Friday, January 30, 2009

Marine Experts Implore Governments to Slash Carbon Emissions

NICE, France, January 30, 2009 (ENS) - 

Immediate government action to halt greenhouse gas emissions is needed to limit damage to fisheries and coral reefs due to increasing ocean acidity, warned more than 150 marine scientists from 26 countries in a declaration issued today.

The Monaco Declaration on Ocean Acidification, released at an international aquatic sciences meeting in Nice, warns that levels of acidity are accelerating and that negative socio-economic impacts can only be limited by cutting back on the amounts of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere.
Ocean acidification may make most regions of the ocean inhospitable to coral reefs by 2050, if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to increase, the declaration warns.
This reef collapse could lead to substantial changes in commercial fish stocks, threatening food security for millions of people as well as the multi-billion dollar fishing industry.

The declaration is based on results from a UNESCO symposium, The Ocean in a High-CO2 World, held at the Oceanography Museum in Monaco last October.

Prince Albert II of Monaco today urged political leaders to take notice of the declaration ahead of negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

"I strongly support this declaration," said the prince, whose environmental foundation provided support for the symposium. "I hope the declaration will be heard by all the political leaders meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009."

"The chemistry is so fundamental and changes so rapid and severe that impacts on organisms appear unavoidable," said symposium chair James Orr of the Monaco-based UN Marine Environment Laboratories, a division of the the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"The questions are now how bad will it be and how soon will it happen," said Orr.

The international community has been developing a global observing system for ocean carbon, using ships, buoys, and satellites to understand how the ocean absorbs atmospheric CO2.

The ocean absorbs a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere from human activities. Observations from the last 25 years show increasing acidity in surface seawater, following trends in increasing atmospheric CO2.

"Measured recent increases in ocean acidity follow exactly what is expected from basic chemistry; meanwhile, key ocean regions reveal decreases in shell weights and corals that are less able to build skeletal material," said Orr.

"The report from the symposium summarizes the state of the science and priorities for future research, while the Monaco Declaration implores political leaders to launch urgent actions to limit the source of the problem," he said.

"The Monaco Declaration is a clear statement from this expert group of marine scientists that ocean acidification is happening fast and highlights the critical importance of documenting associated changes to marine life," says Professor Sybil Seitzinger, executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, one of the sponsors of the symposium.

Other symposium sponsors were UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The other great oceanic consequence of high atmospheric CO2 concentrations from fossil fuel burning - the expansion of low oxygen dead zones - was highlighted in a report Monday from a team of Danish scientists.

Dead zones across the world's oceans would expand by a factor of 10 or more if global warming continues unchecked, the Danish team warned, based on newly developed climate models that project 100,000 years into the future.

"Such expansion would lead to increased frequency and severity of fish and shellfish mortality events, for example off the west coasts of the continents like off Oregon and Chile," said Professor Gary Shaffer of the University of Copenhagen, leader of the research team at the Danish Center for Earth System Science, with scientists from the Danish Meteorological Institute and the National Space Institute.

"If, as in many climate model simulations, the overturning circulation of the ocean would greatly weaken in response to global warming," explained Shaffer, "these oxygen minimum zones would expand much more still and invade the deep ocean."

Extreme events of ocean oxygen depletion are believed to have contributed to some of the large extinction events in Earth history, including the largest such event 250 million years ago, when 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species went extinct.

Rainforest razed so cattle can graze

Brazil's attempt to double its share of the global market for beef will carry a heavy environmental cost, report warns

By Michael McCarthy, Environment editor
The Independent, Saturday, 31 January 2009

Green activists say that country's determination to double its share of the world beef market is likely to undermine its new targets for halting Amazon rainforest destruction and reducing carbon emissions.

The South American country has the world's largest cattle herd and is already the biggest beef exporter on the planet. Now the Brazilian government is seeking to boost its share of the world beef market from 30 per cent to 60 per cent in the next decade.

Most of this growth will come in Amazonia, on pastureland created by cutting down rainforest, according to a report released today by Greenpeace. The cattle industry will be the main driver of deforestation, it argues.

And deforestation will mean, the environment group says, that Brazil will not be able to curb its massive carbon dioxide emissions – 75 per cent of them coming from deforestation. It is already the planet's fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter after China, the United States and Indonesia. This is despite the fact that in December last year the Brazilian government introduced targets for reducing deforestation by 72 per cent by 2017, as a part of a national climate-change action plan.

Although it has long been known that cattle ranching, which has been expanding continuously since the early 1970s, has been a principaldriver of rainforest destruction in Brazil, the Greenpeace study, entitled "Amazon Cattle Footprint", is thought to be the first detailed assessment of the scale of its impact (*).

The report uses innovative satellite-mapping techniques to expose direct links between new cattle farms and forest destruction in one of the largest Amazon states, Mato Grosso. One map, for example, reveals the location of industrial-sized slaughterhouses within the state, and shows how they have become the epicentres of major forest destruction as land is cleared to make way for pasture.

Between 1996 and 2006, the report says, the area of pastures in the Amazon grew by approximately 10 million hectares – an area the size of Portugal – to accommodate a vast expansion of the Brazilian cattle herd, which now numbers about 65 million animals.

Between 2002 and 2006, 14.5 million of the total of 20.5 million animals added to the herd were in the Amazon, which now holds about 40 per cent of the national herd, the report says.

It adds that according to Brazilian government data, in 2006 there were three head of cattle in the Amazon for every human inhabitant. Just under 80 per cent of the deforested Amazon is now used for cattle grazing.

"The Brazilian government needs to get a grip on the cattle industry before it completely undermines the country's chances of tackling climate change," said Sarah Shoraka, Greenpeace's forests campaigner. "Right now, huge swathes of rainforest are being cut down to feed the global appetite for beef and leather. As these new maps show, there's a clear link between the location of new cattle ranches and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

"Stopping this expansion offers the best chance of fighting climate change in Brazil, but we need the government to step in before it's too late."

The Amazon basin holds the largest tropical forest in the world, and is the most diverse ecosystem on Earth, playing a vital role in ensuring the region's water supplies, regulating rainfall, and keeping the world'sclimate in balance.

Continued cattle expansion will also have devastating impacts on the Amazon's unique ecosystem and could displace millions of indigenous people, the Greenpeace report says.

In 2006 another major driver of deforestation, soya bean cultivation, has been partly curbed: after pressure from environmentalists, soya growers agreed to a moratorium on growing on newly deforested land. It is likely that the Brazilian cattle industry will now come under similar pressure.

Luis Felipe Carvalho, the secondsecretary at the Brazilian embassy in London, said last night that Brazil did not believe that doubling cattle production would undermine its target to reduce deforestation. It was hoped to use intensive farming techniques to produce more cattle in future from a smaller area of land. "Doubling the cattle industry does not necessarily mean doubling the land the cattle industry uses. We hope to increase productivity, not just the size of the area farmed," he said.

* You can download the report at

Rising electricity prices 'to benefit renewable sector'

ABC News Online, Posted Fri Jan 30, 2009 9:10pm AEDT

The Sustainable Energy Association says a significant increase in electricity prices will boost the renewable energy sector.

The Western Australia Office of Energy has recommended a 78 per cent increase to the charges for household electricity over the next two years, to bring prices into line with supply costs.

Association spokesman Ray Willis says the price hike will lead to increased investment in the renewable energy sector, which has had difficulty competing with low electricity prices.

Dr Wills says households are also set to benefit, with the Government promising to reward those who produce their own energy.

"People will be paid for the energy they produce on their rooftops, so if they install solar panels, they'll actually get a big return," he said.

"As energy prices go up, they'll get more money for that energy that they produce."

Government launches water tank rebate scheme

ABC News Online, Posted Fri Jan 30, 2009 3:03pm AEDT 

Updated Fri Jan 30, 2009 3:02pm AEDT

The Federal Government is offering rebates of up to $500 for households that install rainwater tanks or greywater systems.

Federal Minister for Climate Change and Water Penny Wong joined the Member for Bennelong, Maxine McKew, at Eastwood in New South Wales today to launch the National Rainwater and Greywater Initiative.

The rebate aims to encourage more people to make their homes water efficient and only applies to rainwater tanks and greywater systems that re-use water inside the home, not for gardens.

"The $250 million National Rainwater and Greywater Initiative delivers on an election commitment to help households save precious drinking water," Senator Wong said.

"From today, Australian householders will be eligible for a rebate of up to $500 to help them save water at home.

"Through this initiative, households will receive financial support to install rainwater tanks or greywater systems, which will reduce the use of drinking water."

Senator Wong said rainwater tanks were currently used by only a small minority of urban Australian households.

"The only exception is Adelaide, where 40 per cent of households have rainwater tanks but the average is less than 10 per cent for other capital cities," she said.

Ms McKew says the initiative forms part of the Federal Government's $12.9 billion Water for the Future program, which aims to secure Australia's long-term water supplies.

"A key priority under Water for the Future is using water wisely and householders have a major part to play in improving water efficiency and adapting to climate change," Ms McKew said.

"I encourage all householders in Bennelong and elsewhere who don't yet have a rainwater tank or greywater system to consider this rebate and help conserve our precious water resources."

Rebates are available for the purchase and installation of a new rainwater tank which is connected for internal re-use of the water for toilet and/or laundry use, or for the purchase and installation of a permanent greywater treatment system.

A $400 rebate is available for a 2,000 to 3,999-litre tank and a $500 rebate is available for a tank greater than 4,000 litres.

The guidelines and application form for the National Rainwater and Greywater Initiative are available from or by calling 1800 808 571.

Best way to help a warming planet is to tax carbon and let the market decide

John Humphreys

The Age, January 31, 2009

WITH the country slipping into recession and the Government falling into deficit, political priorities have been shifting. As the Government now looks to introduce legislation for an emissions trading system, it is worth considering other ways forward for climate change policy that will protect jobs and support the economy.

Climate change is an important political issue. In 2007 the International Panel on Climate Change said they are more than 90 per cent certain that humans are contributing to global warming. Computer models suggest a temperature increase of between 2 and 4 degrees over the next 100 years.

Many people are worried about the possible impact and are demanding political action.

At the moment, both major parties and most minor parties are pushing for a carbon trading system and billions of dollars of subsidies towards alternative energy. This looks good, but it is bad policy.

If something needs to be done, Australia would be better served by a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Governments are notoriously bad at picking winners in any industry, and there is no reason to believe that politicians will correctly predict the future of the various alternative energy options.

I don't know which option is better between solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, "clean" coal, hot rock, bio-fuels, or any other option, and neither do Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull or Bob Brown.

If we want to shift away from "dirty" coal then the best option is to put a price on carbon emissions and let the market decide.

We can get a price on carbon in two ways — carbon trading or a carbon tax.

There are several reasons for preferring the tax option. A tax is more transparent, provides certainty in the carbon price, and allows greater flexibility during changing economic circumstances. In trade theory it is well understood that tariffs are better than traded quotas.

Similarly, a carbon tax is actually more flexible and efficient than the trading system. Other costs of a trading system include compliance costs, administration costs, wasteful rent-seeking behaviour and the cost of picking winners if carbon credits are allocated.

One benefit of a carbon tax is that it raises a consistent and guaranteed amount of revenue for the government, which can be used to cut other taxes, and therefore reduce the potential economic costs of climate change policy. Indeed, depending on the details, a modest carbon tax and matching tax cuts may have no net negative economic effect.

A tax of $15 per tonne of CO2-e (carbon dioxide or equivalent) would raise enough money to increase the tax-free threshold (TFT) from $6000 to $10,000. Alternatively, the revenue could be used to cut the top marginal tax rate down to 30 per cent. If we increased the carbon tax to $30 per tonne, then the Government could afford to increase the TFT and cut the top marginal tax rate, or they could increase the TFT to $15,000.

There is another, more controversial, option that deserves consideration. Australia already has an environment tax on fuel and diesel. The transport sector emits 94 tonnes of CO2-e per year and pays a high tax rate (petrol tax is 38.143 cents per litre, excluding GST), while the non-transport energy sector emits 306m tonnes of CO2-e and pays no environment tax. A $30-per-tonne carbon tax could be introduced as a replacement of the fuel tax — in effect reforming our environment tax to achieve a lower level on a broader base. Such a policy could be seen as good tax policy, irrespective of the environmental arguments.

The real-world consequence of this would be more expensive electricity, offset by cheaper petrol prices.

The impact on the budget would be roughly neutral. The impact on economic efficiency would be roughly neutral, as both taxes create a similar level of behavioural response. The impact on equality would be roughly neutral, as the policy replaces one regressive tax with another regressive tax.

One complaint against a switch from a fuel tax to a carbon tax is that the lower emissions from electricity generation will be offset by higher emissions in the transport sector. While this is true, it confuses the means with the ends. The goal of a climate policy should not be to reduce the use of electricity or transport but to create an incentive for people to research and invest in alternative energies so that we become less reliant on coal. A switch from a fuel tax to a carbon tax provides that incentive in a way that is relatively harmless to equity, efficiency or the budget.

Climate change is becoming an increasingly important part of Australia's political debates. But if we are serious about tackling the challenges of climate change in an intelligent way, we need to get past the easy promises of just "doing something" and work out which policy approaches provide the most benefits and least costs to Australian society.

John Humphreys, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies is the author of Exploring a Carbon Tax for Australia.

Environment groups swing to Coalition

ENVIRONMENT groups are set to launch new campaigns against the Federal Government on climate change, with some now backing the Coalition's attacks on the proposed emissions trading scheme.

The previously close relationship between the environmental lobby and the Labor Party has become strained in recent months, particularly after the Government released details of its carbon pollution reduction scheme, which included lower-than-expected greenhouse targets and multibillion-dollar compensation for major polluters.

Australia's largest environment, welfare, religious and union groups — including the ACTU, the Australian Council of Social Service and the Australian Conservation Foundation — have already met to plan new campaigns, and will hold a national strategy meeting within a fortnight.

"There's going to be a massive civil society push to change the Government's proposed policies," said ACF president Don Henry.

ACF vice-president and Melbourne University professor Peter Christoff shared the concerns of outspoken Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce about the effectiveness of the proposed emissions trading scheme.

"In my view Barnaby Joyce got it right, but for the wrong reasons," Dr Christoff said.

He said that in its current form, the scheme provided a "dangerous illusion" of effective action. "Without further changes, it should be opposed."

Greenpeace also plans to campaign against the current emissions trading proposal.

Online activist group GetUp — which in the past has been accused of being a Labor front because its board members used to include federal MP Bill Shorten and millionaire former Victorian MP Evan Thornley — said it was keen to work with the Coalition on climate policy.

"We believe that much of Malcolm Turnbull's policy is right, particularly on complementary measures such as a focus on energy efficiency and investment in renewables," said GetUp's national director, Simon Sheikh.

"I think Kevin Rudd has been fixated on the emissions trading scheme, when the real answers lie outside it."

Senator Joyce, who still questions whether climate change is real, was delighted to hear that green groups were coming out against emissions trading.

"The thing that myself and the green groups agree on for different reasons is that what Mr Rudd has conjured up is totally pointless … He's managed to do something peculiar, and that's unify both sides of the debate in saying what he's proposing is completely ridiculous," Senator Joyce said.

The backlash comes at a difficult time for the Federal Government, as it tries to sell the merits of its emissions reduction plans amid worsening economic forecasts.

A spokeswoman for Climate Change Minister Penny Wong said that "tackling climate change is a tough economic challenge", but that the Government's policies sought to get the balance right.

More than 100 grassroots climate action groups will meet in Canberra this weekend, with a protest at Parliament House on Tuesday.

Nothing new under the sun: a nation falls behind

JIM Thomson is hot, and bothered. Each day, the outback electrician spends hours in the red dirt of remote stations and communities where he works to keep the power on in the harshest of conditions. Born and bred in mining mecca Kalgoorlie, the 50-year-old has spent his life under the relentless desert sun. And with his far-flung customers unconnected to Australia's power grid, his work these days often involves installing solar generators.

It's a job that has made him increasingly aware of the untapped potential of one of the most abundant of his country's natural resources.

"I'm out here in it day after day, and the more I work with solar, the more I see what's possible. We have this magnificent, natural, clean energy belting down on us and we are not using it as we could and should."

Thomson is bothered over what he sees as the failure of politicians to grapple with the biggest threat to his country: climate change.

Like a lot of Australians, he had high hopes for a brighter future for solar and other renewable energy under the Rudd Government. But he is disappointed with Labor's announcements over the past two months: its lower-than-expected greenhouse targets and its refusal to introduce stronger national support for renewable energy.

Thomson is especially upset about Labor's solar credit scheme, which allows energy companies to claim solar power installed by householders as their own carbon reduction. "In fact, I think renewables are going backwards, not forwards. What the Government is doing is supporting the polluters," he says.

To be fair, even critics acknowledge that since Labor came to power just over a year ago, it has already done more on climate change than the Howard government did in a decade. It has signed the Kyoto agreement, vowed to spend lots on solar and other renewables, promised that 20 per cent of all power will come from renewables by 2020, and put a price on greenhouse pollution for the first time in Australia.

Yet, as The Age has revealed over the past week, Australia is still missing out on major investments in solar energy. Its one solar panel manufacturer, BP Solar, is set to close, and concern is mounting among renewables industry experts that Labor's "solar revolution" may be, as University of NSW energy expert Iain McGill puts it, "more talk than walk".

That view is shared by solar powerbrokers from Europe and the United States — that Labor is still not backing the kind of systemic change in the energy market required to make solar take off as it has elsewhere. In Germany, for example, solar energy has exploded, growing more than 30-fold in this decade alone, and Germany now controls half of the world's solar photovoltaic panel industry.

Why does Australia remain a straggler in the solar stakes and what do we stand to lose if we don't catch up? It is not only Australians asking such questions.

German solar manufacturer Solon visited here in December but left disheartened. Solon director Ulrich Prochaska says that, on the one hand, Australia's "very much underdeveloped" solar marketplace is bemusing. But on reflection, he says, it does make sense given our energy history.

"You had the opportunity to produce power absolutely cheaply because your coal is on the surface and you don't have to go down for hundreds of metres; it's absolutely easy and absolutely cheap."

That, in large part, seems to be the answer. It is not that Australia is anti-solar so much as it is pro-coal; cheap, abundant, accessible coal. For all the years of talk about sun, wind, hydro, waves, geo-thermal and all the other alternatives, the fact is that coal accounts for more than 90 per cent of Australia's electricity.

Wind the clock back to 1990 and Australia could probably claim a spot internationally at the forefront of renewable energy, solar research in particular. Then, Australia, Germany and Japan were installing five to 10 megawatts of solar power each year. But Australia fell badly off the pace in the Howard years and by 2007 was adding just 10 megawatts of solar annually compared with Germany's 1300. As coal accounts for almost all our electric power, it is not surprising it wields big political power as well. (In money and job terms, local coal production and exports are worth about $80 billion a year and coal mining and electricity industries together employ about 100,000.)

Despite the mounting evidence of environmental damage caused by our burning coal, the coal industry dominated energy policy through the Howard years — so much so that former Liberal Party activist and one-time government adviser Guy Pearse argued in his 2007 book, High and Dry, that a "greenhouse mafia", made up of fossil industry powerbrokers, shaped and even wrote Howard's energy and environment policies.

What about Rudd's policies? The answer is a little more complex.

Few industry and government insiders doubt that, under Labor, the fossil fuel industry remains a potent lobby. Its strategic role in the economy and its massive wealth give it formidable political muscle. And while the coal industry attracts more public attention in the climate debate, related electricity-hungry industries such as aluminum have also been active in Canberra.

Evidence of the fossil fuel lobby's work is clear in the trajectory of Labor's climate change messages, from its pre-election rhetoric to December's white paper on carbon pollution reduction.

Key changes have included: petrol omitted from the carbon reduction scheme; the modest 5 per cent emissions reduction targets (far below what the science deems necessary); $4 billion in compensation to polluters, against the recommendations of climate change adviser Ross Garnaut; the abandoning of Garnaut's high-priority plan to make buildings energy efficient; and the scrapping of the $8000 solar rebate.

Garnaut himself has described the industry's lobbying as "unprecedented", its message enthusiastically supported by key unions, notably the Australian Workers Union with 130,000 members including in mining, manufacturing and agriculture.

Together, the industry and unions have warned of disastrous impacts of tough carbon pricing: lights going out, industries abandoning the country, massive job losses. Such messages coming from business and labour leaders, reiterated over and over again and by the best lobbyists in the business, is enough to rattle the greenest of pollies, especially amid a global financial crisis.

Australian National University adjunct professor and energy consultant Hugh Sadler says there is no question about who has real clout under Labor: "The green groups have absolutely no influence and the big industries and key unions, and in particular the AWU, completely wipe the floor with them."

The industry association representing the big players in coal, oil and manufacturing, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, did not want to comment on speculation about its influence on government. Yet chief executive Michael Hitchens did acknowledge important changes to Labor's policies since its election, which he said had made everyone a little happier, both industry and environmentalists.

Not according to Australian Conservation Foundation president Don Henry. "From our observations, the Government probably spent 100 times more time talking with industry than they did with the community sector. They (industry) seem to be the ones that have mainly been listened to in the formulation of this package."

Inside government, the solar and renewables message is struggling to get through. Environment Minister Peter Garrett is solar's obvious potential champion. But he has been largely sidelined, it seems, playing second or third fiddle to Climate Change Minister Penny Wong, Energy and Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and Treasurer Wayne Swan.

Twelve months ago, Wong was vocal in warning industry to brace for real change as Labor attacked carbon emissions. As time passed, her emphasis has shifted to preparing the public for a more cautious approach.

For solar, it is significant that Wong is understood to be opposed to the German model of long-term subsidies for solar panels — known as a gross feed-in tariff, and credited with that country's solar success — on the grounds it would be too expensive. The Australian Industry Greenhouse Network is also opposed.

Ferguson is an important player, with responsibility for the country's energy future. An old-school Labor and union man, he is renowned for his commitment to protecting jobs, particularly in the heavily unionised mining and energy sectors.

Several solar industry businesses have told The Age they have found Ferguson to be surprisingly interested in solar. Last Monday, he paid a private visit to a solar thermal plant in California run by Ausra, a US-based company chaired by former Sydney University professor David Mills.

But when it comes to the big picture, Ferguson, and the Rudd Government more broadly, still see coal and other fossil fuels as the lifeblood of Australian industry for decades to come. That attitude can be seen in the shaping of Australia's energy policy out to 2030 and beyond.

As part of that process, a number of industry leaders were invited onto a "high-level consultative committee".

The list of companies invited is interesting reading: Shell, Rio Tinto, Xstrata Coal, BHP Billiton, Santos, Woodside Petroleum, AGL, Origin Energy, the Energy Supply Association of Australia, and the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association. The renewables industry didn't get a seat.

Then there is the bureaucracy. Notable is that some of the Howard government's senior energy and climate bureaucrats have remained on under Labor.

Dr Martin Parkinson, who heads the Department of Climate Change, also played a key role in John Howard's climate policy, overseeing a paper on emissions trading that included the kind of industry compensation the Rudd Government has now adopted.

Treasury has been influential upon the shape and detail of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Its prime concern, of course, is growth and revenue, so anything that might reduce electricity demand, production and the revenue that flows from it is less likely to be appealing.

Critics say Treasury remains dominated by free-market devotees who resist the idea of government intervention or playing favourites — as in, giving solar a kick-start in the marketplace. This view underlines the Rudd climate change policies: emission reduction and renewable energy targets are set, but after that it's up to the marketplace to sort out how such things are to be achieved. Renewables experts argue that under such conditions the fledgling and currently expensive solar option is not likely to fare well.

The industry lobby, the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, is in furious agreement with the Treasury approach. It has confirmed to The Age that it has lobbied against what chief executive Michael Hitchens describes as the "picking of winners", such as solar.

"That is entirely unnecessary if you have an emissions trading scheme doing its job. There's no special need to create special markets for solar or wind, or for coal for that matter … The white paper agrees entirely with that approach."

For all its sabre-rattling on climate change, in practice, Labor's centrepiece policies are not dissimilar to where Howard was heading. "He's (Rudd) not too far away from where John Howard or the Coalition would have ended up," Howard's former chief of staff, Grahame Morris, said on Monday.

So, just as there are climate change sceptics, there is a new school of climate change response sceptics, wary especially of government and industry eagerness to be seen to be doing something on solar.

University of NSW academic and solar specialist Muriel Watt says she knew the Government was about to go soft on its climate and energy policies last month when she saw Rudd had flown to a new solar farm in outback Queensland the day before the release of the carbon pollution-cutting white paper. The Prime Minister used the visit to announce he was bringing forward a half-billion-dollar spend on new, clean power plants as part of his "solar revolution".

For Watt, Rudd's Windorah trip was an all-too-familiar signal that Labor's white paper would offer little for renewables. "The (grant money) was only announced because the carbon reduction scheme was going to be so appalling they wanted to say something about renewables beforehand."

Watt welcomes more research funding but says it is being poured into a bottleneck. Without structural change in the marketplace, all the funding and pilot programs achieve is to keep solar alive at the margins of the economy.

David Mills, the Australian founder of Californian-based solar thermal manufacturer Ausra, agrees. "The Government is still playing the handout game and not the systematic change game.

"If you want clean energy installed on a systematic basis, on large-scale projects throughout the country, it doesn't matter whether you're talking about coal sequestration, nuclear or solar, all of those technologies are going to require some kind of systematic price support. They're just not going to get in otherwise.

"My view is that you should put in a structural change — like a feed-in law (for all renewables) — and let the market decide what's the cheapest way to provide the clean energy," Mills says.

Other structural change tried in the US and elsewhere has included loan guarantees to major new power generators — making it easier for new coal, nuclear or renewables facilities to get cheaper interest rates from banks. Rudd announced a similar scheme for the construction industry only last weekend but, so far, there are no signs of such a scheme for new clean energy plants.

Almost all of the many renewables experts spoken to for this story agree that what is required is intervention in the marketplace to give still-expensive solar electricity a price that makes it competitive. Where this has happened, the industry has flowered. As the industry has grown, the price of solar power has started to plummet, and with it the subsidies initially necessary to allow it to mature.

This is so much so that energy experts expect solar in some countries to match the price of other electricity, without subsidies, within the next few years. At that point solar is likely to blossom in ways previously unimagined. For all the talk of solar revolutions, Australia will not be reaping the benefits.

Rudd himself seems reluctant to intervene in the energy market in the way that countries such as Germany and Spain have to boost solar power. In that sense he reflects the still-dominant Canberra ethos that the market is sacrosanct.

There is no doubt that Germany's embrace of solar is in part driven by necessity — its lack of energy sources. It has coal but it is buried deep, it is expensive to mine and supplies are dwindling fast. It has banned nuclear power and does not want to rely on other countries, such as Russia and Albania, for gas.

But there is another factor at work in Europe, seemingly absent here: a belief that elected governments have the right to make big, transformative decisions in what is perceived to be the good of the public, economy and environment.

Martin Ferguson has highlighted his Government's $100 million Australian Solar Institute, the $500 million Renewable Energy Fund and the $150 million Energy Innovation Fund as clear commitments to renewables and solar on top of the carbon reduction and renewable target schemes.

Peter Garrett told The Age that he believes Labor is "on the way to laying the foundation for solar to play the significant role that I've always thought it could".

But Clean Industry Council chief executive Matthew Warren says it is precisely a foundation that is missing. He says that while the German system made power more expensive, it gave investors a strong sense of certainty that the country was behind solar. "If you had a scheme in Australia that was bankable, you could say: 'I know the industry will be there in 10 years' time.' That's the kind of platform these (solar) guys need."

This week The Age revealed that a string of European solar companies had considered investing in Australian solar but had opted to go elsewhere because of a lack of government commitment and support. They warned that our attachment to coal is not only an environmental problem, it threatens to be an economic one as well — as Australia is left clinging to fossil energy and a fossilised economic model.

Germany's booming solar industry now employs 57,000. One company alone, solar cells manufacturer Q-Cells, established in 2001 with 19 employees, now has 1900 workers. It is the largest manufacturer of solar cells in the world. Australia's solar industry employs 3500.

Perhaps even more worrying than cloudy Germany showing us up in the solar stakes is the growing interest in truly sunny places such as the US and Middle East. In the US, hopes are high that new President Barack Obama will follow through on his inauguration pledge to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories" and, at a more practical level, to use $US150 billion of his economic stimulus package to promote clean energy.

Despite the drop in oil prices, a few oil-rich nations led by the United Arab Emirates are pouring billions into solar projects, investing a stake of their current oil wealth to tap their harsh desert sun for the future. Last week the UAE's capital, Abu Dhabi, hosted 15,000 renewable energy experts from around the world at a World Future Energy Summit.

Meanwhile, in the West Australian outback, Jim Thomson is left pondering what could be in his own desert.

With LIZ MINCHINRoyce Millar is an Age investigative reporter. Liz Minchin is an Age writer.

Solar not being taken seriously, says enthusiast

WHAT goes up must come down. In the case of Peter Allan's personal solar system, much sooner than expected.

Mr Allan has removed solar panels from his Brunswick roof, declaring the policies of both the federal and state Labor Government anti-solar.

Mr Allan, who works as an environmental consultant, says both levels of government are undermining the contribution of small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to reducing greenhouse emissions.

Last year the State Government announced a new subsidy scheme for solar panels under which residents with panels would be paid a premium for the surplus power they feed back into the electricity grid.

The subsidy would only be available to households, not businesses or farms, with small PV systems of less than two kilowatts and households.

In his bid to maximise the power generated from his roof, Allan had spent $24,000 on a 2.4 kilowatt system of 14 panels, rendering him ineligible for the subsidy.

Allan says the two-kilowatt cap means only "toy-sized" systems are recognised making it clear the Government is not serious about the subsidy being effective. He says the cap needs to be lifted to 10 kilowatts and the subsidy made available to all solar producers including farmers and businesses.

So far Allan has removed four panels to bring his system under the Government's proposed cap. If the Government does not lift the cap, Allan says he will smash panels on the steps of Parliament House as a protest.

"We're feeling so frustrated by state and federal half-heartedness on solar. So to symbolise the destruction of the industry we may go and destroy panels that are no longer any use," he said.

Environment groups and the Government's own Department of Sustainability had pushed for a German-style subsidy known as a gross feed-in tariff.

The Government rejected the model, declaring it unfair to lower incomes without solar, and claiming it would add $100 to all household power bills. However, The Age revealed this week confidential advice from senior Government officers that the real cost was just $7.

Mr Allan is also angry about the Rudd Government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Last month the Government announced it would replace John Howard's $8000 solar rebate with a scheme that allowed those with solar panels to claim solar credits.

But Mr Allan was stunned to discover his carbon-cutting efforts would be cancelled out by the fact that his credits could be claimed by power retailers under their own carbon reduction obligations. The effect, agree experts, is that household solar panels will make no real contribution in carbon emissions. "How would be anyone be motivated to do this knowing their action would not be reducing the amount of renewable energy generated overall?"

A spokeswoman for Climate Change Minister Penny Wong would not directly respond when asked if the Government would consider amending the carbon reduction policies to account for household action.

"Everyone has to do their bit to reduce carbon pollution — from big business to households — no one gets a free ride," she said.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Aust 'should be leading world' in carbon capture and storage

By Europe correspondent Emma Alberici

ABC News Online, Posted 5 hours 27 minutes ago

A leading economist has told the World Economic Forum in Davos that Australia should be leading the international community in the development of carbon capture and storage technology.

Nicholas Stern has called Australia's decision to cut emissions by 5 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020 on the low side, given the world is aiming for a reduction of 80 per cent by 2050.

"I think a clear path too for all the heavy emitting countries, that includes Australia, the United States, the UK, a clear path for those rich emitting countries to cut by 80 per cent by 2015 is absolutely fundamental and we all have to ask ourselves, are we on a credible path?" he told the ABC on the sidelines of the forum.

"Australia is a rich country relative to the rest of the world and everybody has to tackle the transition and I believe Australia can be a leader in showing how that can be tackled."

Two-and-a-half years ago, the Stern report highlighted the devastating economic consequences for the world if it did not take immediate action on climate change.

The British economist said developed countries could no longer go on using coal without committing to the development of large scale carbon capture and storage facilities.

He said Australia should be building up to four such plants within the next decade.

"Australia has great opportunities. Australia could be a leader in carbon capture and storage both in the technology and in the application of the technology," he said.

"Australia has holes in the ground where you can put the carbon that is captured so I think this is an opportunity for Australia and I believe the leading thinkers on this like Ross Garnaut (The Government's chief climate change adviser) and (Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd himself, understand these issues very well."

He said green projects would pick up the jobs that would be lost when Australia makes a greater shift to sustainable energy.

"In the short run, moving to alternative energy is actually going to be more labour intensive," he said.

"You can't switch away from coal quickly but you can switch towards carbon capture and storage for coal within a period of a decade or so."

The Big Question: Is there a technological solution to the problem of global warming?

By Steve Connor

Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Independent

Why are we asking this now?

For two reasons. A German research ship, the Polarstern, is steaming towards a region off the coast of Argentina in the South Atlantic, where it intends to release six tonnes of iron sulphate over an area of 115 square miles. The aim is to study the impact of this "iron fertilisation" on the blooms of plankton that absorb carbon dioxide from the sea and, ultimately, the atmosphere. Some scientists believe this could offer a way of boosting a natural carbon "sink", where carbon is stored or sequestered for a long time. The second reason is a study published yesterday in the journal Nature which backs up this idea of a geo-engineered solution to global warming with hard, scientific observations.

What are these latest observations?

A team at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton studied two areas of the Southern Ocean around the Crozet Islands and Plateau, about 1,400 miles south-east of South Africa. One region is rich in iron, because of the run-off from the volcanic islands, whereas the other is deficient in iron. The researchers found that the iron-rich region also has between two and three times as much carbon sequestered in seafloor sediments and the deep ocean beneath the plankton blooms that form at the sea surface each summer. These sediments have built up over thousands of years since the last ice age. The scientists point out that this supports the idea that iron-rich seas result in greater amounts of carbon being sequestered in deep layers, because atmospheric carbon dioxide is drawn into the sea by the vast blooms of plankton at the surface.

How will fertilisation help fight global warming?

The increase in average global temperatures over the past century or two is now widely accepted as being linked with the increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. About half of the man-made carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by the natural carbon "sink" of the ocean. Scientists believe one way of augmenting this natural sink is to boost concentrations of iron, which is known to be the limiting factor that inhibits the absorption of carbon dioxide by plankton. Fertilising the sea with iron, the limiting mineral in seawater, is known to stimulate phytoplankton blooms. Phytoplankton, the microscopic plants at the base of the marine food chain, convert sunlight into chemical energy using the raw material of carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater. The more they grow, the more carbon they use and the more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere ends up being dissolved at the sea surface.

How will we know if it works?

The key to the success of iron fertilisation is showing that much of the carbon trapped in the cells of dead plankton ends up falling to deeper layers of the ocean and on to the seafloor, where it will be trapped for a least 100 years – and so be taken out of the more immediate carbon cycle. Some studies have suggested that, although iron fertilisation can cause blooms to form, they are quickly eaten up by other marine organisms and digested in a way that releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. The latest study, however, implies that, in the natural situation, iron-rich water does indeed lead to long-term sequestration of carbon. This is why iron fertilisation is being seen as a possible technical fix to the problem of global warming.

Are there any other fixes?

Several, but only a few are being taken seriously. For instance, the Nobel prize-winner Paul Crutzen, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, has suggested it would be possible to inject sulphate particles into the atmosphere to mimic the effects of a volcanic eruption. These particles could act as a reflective surface for incoming sunlight, producing a discernible cooling effect on Earth. For example, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, on the Philippine island of Luzon, in 1991 released vast amounts of sulphate particles into the global atmosphere, with the result that the Earth cooled by about 0.5C for the year or two following the eruption. Mr Crutzen suggested that, in extremis, it could be possible to mimic this effect by releasing artificial sulphate particles, a process that which could easily be reversed if necessary. But some have questioned possible side-effects, such as acid rain.

Are there any other viable ideas?

Other scientists have suggested doing something similar by creating low clouds over the ocean by spraying water droplets into the air from ships. The formation of these clouds would have a cooling effect and the process could be quickly turned off if necessary. Another theory is to stimulate the mixing of the ocean with long, floating, vertical pipes that take surface water down to deeper levels using wave energy. This would result in carbon dioxide dissolved in surface layers being taken down to deeper layers and deposited there for long periods. James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, is known to favour this idea. One of the more extreme suggestions for the geo-engineering of the climate is to put mirrors in space to deflect incoming sunlight – a technical fix too far for most scientists who are investigating this area of research. Apart from the expense and the practical implications of parking such a complicated set of mirrors is space, people will want to know who would have control such an important technical structure?

Is anyone taking these ideas seriously?

It is fair to say that most experts would, until recently, have discounted such suggestions to counter global warming. However, there is growing concern that international attempts to curb rising levels of carbon dioxide could fail. Since the signing of the Kyoto agreement a decade ago, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen faster than even the worst-case scenarios that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested. Some scientists are now saying we should have a back-up, or "plan B".

Is there a consensus about a 'plan B'?

A survey of climate experts carried out by The Independent at the end of last year found that many now believe that a "plan B" is necessary if global temperatures continue to rise. Just over half – 54 per cent – of the 80 international specialists who responded to our survey said the situation was now so dire that we must consider the artificial manipulation of the global climate to counter the effects of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.

So where can we go from here?

The Royal Society has set up a working committee to study the feasibility of geo-engineering and its report is due to be published this summer. A number of research projects, such as the one being conducted aboard the Polarstern, are under way and their results will be published in the scientific literature. The opponents argue that the Earth's climate system is far too complex to be interfered with in this way, but others argue that we may end up having no alternative if carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise, along with global temperatures. There may come a point when we have no alternative but to try geo-engineering.

Should we fight climate change with iron dust and solar screens?


* Carbon dioxide levels are rising so fast we may have no alternative if we are to maintain a habitable world

* Natural carbon sinks that absorb carbon dioxide are weakening, so we need to may need to boost them

* We are already engaged in a massive climate experiment by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere


* The risks of uncontrolled side-effects are too great

* Geo-engineering is a dangerous distraction from the goal of curbing man-made greenhouse gas emissions

* We caused one environmental disaster with global warming and we have no right to risk causing another with geo-engineering

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The climate freeloaders: emerging nations need to act

Key developing countries have long been exempt from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now, as global climate talks move forward, that policy must change, writes Fred Pearce from Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network

Now that George W. Bush is not around to misinterpret, it is probably safe to point out something climate negotiators rarely mention. There are quite a few countries out there that don't have targets to cut their carbon dioxide emissions, but who really ought to. They are not poor, and they are not low emitters. They are climate freeloaders.

I am not talking about large Asian countries like India or Indonesia or even China, where national emissions may be large but per capita emissions remain very low by rich-world standards. The average Indian is responsible for roughly a tenth the emissions of the average American. Even the average Chinese has emissions only around a quarter those of the average American (as I mentioned in a previous article here), and a good proportion of that is produced while making goods to sell to the West.

We, the big emitters, have to engage countries like China and India in taking action, if we are to stave off climate change. But we have to do that from a position of humility — admitting that, sorry, but we have used up most of the available atmospheric space for greenhouse gases.

What I am talking about here, however, is a growing list of rapidly industrializing countries that don't have targets under the existing Kyoto Protocol, but have emissions rates that are now often above those of many longtime industrialized nations that do have targets. Moreover, while the Kyoto countries are cutting emissions, the non-Kyoto countries are mostly raising them — and fast.

These are places as different as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and South Korea. None of these countries currently seem likely even to be asked to adopt targets in Copenhagen later this year, when the successor agreement to the 1997 protocol is set to be decided. And that seems increasingly crazy — not only unfair, but also damaging to any real effort to tackle climate change.

When the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, it set targets for industrialized countries, including member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the former Soviet bloc and Japan. But emerging industrial countries were left out, partly through political expediency and partly because their emissions didn't seem to matter much. Now they do.

The trend is revealed in disturbing detail in estimates of national emissions for 2007 recently published by the U.S. government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a widely respected international monitor.

Take Malaysia, which for all intents and purposes is now an industrialized country and has carbon dioxide emissions that reflect that — emissions produced from the energy used to run factories, vehicles, and air-conditioning systems. By 2007 Malaysia had increased its total emissions fourfold since 1990, from 15 million tons of carbon to 68 million tons. (1990 is the base year used for calculating emissions reductions for countries under the Kyoto Protocol.)

Malaysia — which has a GDP greater than many European countries — now emits slightly more carbon dioxide per capita than Britain, which at 2.47 tons per head is a fairly middle-range European country. But while Britain is on course to meet its Kyoto target of a cut of 12.5 percent from 1990 levels, Malaysia can carry on raising its emissions as much as it likes.

U.S. per capita emissions, incidentally, are currently 5.3 tons of carbon, according to Oak Ridge. At the other extreme, those of Bangladesh are 0.08 tons.

A host of other Asian countries that we used to call "tiger economies" are in the same situation as Malaysia, and for similar reasons — they continue to increase their emissions above the levels of Kyoto countries that are trying hard to reduce theirs.

Taiwan's emissions have doubled since 1990. Its per capita emissions are ahead of most of Europe. But it has no targets.

Likewise South Korea, which recently nudged above its neighbor Japan in per capita emissions. Yet while Japan has targets, South Korea does not. South Korea has been in the OECD club of rich nations since 1996, but on climate it still conveniently sits with the poor countries.

This must be a trifle embarrassing for South Korea's most famous envoy, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is fast winning a personal reputation on climate change. Unlike his predecessor, Kofi Annan, he regularly turns up at climate negotiations, as he did in talks in Poznan, Poland, in December. In Bali in late 2007, his aggressive intervention saved the process from possible collapse. Perhaps it is time he devoted some energy to getting his home country on board.

A second group of countries with soaring emissions are in the Gulf region, where the huge energy demands from desalinating seawater often add to the emissions from industrialization, affluence, and profligate use of all the cheap local oil. This month, Abu Dhabi held a much-heralded world future energy summit. Tony Blair was there. Part of its purpose was to showcase a new "green city" Abu Dhabi is building called Masdar. Well, it's a badly-needed start. Abu Dhabi is part of the United Arab Emirates, whose emissions have gone from 15 million tons of carbon in 1990 to 37 million tons in 2007. Its per capita emissions are now above those of the United States.

Since 1990, Saudi Arabia has doubled emissions, which at 4.5 tons of carbon per head are close to those of the United States. Bahrain, at 7.4 tons per head, is well ahead of the U.S. And Kuwait, which similarly has more than doubled emissions, has a per capita figure double that of the U.S. (Not far away, in Israel, emissions have doubled since 1990 and, per head, are now edging past Britain's).

But the super-performer in the Gulf, the country that should rightly be crowned as the world's worst carbon criminal, is Qatar. It is small — occupying a sand spit in the Gulf about the size of Connecticut. But its emissions in 2007 were 16 million tons, compared to 3.3 million tons in 1990. Most of the emissions come from its huge gas extraction industry, which is largely for export. But shared out among its population of 825,000, the emissions come to 19.3 tons of carbon per head, or almost eight times those of Britain, and considerably more than three times those of the U.S.

That's a record — well, unless you count the U.S. Virgin Islands, which Oak Ridge records show emitted more than 25 tons of carbon per head in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available. Much of the Virgin Islands' emissions are from one of the world's largest petroleum refineries.

Clearly we have a problem here. To label countries like Qatar and Taiwan as "developing" is a myth. It is certainly true that they have been emitting carbon in substantial amounts for far less time than Europe or North America. But it is increasingly untenable for them to hide at international negotiations with the nations of Africa and poor parts of Asia, piously opposing any emissions cuts for the developing world.

Give us a break. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and South Korea and the rest are not poor nations. In any international negotiations, we need fairness in allocating emissions targets. And that, I believe, means allocations based on population size. We might need some separate rules for nations that still have fast-rising populations (though I can't believe that any country would surreptitiously boost its population to get a few more emissions permits). But long term we should be headed for national entitlements based on population.

My favorite formula is called "contraction and convergence," developed by a splendidly single-minded, violin-playing South African living in London named Aubrey Meyer, and publicized through his NGO, the Global Commons Institute.

Under his concept, we would listen to what scientists are saying and contract global emissions so as to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But then we would apportion emissions entitlements according to a formula that gradually would converge national targets toward a level based strictly on population.

Of course, countries would be free to trade their entitlements – so the U.S. could buy from India, and so on. But the initial allocations would be transparent and equitable. It would take all the horse-trading out of the international negotiations.

I recommend you check out the graphs of how this could happen on Meyer's web site — especially if you work for the Obama team that is deciding how to approach climate change negotiations this year. Like me you may be left wondering why the world didn't adopt this simple formula long ago.

In London this week, the UN's chief climate diplomat, Yvo de Boer, said he thought that "in the long run," emissions targets based on population were the way to go. So why not now? My proposal for Copenhagen is that governments grab the chance to think afresh on climate, and adopt this long-term solution that does away with the ridiculous anomalies that currently exist.