Creating Mordor When We Could Be Building Rivendell. Our Dismal Performance on Renewables

Creating Mordor When We Could Be Building Rivendell. Our Dismal Performance on Renewables

The first time Sandy and I drove across Kooragang Island we were confronted by a large swamp devoid of any vegetation other than string of dead trees poking up out of the water. We turned to each other and simultaneously exclaimed “Mordor!”. Kooragang Island is home to Newcastle’s coal loader and such destruction had been unleashed that it truly resembled a barren wasteland from the Lord of the Rings. 

In the years since that first trip the area has been rejuvenated. It is now filled with vegetation and presumably the animal and birdlife that follows. A little further up the road is an energy producing windmill. The rejuvenation of Kooragang and that windmill are signs to me that we are making some progress on our environmental stewardship. Naive really, for the backdrop is one of the largest coal export ports in the world!

It was table 14 in the 2014 United Nations human development report that threw me. Table 14 maps out the proportion of each nation’s power supply that comes from fossil fuels and the proportion from renewables. Looking at the chart below isn’t pretty reading.Renewable Enery Sources

The chart shows the percentage of a nation’s energy supply that comes from renewable sources. The balance comes from carbon based sources. Of the top thirty developed nations Australia is fifth last, sourcing just 4.6% of our energy supply from renewables and 95.4% via fossil fuels.

The figures in the chart are from 2012. The renewable energy target established under the previous government mandates that we must source 20% of our electricity from renewables by the year 2020. Thank goodness this target survived the attempt by the current government to scrap it. Indeed it seems very modest when you think that if we hit 20% tomorrow we would still only be middle of the pack.

“Scientists are not agreed that humans are causing climate change”. What a load of bollocks.

We human beings have an amazing ability to believe what is patently false. One of the more stubborn falsehoods is the idea that scientists don’t agree on climate change. It’s often argued that either the very fact of climate change is disputed by scientists and/or that scientists agree climate change is happening but are divided as to whether it is being caused by human action.

The way to tell what scientists believe is to look at peer-reviewed publications. Last year the journal Environmental Research Letters published an article titled “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature“. Not a sexy title by any means. But the results are clear. The authors searched the ISI Web of Science database for peer reviewed articles in which the abstracts used the words “global warming”or “global climate change”. The search yielded 11,944 papers written by 29,083 authors and published in 1980 journals. Of these, 66% simply didn’t address the question of whether humans were causing climate change. They simply talked about things like climate change trends, mitigation of climate change or adaptation to climate change. Of the 34% that did address the question of whether humans are causing climate change a whopping 97.1% argued it was caused by humans, 1.9% argued that it wasn’t, and 1% were undecided. By any measure that represents an overwhelming consensus that climate change is caused by humans.

So let’s have no more of the nonsense that there is a scientific debate to be had. There isn’t.

Backward Steps on Climate

Hot on the heels of the appointment of a businessman who doesn’t think climate change is induced by humans to head up a review of the Renewable Energy Targets (Gee, I wonder where that might go?), comes the Abbott Government’s redefining of Australia’s objectives for international climate negotiations. This is what the 2013-4 budget portfolio statement said when the previous government was in power:

Climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. Strong collective and individual country action is needed to avert dangerous climate change. The Australian Government is working to influence the development of international policies and measures on climate change through the pursuit of broad based international climate action and agreement. In contributing to this, the department is working to engage strategically with key international partners to support international climate action.

This is the Abbott Government’s reworking:

The Deliverables for Program 1.4 have been amended from the Deliverables published under Program 4.3 in the DIICCSRTE Portfolio Budget Statements 2013-14 to better reflect the current Government priorities. The amended Deliverables for Program 1.4 are as follows:
– Influence international climate change negotiations to advance and protect Australia’s national interests and international competitiveness and to promote broad based international climate action
– Strengthen bilateral climate change engagement with major economies and Australia’s major trading partners to promote effective climate change action

So it appears that the real goal now is to protect our national interests and economic competitiveness…oh and something about international climate action.

No Tony, economic growth is not the answer to everything

In his speech to the World Economic Forum  last week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot made this incredible statement:

As always, stronger economic growth is the key to addressing almost every global problem.

It summed up the direction of the speech, which was a plea for small government and freer markets. But if the two greatest global problems of our time are extreme poverty and environmental degradation economic growth is not the key.


Economic growth has no doubt been the greatest driver of poverty reduction in the last three decades, and it has been remarkable. But there are important caveats to put on that.

Caveat 1:It is questionable whether what has occurred in China, India and the Asian “tiger” economies will be repeated any time soon for the world’s poorest countries. In his book The Bottom Billion, economist Paul Collier notes that there has been a structural shift in the global economy in which large slabs of  manufacturing shifted from industrialised nations to places such as South Korea, Taiwan, and China. This drove massive economic growth and poverty reduction. Manufacturing in particular , provided a more equitable distribution of wealth than commodities, for where commodities can be controlled and run by an elite, manufacturing is labour intensive, requiring more people to share in the fruits of growth. Collier points out that many poor countries have not shared in the shift of manufacturing to the developing world, and are not likely to very soon. Manufacturing thrives in agglomerations, that is, when many manufacturing plants can be located near each other. So manufacturing will only shift to the poorest of countries when the wage gap between them and places like China is so large that it is worthwhile taking the risk to leave an agglomeration. And that, says Collier, is unlikely to happen for some time.

Caveat 2: Free markets are the stuff of fairytales.  In Bad Samaritans. The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism economist Ha-Joon Chang shows that the world’s industrialised nations, such as the USA, England and Australia, were rabidly protectionist during their history. That is, the governments of those countries used taxes, tariffs, subsidies, quotas, and the intellectual property of others, to drive the direction of their economies. The newly industrialised economies like South Korea and Taiwan did the same thing, as are emerging nations like China and India. Free market economists argue that this were a drag on development, that growth would have been even faster had these countries not been protectionist, where economists like Chang argue the protectionism was a critical factor in economic success. Maybe we’ll never know, but it’s worth pointing out that no country has ever moved out of widespread poverty by the free trade route.

Caveat 3: economic growth alone is not sufficient to drive poverty reduction. There must be mechanisms for ensuring the poor share in the fruits of a growing economy. Wealth is all too easily captured by powerful elites that exploit and oppress the poor. Equity and justice are not merely the fruit of economic growth, but come from the  human values that must shape and drive it.


The world faces a series of threats to ecological health: climate change; the acidification of the oceans; biodiversity loss; the disruption of the nitrogen cycle. Far from economic growth being the solution, it has been the cause of these problems. Economic growth is driving a global consumer binge that is making unsustainable demands on the environment.Between 1970 and 2010 global consumption grew from a spend of $9.3 trillion to $31.8 trillion, with 80% of that growth in demand coming from affluent nations (World Bank online data sets). Simply letting the markets rip will only exacerbate the problems even further.


And what of the problems confronting us closer to home: the treatment of asylum seekers; extreme poverty in remote indigenous communities; the rise of mental health problems; economic disadvantage; over 100,000 people homeless? Australia has experienced an unparalleled run of economic growth to become one of the world’s wealthiest nations, yet these challenges persist.

Economic growth will not resolve these problems for the simple fact that we are people, not merely consumers, and we live in communities, not simply economies. Human well-being derives from a broad range of things, of which economics is just one part. Sure, economic growth has allowed us to explore options previous generations might only have dreamed of. It has also allowed us to indulge our greed to a degree previously unimaginable. But it has never solved any problem. People and communities solve problems.


Why We Should Respectfully Ignore the Climate Sceptics

So the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released part 1 of its 5th Assessment Report. It concludes:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

Here’s what the temperature rises look like graphically

climatechangeipcc5The report goes on to say that

Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

So what do we do with this?

First, it’s time to stop pretending there is a genuine debate to be had. The IPCC report is not the ramblings of a few mad people at the United Nations. It is the attempt to synthesise the research of scientists around the world. This report drew on 9200 scientific papers. It represents the scientific consensus. We should be thoroughly disabused of the notion that there is a scientific debate as to whether human induced climate change is occuring. There isn’t. Climate sceptics are entitled to their opinions but they are not entitled to pretend there is a scientific debate going on. They should be given the same accord in public debate and policy making that we give to those who argue children should not be vaccinated. I respect their right to their opinion but at the end of the day it is misinformed and dangerous nonsense that should be ignored by policy makers. The reality is that our best scientific minds have looked at the data and the overwhelming agreement among them, among thousands of them, is that we are headed towards a self-inflicted disaster.

Second, we must demand that our leaders look beyond the next election and take this issue with the seriousness it deserves. We need them to lead public opinion, not follow it. The scientists have spoken loudly and unequivocally. Now we need our leaders to act decisively and unequivocally. The government’s direct action policy is simply not good enough. It is unlikely to achieve even its hopelessly modest target of a 5% reduction  in emissions and represents a retreat from serious engagement.

Third, we each need to take this issue with the seriousness it deserves. It’s like we are all on board a train headed for a cliff and most of us are pretending that everything is fine. We look out the windows and see magnificent vistas and everything seems fine. We look around to see people laughing and chatting and everything seems fine. From time to time we get interrupted by some technician telling us the bridge has collapsed, but then we hear some shock jock say that it hasn’t, and it all seems too difficult, and besides everything is fine…say, have you seen the magnificent view?

It’s the responsibility of every generation to leave the world a better place than it found it. At the moment we’re failing dismally and history will judge us harshly.

To take action visit




Watching the Reef Die

The Great Barrier Reef is dying. It’s hard to believe but we are witnessing the decline of one of the great natural wonders of the world.

Yesterday, the Queensland Government released a report that shows the health of the reef is now “poor”. A panel of independent scientists appointed to survey the evidence said:

Globally, reefs and other coastal marine ecosystems are exposed to a combination of pressures including increased discharge of sediment, nutrients and pesticides, crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, increased bleaching associated with global climate change, and increased incidence of and severity of coral diseases, destructive fishing practices, overfishing or loss of herbivorous fish and other grazing organisms. These pressures have led to precipitous declines in coral cover and to persistent shifts away from coral dominance.

On the Great Barrier Reef, recent evidence shows that coral cover has declined from around 50 per cent in the 1960s to around 14 per cent in 2011 with a well-documented decline from 28 per cent in 1985 to 14 per cent in 2013. Coral cover decline in the northern Great Barrier Reef has not shown the consistent downward trend seen along the developed coast of the central and southern Great Barrier Reef. This reflects the limited catchment development in Cape York.


A decline from 50% coral cover in the 1960s, when I was born to around 14% today! Don’t you find that incredibly disturbing?

And the causes are all human in origin. Climate change we all know about, but nitrogen? According to the scientific research, the biggest contributing factor to water quality on the reef comes from nitrogen discharges. The nitrogen comes from the fertilisers used on farmlands whose catchments empty into the water near the reef, which sets up a water quality in which crown-of-thorns starfish thrive, and the starfish in turn are incredibly destructive to the reef.

Oh yes, there’s a new plan in place to resolve the problem, but given the declines have happened under the current plan, I’m not filled with confidence.

How did we humans get to this point? It’s like we’re all passengers on a train headed for a bridge that has collapsed, we all know it, but no-one actually has the gumption to pull the brakes. It’s utter madness.

And it’s not a problem isolated to the Great Barrier Reef. Nitrogen releases have been identified as one of the world’s major ecological problems.

Perhaps it will take the loss of the reef to galvanise us into action. I hope not.


Receive a weekly email of my posts

You have Successfully Subscribed!