Wednesday, 9 June 2010

We'll pay for being a laggard on climate

Saturday 5/6/2010 Page: 9
Opinion: Tim Flannery

LESS than a year ago - in September 2009 - leaders at the G20 summit in Pittsburg agreed to "spare no effort" to reach an agreement to tackle climate change. Public awareness of the issue was high, as were expectations of the Copenhagen summit. So was the summit a success or a failure? I think it's too early to judge, but one thing that is clear is that some very important things have occurred as a result of it.

The most significant, by far, are the huge advances trade by China in reining in its greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Copenhagen Accord, China has committed to reduce the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions (that is, the emissions per unit of production) by 40 to 45% by 2020.

When the Chinese leadership first mooted this possibility, the technocrats said it couldn't be done. The leaders, however, insisted, and today the vastly ambitious program is being rolled out all over China. Already the biggest developer of wind energy and the largest manufacturer of solar panels, China is set to experience a huge expansion of all forms of low-emission technologies, including nuclear. At the same tittle, it's closing down its most polluting coal-fired power plants - and is five years ahead of schedule in doing so.

If China delivers on its Copenhagen promise, it will have opened the way to stabilising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gas at below the "dangerous" threshold of 450 parts per million CO2. But to do that, the developed nations would need to realise ambitious emissions reductions as well. And that's where the trouble lies. One of the things that Copenhagen did not change is that the US, Canada and Australia remain the three standout laggards.

Until the Rudd government ditched the carbon pollution reduction scheme, it looked as if Australia might make a modest start on honouring its commitment under the Copenhagen Accord - which was to reduce its emissions by 5% by 2020. The situation in the US still hangs in the balance, with a carbon trading bill about to go before the Senate. But overall, we three wooden spooners have done nothing to improve our position on the international pollution reduction league table. One of the great advances made at Copenhagen is that developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa have become part of the solution.

Previously, they regarded climate change as a problem created by the richest countries, and they believed that nations such as the US needed to act first. With a global low-emissions economy taking shape, however, they have realised the enormous advantages that lie in getting a head start in investment and development of green technology.

Australia, meanwhile, is being held back by a sorry coalition of climate change deniers and industry lobbyists who believe that coal is the future. Not even the major buyers of Australian coal believe that. The New South Wales government's recent decision to stop a planned coal mine in the Hunter Valley - the first time it has declined such permission was a highly visible international signal of the coming volatility, as are demonstrations at coal loaders, and the enormous queues of coal ships at our loading facilities. How, they ask, can the country ever export the additional million tonnes per day they'd need by 2020 unless they switch energy sources?

Australia's progress on addressing climate change is also being held back by a lack of political leadership. Neither major party has a credible climate policy, and it is difficult to see either party developing one under their current leaders. And that will mean grave challenges to our future prosperity.

Just imagine the possible situation in 2020: most of the world will be well on the road to a low emissions economy. What will they make of Victoria, with dependency on brown coal? Who will be willing to tolerate its filthy aluminium or other industrial products in a world under severe threat from carbon pollution? Border tariffs or some other penalty will be unavoidable.

At present, all hope of avoiding such a future rests on the promise of clean coal technologies. I once had great hopes for this technology, but the view of experts in Europe I spoke with recently is very different. They said that the technology is now well understood, and that if it was going to be implemented we would already be seeing the construction of commercial-scale plants. But that's just not happening.

This period of uncertainty about carbon capture and storage will slip by in the twinkling of an eye. And then Victorians will need to ask themselves whether they're brave enough to do what is required - close down the state's coal-fired power plants, or retrofit then to carbon capture and storage.

It will be hard, yet there will be no dodging it.