15 July 2015

I Love A Sunburnt Country

 It’s happening again.

I have to pretend I am a New Zealander.

I don’t really have to of course – but as an Australian living in Asia it is somewhat embarrassing confessing that I am from Down Under when our politicians back home continue to make such horrific policies and decisions in matters relating to both Immigration and Climate Change.

Where we once seemed to have such a great international reputation as being laid back and friendly people – Australians are now fast being recognised as a heartless and Neanderthal bunch.

I am often asked “Why?” when I am out and about with my Chinese or Singaporean or Indonesian friends and I am verbally attacked on matters of Australian environmental politics so I find it easier now to just say I am a Kiwi.

“Five, sucks, seven, eight”

This is no easy task.

The New Zealand accent bears some similarity to the ‘strine’ that we Aussies speak but the Kiwi’s use of vowels is as dysfunctional as it is disturbing.

It is in fact an abomination.

The United Nations International Climate Change Conference – or COP21 - will be held in Paris in December of this year. It is now 18 years since the Kyoto Protocol was first established.

Australia eventually signed the Protocol in 1998 but it did not ratify it until a Labor Government was elected in 2007.  The then Prime Minister Mr. Kevin Rudd declared that Australia would set a target of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by 60% on 2000 levels by 2050. Mr. Rudd also committed that Australia would establish a national emissions trading scheme by 2010 and set a 20% target for renewable energy by 2020.

All seemed to be heading on track with Australia’s Renewable Energy Targets (RET) with some quite substantial investment in both the solar and wind sectors until February 2014 when the current Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Abbott declared that the RET’s would be ‘reviewed’ and the proposed tax on Carbon would be repealed.

Australia now has the inglorious record of being the only country in the world to ever repeal environmentally focused carbon reduction legislation.

The Renewable Energy sector in Australia has been in rapid decline since then and the likelihood of Australia reducing it’s Greenhouse gas emissions and achieving the targeted 20% of renewable energy now seems most unlikely.

This is a terrible shame.

Senator Christine Milne – who until very recently was the head of the Australian Greens Party declared, “The RET was working brilliantly until Tony Abbott realized renewables were undermining the profits of the coal-fired generators and that’s why he decided to smash it……… he’s removed all certainty from the renewable energy sector and handed it over to his mates in the fossil fuel sector.”

The enormous black and brown coalmines of my country and together with iron ore they have been the mainstay of the economy. They rake in billions of dollars of annual export earnings for Australia and taxation revenue for the Federal government and the mining resources sector were the primary reason that Australia did not fall into recession in both of the Global Financial Crises.

They have made my country wealthy with such an abundance we have been blessed with.

However coal and coalmines and coal power generators are very rapidly becoming as uneconomic as they are unpopular.

The two are intrinsically linked.

The beginning of the end is nigh for coal.

Consumers and voters such as myself want Australia to step up and come up with a rapid and sustainable plan to endeavour to move to a low carbon economy. We would like to transition our love affair with harmful natural resources to the large-scale development of renewable energy.

Our land is vast and empty and is as equally blessed with long days of sunshine and more than 35,000 kilometers of wind swept coastline as it is with coal resources. It is ideal for huge arrays of solar and wind power farms that could easily ultimately provide for the majority of Australia’s domestic and commercial energy needs.

It is both disappointing and perplexing to me that the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott very recently directed the state owned Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to cease all investment in wind and ‘small scale’ solar projects.

The CEFC was set up in 2013 by the then Labor Government.

Abbott publically described Wind Turbines as being ‘visually awful’ and “they make a lot of noise”.

I am not sure if he was asked whether he thought that the horrendous black scars of open cut coal mines or the chimneys of billowing smoke of our coal fired power stations were visually attractive.

I will try and find out.

The Australian electorate and we expatriates abroad are not sure what he is thinking when he does and says such things.

It really is embarrassing.

The offshore wind farm potential alone in Australia is enormous and countries like the UK, Germany and Denmark have very clearly demonstrated their ability to generate commercial volumes of clean wind energy. The UK generates more than 13 gigawatts of power from wind and while Australia’s total consumption of electricity exceeded 220 gigawatts in 2014 – Australia has significantly more offshore areas than the UK where offshore wind farms can be constructed without any impact on local communities.

The sunless Germany produced nearly 26 gigawatts of solar energy in 2014 and their renewable energy production now makes up 30% of their total volume.

We have significantly more daylight hours and massive amounts more open space for mega-scale solar arrays than Germany.

All that is needed is sensible politics and appropriate capital investment by a responsible government.

“Sensible” and “Responsible” government?

Yes I know.

However simply removing the subsidies that are given to the coal and oil sectors would have a big impact - and then giving the same subsidies to the RE sector.

That would be big.

The government seems to have got it the wrong way around.

A 2014 report conducted by the Overseas Development Institute and Oil Change International group titled, “The Fossil Fuel Bailout” suggested that exploration by coal and energy companies in Australia was subsidized by as much as 4 billion dollars per year by Australian taxpayers. This came in the form of tax breaks and direct spending.

The same report estimated that the G20 countries are supporting and subsidizing oil, gas and coal exploration to the tune of US$88 billion per annum.

Yes that is US$88 billion per annum.

Fancy that.

The beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era is well and truly here.

We need to just accept this in a global collaboration to save the planet. We can’t go on burning carbon at the rates that we do to produce energy or we will face ever increasing catastrophic consequences.

There have been decades long warnings by the scientific community that the global use of fossil fuels must diminish to halt the devastating effects of Climate Change and Global Warming. Fourteen of the hottest fifteen years on record have happened since the year 2000 and 2014 and the increased incidence of flooding, heat waves and natural loss events are devastating agricultural, oceanography and society.

Human impact is – at the very least – accelerating global warming.

This is indisputable and we must aim to stop it or at least slow it down. A cessation of the use of fossil fuels to energize our cities and cars and planes is an absolute requisite by mankind for us to prevent us from harming the planet any further.

It is choked already and is in peril.

The science is quite clear and it is as simple as that.

The future of the yet untapped coal in the huge Galilee basin in the state of Queensland is a prime example of the uncertainty of coal mining in Australia. It is an incredibly large hunk of pristine land covering more than a quarter of a million square kilometers. Eight coal extraction operations were initially earmarked for the basin with experts estimating that it contains up to 28,000 million tonnes of dirty thermal coal.

In NSW however, approval was granted a few days ago for the 1.2 billion open-cut coal mine called ‘Watermark’ to proceed. The approval that was granted was by the Environmental Minister Greg Hunt. The mine is to be located on the edge of a place named the Liverpool Plains – a food basin region rich with agricultural history. The mine is predicted to dig ten million tonnes of thermal coal per annum for the next thirty years.

There is already a loud political and community outcry at the announcement.

As there should be.

Thermal coal is the type used to feed the archaic, filthy and highly polluting coal based Power stations.

A report was released only a fortnight ago by the Australian Climate Council stating that if all the coal in the Galilee basin was to be burned - Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions would double to more than 700 million tonnes each year.

The Climate Council of Australia is an independent organisation that was set up by crowd-funding after the current Federal Government abolished and dismantled its own Climate Commission.

Fancy that as well.

It was the people of Australia who had to found and then fund their own Commission of Climate Change - such was the mistrust in their own government. The Mining Industry in Australia is powerful and obscenely wealthy organisation that actively lobbies and influences governments at the State and Federal level.

Whatever interest these magnates have in Climate Change is dwarfed by their fear of dwindling profits. These billionaires have already been hard hit by the plummeting price of iron ore but they have divested resource interests and very deep pockets to protect the mining interests.

The mining sector in Australia employed more than 260,000 people as at May 2015. A decade earlier there were a little over 100,000 employed in mining.

They are a very large and important sector that has whole communities in most states built for purpose to mine.

This goes back more than a century and a half to the Gold Rush days.

The Australian coal industry is massive. It accounted for more than 13% of Australia’s total exports in 2012-2013 – down from 15% the year before. It is Australia’s second biggest export commodity – iron ore being the first.

The export of coking coal generated $22.4 billion of export revenue in the 2012/13 financial year, with thermal coal bringing in $16.1 billion during the same period. Coking coal is the type used to produce steel and thermal coal is used for the production of steam – principally for power generation.

Thermal coal contains less carbon than coking coal – which is also referred to as metallurgical coal. There is currently no alternative commercially scaled process or technology to manufacture steel without the use of coking coal.

Processes such as electrolysis are capable of producing steel sans coal, however it well be at least two decades before the process can be scaled up and commercialized.

I am not sure why I just used the French word ‘sans’ – I just sometimes do.

It means ‘without’.

Technologies for reduced coke consumption in combination with natural gas and electricity are being developed and trialed however the carbon release levels remain very high in steel production.

The world needs to get much better at steel recycling to have a measurably positive impact on Climate Change. Steel is an almost unique material in its capacity to be infinitely recycled without loss of properties or performance. It is estimated that only 30% of the world’s steel is currently recycled where a figure of near 80% could actually be achieved.

We need to wean ourselves off both coal and steel as much as - and as soon as - we possibly can.

A spokesman for the Australian Climate Commission - Professor Tim Flannery - said that Australia was currently responsible for more than one and a half percent of global CO2 emissions.

“We are the 15th largest emitter in the world and the largest per capita emitter on the planet,” Professor Flannery reported.

I recently heard that we are thirteenth but I can’t recall the source.

In April of this year three French Investment Banks - BNP Paribas, Credit Agricole and Societe General - announced publically that they would not be funding any of the $16.5 billion required to finance the Galilee basin projects – which are largely being driven by the Giant India Resourcing Company  - Adani. These French banks have all historically been investors in the coalmining sector in Australia and they are allegedly declining to invest on mostly environmental grounds.

This means that now eleven major international lenders have refused to finance the coal extraction project - and none of the four ‘big’ Australian banks have yet to commit either. The preliminary engineering works that were being undertaken in the basin have now ground to a halt and many Australian environmental supporters – including myself – are hoping that this particular batch of coal will forever stay in the ground.

We are hoping that the coal from the Watermark mine stays in the ground as well.

$1.2 billion would go a long way in the Australian Renewable Energy sector. The public street lighting for every town and city in every state of the country could be converted to off-grid photovoltaic LED for less than that.

That’s a lot of clean and green off grid wattage.

It is heartening to see that the export markets for coal from Australia seem to be diminishing too. China’s use of coal reduced by nearly 3% in 2014 and it seems that a similar or greater number will occur in 2015. This is very consistent with the fact that other countries are investing more and more in renewable energy programs to meet their carbon reduction commitments.

I am not a lone Australian voice hoping that both the global and local regulatory frameworks and the trend towards renewable energy options will soon make new coal mining ventures dinosaurs in the modern era.

I may well be in a majority.

All of the big nations of the world are in the process of escalating the rates they propose to reduce their GHG emissions and these will be committed to at the Paris conference. Commitments of between 30% and 40% by the year 2020 appear to be commonplace and are completely achievable.

The tipping point though is now and it is simply by virtue that there is near parity in the unit production cost of RE against traditional coal or gas generated grid power - with the obvious benefit of no production of carbon.

This tipping will escalate further when a global price on carbon is eventually calculated, priced and traded as a commodity. Carbon pricing is inevitable in some shape or form as governments mandate that the production of it is and should be a cost or penalty through a balance sheet deficit.

Such stimulus incentivizes the big polluters in the Mining and Energy sectors to reduce their carbon footprints.

The technology is certainly there and both governments and capital markets are now investing heavily.

I wait with baited breath to see what number Mr. Abbott and his government come up with in the way of Australia’s GHG reduction targets by 2020 - and I hope that it will be comparable to the EU and the United States and Great Britain and Canada.

It needs to be at least 20% and hopefully more.

I have my doubts though and my concerns.

There’s a lot of clout in coal back home and there has been for a long time.

The poem ‘My Country’ was written by a lady named Dorothea MacKellor. She describes her love of Australia as a great “Sunburnt Country – a land of sweeping plains”.

I love my sun-drenched country too.

It is a huge and mostly empty continent blessed with an abundance of natural resources and a saturation of sunshine.

It is well and truly time that we stop mining the carbon and start mining the sun – on a grandiose scale. We owe it the future generations and our great continent is the perfect place for clean energy.

The days of extracting dirty coal and the vile pollution that comes from the now archaic process of burning this to produce electricity must come to an end if Australia is to play it’s part in saving the planet.

And play our part we must.

The argument that our contribution to Greenhouse Gas emissions is tiny compared to the super powers is now statistically quite incorrect and it just doesn’t cut it.

The coal we dig out of the ground has long burnt in the steel furnaces and power plants of Japan and China and India as well as in our own backyard.

C’mon Australia – lift your game.

I am well and truly pussed off - and I really don’t wish to pretend to be a Kiwi any more.

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