How can sustainable energy solve greenhouse?

Issue 

Overwhelmed by the greenhouse debate? Bamboozled by all the competing claims that renewable energy sources cannot supply 24-hours-a-day power ("base load")? Depressed by the unending vastness of "the literature" on global warming and renewables?

Luckily there is an antidote. It's Mark Diesendorf's Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, a work that anyone who wants to get to grips with solutions to global warming must have on their shelves.

Diesendorf's book concentrates into one volume a succinct analysis of global warming, a rebuttal of climate change scepticism, a thorough summary of the state of development of each renewable energy technology, a masterly demolition of false "solutions" to greenhouse (like carbon sequestration and nuclear power) and a presentation of strategies and policies for uprooting carbon-intensive power production in Australia.

Add in chapters on saving energy and transport and urban redesign and Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy illuminates the reader about all the main features of the many-sided debate on how to make sustainable energy production the heart of the attack on climate change.

It also puts us, through its extensive footnotes, in touch with the vast literature that Diesendorf has had to absorb to master the subject, continuing the tradition of earlier work such as A Clean Energy Future for Australia (with Hugh Saddler and Richard Denniss) and Human Ecology, Human Economy: Ideas for an Ecologically Sustainable Future (edited with Clive Hamilton).

The book is published at a critical moment in the Australian struggle for a policy that will actually start to impact on global warming: PM Kevin Rudd's government shows every sign of adopting totally inadequate greenhouse gas reduction targets and heavy industry is intensifying its attack on indispensable aspects of a serious greenhouse policy, such as a mandatory renewable energy target (MRET). For example, according to the April 2 Australian Financial Review the Australian Aluminium Council has been lobbying Ross Garnaut to include analysis of the economic cost of an MRET in his forthcoming report, claiming that such a scheme will increase electricity costs to the point of undermining power-intensive industries exposed to export competition.

The central message of Diesendorf's book is that "for both stationary energy and transport, 50% reductions in carbon dioxide emissions can be achieved from existing technologies, buying time to develop new technologies and also to greatly improve existing clean technologies".

For example, in NSW a typical 1000 megawatt coal-fired power station like Mount Piper could be replaced now by a combination of increase in energy efficiency (47% of total), bioenergy (19%), wind power (13%) and gas (21%, although gas generation has roughly half the greenhouse gas emissions as coal).

More generally, if existing "world's best practice" (like Dutch levels of housing insulation and Spanish levels of wind power), were applied now, a MRET of 25% could readily be reached by 2020, as proposed by Climate Action Network Australia.

So why isn't this happening? Diesendorf outlines the barriers: "the existing economic structure that emphasises energy-intensive mineral exploitation and processing and the production and export of fossil fuels", high up-front costs for efficient energy use appliances, energy-intensive urban infrastructure and lack of research and development into sustainable alternatives — especially in comparison to the fossil fuel industries.

To overcome these barriers he proposes a combination of emissions trading schemes or carbon tax; removal of subsidies to the fossil fuel and road transport industries; increased MRETs in states and federally; "feed-in tariffs" that subsidise electricity from renewable resources; tough emissions constraints on new fossil fuel power stations and a big offensive to increase energy efficiency.

In addition, Diesendorf proposes policies to foster the development of specific renewable energy technologies, such as an electricity grid system that favours the development of local, smaller power sources; subsidies for bioenergy cops; feed-in tariffs for solar electricity (as in Germany) and solar heating to be made obligatory on all new buildings.

As for compensating low-income earners for increased electricity prices, Diesendorf says: "The simplest way of doing this is for governments to implement policies to reduce substantially energy waste through programs to improve efficient energy use — especially of buildings, with the early action on all rented residential buildings and assistance programs for housing owned by low-income earners — and urban planning integrated with public transport … For individuals, increases in the prices of a kilowatt-hour of electricity, a megajoule of gas and a litre of petrol would be balanced by the numbers of kilowatt hours, megajoules and litres used."

Diesendorf maintains that the income from a carbon tax or carbon trading scheme could be used to fund the huge program of public transport and retrofitting of the housing stock required.

However, Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy doesn't end with these policy recipes. Diesendorf understands that "unfortunately, the federal government [Howard at the time of writing] and most state governments have already expressed opposition, either in word or deed, to most of these proposed policies".

What is to be done? Here we come to a weak point in the book. Diesendorf states that policies for sustainability will require mass social pressure to overcome the "reluctance and even outright opposition of governments", but rather quaintly remarks that "there is only a small literature on this vitally important subject". This observation will come as a shock to all those who have spent much of their time overcoming the reluctance of governments in areas from workers' rights to the Indigenous struggle!

Nonetheless, Diesendorf then outlines essential elements of successful mass action strategy for social change, basing himself on the radical Quaker Bill Moyer's Movement Action Plan. The basic message is clear: without a mass movement for sustainability there won't be a greenhouse solution.

Finally, if there's one serious shortcoming in Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy it's a failure to consistently trace what rate of implementation of energy efficiency and uptake of renewable energy sources is necessary to confront the greenhouse emergency. The book leaves the impression that if the barriers listed are overcome and policies outlined are implemented the problem will be solved.

But will it? Each month brings us more alarming news of the accelerating impact of global warming, such as the 20% loss of Arctic ice over the last two years. The crisis is deeper than many thought even a year ago. This poses the critical question of the pace at which sustainable energy measures need to be implemented, and how to reach that pace. Is a MRET of 25% by 2020 remotely sufficient when the task is to start reducing greenhouse gas emission concentrations now and get fossil-fuel based emissions out of the system as soon as possible?

Diesendorf's book essentially leaves this vital job to private business, but private business operating in a completely different institutional context and with big publicly-funded changes to housing, transport infrastructure and urban design — essentially pointing Australia towards a Danish approach.

Two key elements are surely missing from this perspective. To achieve the sustainability transformation of energy generation it has to be in public hands, a "commanding height" in the overall economy and one charged with a plan and deadline for achieving sustainability (and much quicker than 25% MRET by 2020).

And to drive the transformation at sufficient speed we need a government that actually wants it to happen — a "red-green" alliance that directs and oversees the implementation plan and puts saving the environment with social justice before all other considerations, especially the shareholder value of the great polluting corporations.

[Mark Diesendorf's book, Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, is published by University of New South Wales Press. Dick Nichols and Mark Diesendorf will both be speaking at the Climate Change — Social Change Conference in Sydney on April 11-13.]