Kenneth Davidson on the Australian fuel price stoush

Kenneth Davidson is one of the finest Australian columnists now writing about sustainability and economics. Writing for The Age, Davidson’s contributions are models of public discourse: well-informed, well-argued and consistent in their determination to look clearly at environmental challenges, and to avoid simplistic responses. His column today is a case in point (link here). Here he cuts through a political stoush that is currently occupying the politicians and the press but which, as he points out, is a politically driven response to some motoring groups’ anger over rising petrol prices.

As Davidson firstly notes, this political and media debate ignores the realities of world peak oil and the associated global challenges of climate change–as I noted in yesterday’s post.

Secondly, Davidson argues, as he has consistently over many years, that the responsible social response is to move funding away from private transport towards public transport. This is hardly a radical proposal, yet Australian federal and state governments seem to have trouble grasping it: when they talk about ‘infrastructure’ needs, inevitably it turns out to mean roads and associated services to accommodate private vehicles, rather than the infrastructure needed for the growth of public transport.

Rather than looking at ways to cut petrol taxes and excises as incentives to private motorists, Davidson proposes, attention should go to ways of eliminating benefits, such as the fringe benefits tax on private use of company cars, and directing the savings to improve public transport: “Our first order response should be to switch transport expenditure in the capital cities from freeways to rail, with feeder services in the outer services, so that when two-car (or three-car) families are no longer affordable they will have a genuine public transport option.”

There is simply no rational argument that can be mounted against this national strategy. Arguments to the contrary are nothing other than attempts to gain short-term political advantage by acquiescing in the national obsession with private cars. This political manoevring is transparent, but it will have serious consequences, not just for the next generation, but even for this one, as the gap between world oil supply and demand increases, and the impacts of climate change take hold.

Davidson bluntly concludes: “We are entering the era of global peak oil. Together with global warming and water shortages, it will demand statesmanship not in evidence in the present political debate.” One couldn’t put it better.

The implications of Davidson’s more general points are most important. To deal with issues such as petrol pricing outside the wider framework of national energy policy, national sustainability and global climate change is to invite disaster; and sooner rather than later. The simple fact is that petrol is not a detached issue which has just to do with motorists as voters. To treat it this way–and this is the sole context of the current discussion between the federal government and the opposition, and in the press reports of it–is to trivialise and essentially invalidate it. Any short-term, localised fix of this kind imperils the whole system.

Davidson has hit the issue squarely: what is needed here are not political antics, of the kind with which we have in this country become only too familiar, but statesmanship. We are moving into a time where the challenges to national and international well-being are unprecedented; when a wide breadth of perspective is critical; when leadership needs to include serious and informed public discourse and methods of widely distribute public deliberation; when political parties have to work out ways of acting together, and acting like grown-up people, instead of the idiocies that characterise what passes for debate in parliament. The people of this generation, no less than those of the next, deserve that serious intent in public service–in Davidson’s term, statesmanship–and we are still in this country a long way from it.

I venture to predict that the Australian people will not tolerate this deficiency for very much longer. The polls continue to demonstrate urgent public concern about the bigger issues of climate change and water and energy. Politicians ignore this groundswell of national intelligence at their peril.

Signs of the times on climate change and oil

It was reported today that the Group of Eight (US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Italy) environment ministers meeting in Kobe agreed on a target of 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but couldn’t agree on any earlier target.  There was a general consensus that emissions needed to peak and start reducing over the next ’10 to 20′ years.  The European nations support a reduction of 25% to 40% by 2020, but Japan and the US say this can’t be done. 

It’s difficult not to see this as a clear failure of intelligence of the international community.  Commitment to 2050 targets are cheap: nothing is at stake in that for these leaders, who will long have left the stage by then.  To assert that it is impossible to achieve a peak of emissions within the next 10 to 20 years, and yet at the same time to agree to 50% reductions by 2050 is either ignorant or cynically immoral.  What this exercise reveals is that these leading nations, at least, are not in any way committed to meeting global warming.  They even urged developing nations to curb their rate of emissions increases–a shameless proposal, given their own stand.

Along similar lines, the head of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Phillip Glyde, testified to the Senate yesterday that current world oil reserves are enough to supply the world for the next 30 years, and in such abundance that oil prices will come down.  Of course what happens to the global climate with the burning of all that oil is apparently a question one doesn’t ask. 

These positions are so absurd one wonder how the people who make them can state them in public.  I remember as a boy of 15, at the height of the Cold War, looking around the world, as one does at that age, and wondering what sort of people were running the world, if they were to prepared even to contemplate a nuclear war.  It’s a question I still find myself asking.  The inability of today’s leaders–Australia’s among them, as noted in a recent post–to look at emerging climate change facts and options squarely, and, along with their people, to undertake principled, precautionary and immediate action to meet them, is incomprehensible.

George Monbiot makes this point trenchantly, and with wit, in his open letter today to the king of Saudi Arabia, which opens:  “In common with the leaders of most westen nations, our prime minister is urging you to increase your production of oil.  I am writing to ask you to ignore him.  Like the other leaders he is delusional, and is no longer competent to make his own decisions.”  Just so. (link here)

Australian Budget fails climate change

The recently installed Australian Labor government recently brought down its first Budget .  Having been elected on a platform of strong climate action, this Budget conspicuously avoids such action.  This is puzzling, since in other respect the investment in future generations is substantial.

The climate change expenditure is, on the whole, uncoordinated and small.  There are a number of measures directed to households, including a ratings scheme for appliances, loan support for green technologies, such as rainwater tanks, solar-heated water, and insulation.  Schools get some support for installing solar panels.  There is research and development funding of $150 million for clean energy technologies–an absurdly small amount, by conventional measures of R & D funding, in which drug companies, for example, routinely spend many times this amount in developing a new product.  $115 million goes to farmers to provide advice on climate change adaptation.  Slightly more than that is directed to ‘other countries’–presumably Indonesia and Malaysia, to help arrest deforestation.  There is a relatively small amount provided for the development of an Emissions Trading Scheme, far less than the experience of the European Emissions Trading Scheme suggests is going to be required to have such a scheme operating by the state goal of 2010.

Half a billion dollars–about one quarter of the total climate change budget–is directed to a ‘National Clean Coal Fund’.  This is an amount that is very difficult to justify, given the speculative nature of the technology and the very large balance sheets and earnings of national coal companies, which are more than sufficient to fund such technology themselves–if they believe in it as strongly as their public statements suggest.

This is not a national climate change strategy.  There is, for example, no mention of deforestation in this country, or of reforestation strategies–replanting or enhancement of native vegetation (native because it has the added benefit of rebuilding habitat and slowing biodiversity loss).  There is no substantial provision to meet the unprecendented conservation challenges that are already rapidly emerging from climate change.  There is no attempt to understand or change consumption and well-being patterns, without which there can be no effective response to climate change.  The critical need to begin the public and expert discussion of the nature and structure of a low carbon economy, in order to guide the transition that the nation will require, is neither recognised nor mentioned.  The levels of funding for renewable technologies is absurdly small.  There seems to have been no consideration given to providing incentives for companies to make the transition to low carbon production systems.  All of these are central components of any real climate change program, and this Budget virtually ignores them.

In particular, there is an almost total lack of recognition of the ethical obligation of this generation of Australian to future generations of Australians on climate change, with its multiple impacts.  Strangely, this stands in contrast with other elements of the budget: in education, health, and transport and infrastructure, the government is investing many billions of dollars of the current year’s surplus in future funds.  This is precisely the right mechanism–the Genuine Savings principle–to begin building sustainability.  But not, apparently, for climate change.

 The Stern Review of 2006 estimated that unmitigated climate change could cost the global economy between 5% and 20% of global GDP (not to mention the incalculable human suffering) over the next 200 years–a timeline that recent scientific findings has significantly shortened.  The Review also estimated that an investment now of perhaps 1% of global GDP could substantially mitigate these effects.  While there is debate about these numbers, the principle is not in question.  The Australian economy is running at about $890 billion GDP, and is likely to be significantly more this year.  This suggests that a future fund investment for climate change should have been between $8 billion and $10 billion for the last financial year.  This was in fact well within the reach of the government, by adjusting the investments of the other future funds.  The irony is that by ignoring this investment in the mitigation of climate change, the unmitigated impacts could undo much of the potential value of future investment in education, health and infrastructure. 

This is not the serious commitment to abating greenhouse emissions and mitigating climate change that this government promised prior to its election.  It is more than disappointing.  It is dangerous–for economic stability, and for the well-being of this and of future generations.

Italy’s step back with nuclear energy

The Italian government has announced that it intends to resume the development of new nuclear power plants within five years. This comes two decades after a referendum comprehensively opposed nuclear power and forced the deactivation of all reactors in the country. The minister for economic development, Mr. Scajola, is reported as saying, “Only nuclear plants safely produce energy on a vast scale with competitive costs, respecting the environment.” Almost as a footnote it is pointed out that dealing with waste remains something of an issue: 235 tons of nuclear fuels are still being stored in the old plants.

Mr Scajola’s statement is difficult to justify, by any measure. To speak of nuclear plants as a “safe” option is hyperbole, by any standards, even taking into account advances in safety over the past decade. To speak of it as “respecting the environment” is breathtaking sophistry.

Chernobyl was after all only 22 years ago, and its effects are still being felt by the large European populations affected. But it is a mistake to think that nuclear accidents have not occurred since then. In March 1992, loss of pressure in a reactor channel released radioactive iodine and inert gases into the atmosphere near St. Petersburg, Russia. In November 1995 an accident leaked two to three tons of radioactive sodium from a reactor cooling system in Japan. In March 1997 a fire and explosion at a state run corporation reprocessing plant at Tokaimura, Japan, exposed 35 workers to radiation. At the same plant in September 1999 a nuclear reaction was triggered by mixing too much uranium into a storage tank, exposing 55 workers to radiation. There is a quantifiable risk of regular accidents at nuclear plants through human error, and the record supports that conclusion. The reality is likely to be worse, as it’s highly unlikely that all incidents are reported. To conclude otherwise is simply untenable.

The Italian problem of nuclear waste–unsolved, on a large scale–is found everywhere nuclear energy is being generated. In the UK, for example, there are currently more than 80,000 cubic metres of high level waste, and much more intermediate level waste, stored and awaiting a decision on final treatment and storage. Vitrification and storage in stainless steel containers is being trialled as an intermediate step with some wastes. The evidence clearly indicates that no proven or accepted technology has been developed anywhere to deal safely with nuclear wastes. It’s difficult even to define of what those standards of safety would consist.

As with similar decisions elsewhere in Europe and increasingly in developing countries, the extraordinary level of sophistry exhibited in justifying nuclear power masks a refusal to face the realities of transition to a low carbon economy. It is transparently driven by short-term political and commercial fears. The potential costs these countries, not only in the direct effects on health and environment of these dangerous technologies, but the opportunity costs of not beginning the research and development into renewable technologies and the trajectories of transition to low carbon economy will mount exponentially. Future generations will bear the cost of this dangerous and unethical decision.