Can we build a green economy?

December 9, 2009

Thousands of Australians will march in every major Australian city and more than 20 regional centres on December 12, to again demand genuine climate action from our government. The rallies are part of a global day of action that will take place during the Copenhagen climate summit.

The rallies will be the first big climate demonstration since the Senate voted on December 2 to reject a complex raft of climate legislation tabled by the ALP government. The laws were opposed by the climate-deniers in the Coalition, but also by Greens senators on strong environmental grounds.

The Rudd government's proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) would have locked-in the rights of polluters to continue as usual for the next decade. The grassroots climate action movement had campaigned strongly against the polluter-friendly scheme.

The defeat of the CPRS is a victory for the climate, and opens the way for a discussion about the real, science-based climate action we need.

Australia is a wealthy country: it has the resources to make a big transition in a short time. Historically, it is a big emitter of carbon pollution, but it also has excellent resources for renewable energy. In the face of dangerous climate change we have a responsibility to cut emissions fast.

To do this we need to rapidly move away from the use of coal and towards renewables. Our old-growth forests must be left standing. And it's crucial Australia commit to cuts in emissions here, rather than using dodgy offset schemes to unfairly export the responsibility to poor countries overseas.

The climate emergency calls for us to leave all reserves of coal and uranium in the ground and focus on exporting improved renewable technology to the world instead.

Australia has a big ecological debt to repay. We should help poor countries access renewable technology and do all we can to assist those affected by rising sea levels and severe weather events caused by climate change.

This is the internationalist, practical approach the climate action movement in Australia is pushing for. Unlike the big parties, this approach is not motivated by petty, nationalist ideas about our "international competitiveness".

It's motivated by the need to preserve human life and avoid a devastating climate catastrophe.

On September 21, the Alliance Of Small Island States (AOSIS) met at the UN headquarters in New York to issue its declaration on climate change.

It called for "the big emitters to agree to produce enough clean energy to attain the targets of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C and 350 parts per million of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations". It also called for "global greenhouse gas emissions [to] peak by 2015 and decline thereafter".

The 43 nations that make up AOSIS are understandably worried.

Even the current 0.8°C of global warming since industrialisation means their islands are already being submerged by sea level rises and more frequent storm surges.

Unlike the Australian government, AOSIS has a rational climate policy. It wants emissions cuts without delay.

Australia shares with the United States the shameful title of being the highest per capita carbon emitters on the planet — about 20 tonnes per person a year. This is about five times the per person emissions of China, and about 20 times the per person emissions of India.

This has big implications when we look at a "carbon budget", or a timetable for emissions reductions.

German climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber presented such a budget at the "4 degrees & beyond" international climate summit at Oxford, England in September.

The verdict? For Australia to meet its obligations to stop a global average temperature increase of 2°C, it would need to eliminate all emissions from all sources by 2020.

In the words of Climate Code Red co-author David Spratt: "That's the science, unadorned. God forbid the politics."

The good news is that Melbourne-based climate campaign group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) has been working on a plan to power Australia with 100% renewable energy by 2020.

State and federal governments have failed to produce even a draft plan for how deep cuts may be achieved by 2020. Australia's environmental NGO's have far better plans, but none have attempted to meet Schellnhuber's challenge.

For example, Greenpeace's 2008 Energy [r]evolution reports outline plans for emission cuts on a country by country basis. But the Australian report models only a 40% by 2020 target for renewable energy.

Others in the climate movement, such as prominent renewables advocate Dr Mark Diesendorf, from the University of New South Wales, have argued it is definitely possible for Australia to derive all of its energy from renewables.

But Diesendorf estimates this would not be possible until 2030 at the earliest — and even then only with a concerted push by state and federal governments and a suite of industry incentives.

Diesendorf believes that the physical and intellectual labour requirements, the planning and the political ramifications of a shift to 100% renewables could not be resolved in just one decade.

Meanwhile, the Rudd government has refused to entertain the possibility that renewables could provide more than 20% of Australia's electricity by 2020.

Instead, it has offered $7.3 billion in free pollution permits to coal companies under its proposed CPRS to keep the toxic industry in business.

But it's no exaggeration to say Australia is the best placed country in the world to move to 100% renewables. Australia has the world's best conditions for solar power and excellent conditions for wind power.

BZE's "Zero Carbon Australia 2020" stationary energy plan starts from the basis that Australia has no choice but to eliminate virtually all of its net emissions by 2020. The conversion from fossil fuels to 100% renewables must be made within a decade.

This is consistent with the Australia's "carbon budget" as outlined by Schellnhuber.

BZE has used only existing commercially available renewable energy technology in its plan, which means it could begin right away.

The key technologies are: Concentrating Solar Power (also known as solar thermal plants); wind turbines; and small amounts of bioelectricity (generated from burning crop residues, but not purpose-grown biofuel crops).

The solar thermal plants can store excess energy in big vats of molten salt. This stored energy is "dispatchable", which means the plants can deliver energy as required around the clock — 24/7 — and can be used to back up power from wind farms when needed.

The authors of the "Zero Carbon Australia" plan note that improvements to these technologies, or other technologies at an early stage of development (such as wave power or geothermal power), could easily be incorporated into the plan. It is not a rigid blueprint, but rather a first draft, for a crash conversion to renewables.

However, solar thermal, wind and bioelectricity are proven technologies already in use around the world. They are the lowest-cost options and are cheaper than nuclear power, quicker to build and don't produce dangerous waste.

The "Zero Carbon Australia" plan looks at how much generating capacity would be needed to repower the Australian grid and suggests the best locations to build wind farms and clusters of solar thermal plants.

The plan, which is due for release in early 2010, includes a thorough costing for the renewables rollout. It makes projections for the amount of concrete, steel and glass needed for construction and compares this to current national production.

It also calculates the cost of a major grid upgrade to link the new wind, solar and bioelectricity plants into the existing grid. The plan looks at how many jobs would be created in the construction phase, and in ongoing plant operation and maintenance.

The "Zero Carbon Australia" report will be a useful tool for the Australian climate movement because it will show in detail what "swift, strong action on climate change" really means. It will also show that it's definitely achievable.

Assertions by climate change activists about the need for a transition to renewables can often seem ambiguous. But the BZE plan offers actual proven technologies with actual dollar amounts, quantity estimates, site locations and job statistics to prove the case.

The price tag for a crash conversion to renewables is not small. Wind and solar plants will harvest virtually free energy for their lifespan, but the initial capital outlay is large. Yet, the cost is hardly prohibitive, especially given the future of life on the planet is at stake.

BZE estimates it would cost about 10% of Australia's gross domestic product to make the transition to renewables by 2020.

The fact is the rich countries are responsible for most historic carbon emissions. Now, they must lead the way by quickly converting their own economies to zero emissions and by providing financial help to poorer countries to allow them to make the transition.

Developing countries are absolutely right to demand the rich countries cut emissions the fastest and help poorer countries to do the same.

There is no question that the money to make this transition exists.

The challenge for the climate action movement is to build a force strong enough to force the government to spend on renewables and a safe climate.

It means we're in a battle to take climate policy out of the hands of the corporate rich, and place it in the hands of the people.

Bangladesh is one country that stands to be absolutely ravaged by rising sea levels unless global warming is addressed.

The country's prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, said on November 10: "If the developed countries could pump trillions of dollars for reviving the world economic situation, they could surely be equally generous to save us, themselves and the world."

[Visit the Beyond Zero Emissions website for more information, including to read, or contribute to, the still-developing Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan.]

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