppable surge in temperature. We need an urgent and concerted approach to cut greenhouse pollution.

Global changes have been striking. The World Economic Forum's Dubai summit on the global agenda concluded that responses to the financial crisis need to be integrated with policies that take into account climate change, energy security, food and water.

Global think tank the Club of Rome has been warning for 35 years about the inevitable consequences of uncontrolled growth. It convened a conference last month that concluded the climate and financial problems interlock and demand an integrated approach. The IEA recognised the science when it called for an energy revolution.

Now US President-elect Barack Obama has named as his energy secretary a scientist who has called for a super-grid to harness solar and wind energy. This move to "green infrastructure" is at the heart of Obama's plan to repair the US economy.

Diplomats are working on talks between Obama and Chinese leaders before the UN's 2009 Copenhagen conference, which must produce a framework to slow climate change. China has shown it is serious by closing 2300 small coalmines, improving energy efficiency by 7 per cent and planning to expand solar and wind energy massively.

What should we be doing? We should join the energy revolution, rather than try to prop up old technologies. Kevin Rudd has set an inadequate target to cut emissions just 5 per cent by 2020, offered billions in subsidies to overseas-owned big polluters and done little to encourage growth of local clean-energy technologies to power our future.

The plan has to go to the Senate, where it faces a rocky road. I expect the Greens to oppose it because it doesn't do enough. The Coalition is hopelessly divided between climate change deniers, Howard-era dinosaurs who don't get it, and a minority who understand the scale of the problem. They may also oppose the scheme. That would force the Government back to the drawing board.

If enough of us make clear to our MPs we want serious action, the Prime Minister could develop a stronger scheme. Next year will be critical. I am not exaggerating in saying the survival of civilisation is at stake.

As a scientifically and technologically literate country, we must recognise that a green economy is vital. That makes economic sense as well as being environmentally responsible. We have to go green if we want to get out of the red.

Professor Ian Lowe is president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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