Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fiddling while the earth burns

The following opinion piece by Australia 21 Director Richard Eckersley was published in The Age, Friday 27 August 2010. Access the original here.

Fiddling while the earth burns
No more 'politics as usual' should mean having enough courage to tackle the sickness of mindless consumption.

Nearly every decade from the 1970s has been declared a decade of reckoning, the time when we must deal decisively with looming national and global environmental crises. And as each decade passes, we postpone the deadline another 10 years. With the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change last year, the 2010s are now the critical decade of action.

This means the environmental ''emergency'' will have lasted half a century, or two generations. It is not just climate change that we must address, but also land and water degradation, food security, peak oil, population and biodiversity loss. And it is not that nothing worthwhile has been achieved; it is that our responses have failed to match the growing magnitude of the problems.

We have to accept that we cannot meet these challenges with ''politics as usual'' approaches, which seek to offend no one, yield to vested interests, and require no ''sacrifices'' in our way of life.

Beyond the election commentary about political executions, spin, negativity, leaks, botched or boring campaigns, risk aversion and lack of policy substance, we need also to acknowledge the systemic failure of our politics to deal with our problems. This deep current is largely ignored, while politicians, commentators and analysts focus on the swirling surface eddies.

The failure to act on climate change hurt Labor. But its shelved carbon pollution reduction scheme was a lemon anyway, an inadequate response. Also, it is unclear whether the key to voter disillusion was concern about climate change or the reneging on a core ''moral'' commitment. Both dimensions are important: climate change is a real threat to our future, but it is also an emblem of the wider challenge to our quality of life.

Mental health is another example of systemic political failure. Yes, mental health made the campaign agenda, but the whole focus of debate was on services. There was no consideration of why we face a crisis in mental health.

This is a Western problem, not just an Australian one. New US research suggests a fivefold increase since the 1930s in the proportion of college students experiencing psychological problems, and that more than half of young Americans today suffer a clinical mental disorder by the age of 21. If such findings are true, how are we to respond?

From a deep-current perspective, all these issues - environmental, social and economic - have their source in a world view that sees the central purpose of our society as pursuing ever more material enrichment in order to allow us to consume more. Not only does this put pressure on resources and lead to the financial excesses that produced the global financial crisis, it ultimately lies behind the crisis in mental health.

Evidence suggests rising mental illness, especially in the young, is the result of the cultural emphasis on materialism and individualism, manifest in changes in the family, work, the media, religion, education and diet. One specific factor is a shift towards defining ourselves in terms of our extrinsic achievements, in the external trappings of the successful life, including wealth, status, recognition and appearances.

The shift emphasises goals that distract us from what is most important to our well-being: the quality of our relationships with each other and our world, which contribute to a sense of intrinsic worth and existential certainty. As Goethe warned, things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.

Fixing this situation goes beyond politics; it requires leadership at all levels of society. But politics has a role to play. Politicians and the electorates they serve must have the courage to enact sweeping policy changes that shift the course of the deep current, not just stir up the surface eddies.
It means recognising that economic growth measures progress very imperfectly, that the content of growth is more important than its rate, and that we need to direct economic activity away from consumption for short-term personal gratification towards long-term investment in the social transformation necessary to address all the challenges of our century and ensure our future.
And that will mean radical reforms, such as limiting or banning political donations by corporations and other vested interests, making polluters pay for greenhouse gas emissions through effective carbon pricing, abolishing tax deductibility for advertising to ease the pressures on us to spend and spend, and creating jobs where they are socially needed and useful, not where confected demand dictates.

Neither politicians nor citizens fully grasp the size of the gulf between political priorities and social realities. In an Australian National University poll late last year (when Labor's stocks were high), 70 per cent of Australians said they were satisfied with ''the way the country is heading'' (a political question), but only 24 per cent thought quality of life in Australia was getting better (a social question).

It makes for a volatile situation, revealed these days in how quickly our political leaders disappoint us. The results of the election, with the shift in power to independents and the Greens, might shake loose the rusted shackles of the political status quo and make deep change possible. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the Australian people want something different from ''business as usual''. Can we achieve something different enough, in both process and policy?

Richard Eckersley is a director of Australia21, an independent, non-profit research company, and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University

Ian Dunlop on our great strategic error

On 20 August 2010 Australia 21 Director Ian Dunlop contributed the following piece to the ABC News website The Drum. The original piece plus posted comments can be accessed here.

Our great strategic error

"Management", according to the late Peter Drucker, the renowned US social ecologist, "- is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things". So how does Australia measure up in these terms as we contemplate the leadership we deserve prior to the election?

We have had a dream run since World War II, built on our natural wealth. Despite the occasional hiccup, our economy has expanded year after year, with increasing prosperity. Understandably we are proud of being world leaders in agriculture, mining and processing, and we have created a strong and vibrant society in many other areas.

Despite periodic cock-ups, we can claim to have done well, excelling at doing things right, and doing the right things, albeit within a rather narrow, resource-dominated, vision. That is until about 15-20 years ago when the world began to hit the environmental and resource limits that will dictate the evolution of society through the 21st Century.

Our resource base is formidable and expanding. But that bounty is fast becoming our Achilles heel. Our exports and domestic energy systems are carbon extensive; our per capita carbon emissions are amongst the highest in the world. Our most vulnerable point is oil; we are around 50 per cent self-sufficient, declining rapidly unless new discoveries save the day, which seems unlikely. But peak oil, which may well mean a 20-30 per cent reduction in oil availability by 2030, is not even on the agenda of the major political parties.

If the world now moves rapidly to a low-carbon footing due to the need for an emergency response to climate change, whilst facing increasing oil scarcity due to peak oil, many of our traditional advantages turn into major strategic risks; that is risks beyond our control which have the potential to fundamentally change our way of life, and undermine our economic strength .

Our raw material exports will not cease overnight, but a shift toward low-carbon alternatives will seriously disadvantage Australia's current business model as carbon sequestration technologies inevitably fail to match their over-hyped expectations. Similarly, we will not find it easy to secure the oil imports we require; conversion of coal, and to a lesser extent gas, will be expensive and environmentally damaging.

Such a scenario, of rapid climate change combined with the onset of peak oil, whilst becoming part of mainstream thinking overseas, is still regarded as extremism in Australia, and certainly not part of the "official future" of the major parties.

Meanwhile the resource sector, buoyed by bullish forecasts of coal and gas demand are forging ahead with fossil fuel developments; doubling coal exports over the next twenty years, expanding LNG exports and establishing a coal seam gas industry with major investment in mines, railways, ports and processing facilities - but with no proven means of sequestering the associated carbon emissions.

So Australia ends up in the worst of all possible worlds. Science is clearly indicating the need for radical emission reductions. Vested interests ignore these calls, continue to undermine any sensible reform and, by special pleading render ineffective even the minimalist reform proposed in the interests of short-term advantage. Lack of certainty on a carbon price stunts the growth of fledgling alternative energy industries, stifles consumer behavioural change and, combined with conflicting regulatory measures, leads to non-optimal short-term decisions, while both main political parties lack the stomach to take on the vested interests. So we fall back into the comfort zone of our dig-it-up and ship-it-out high carbon mindset. In so doing, we are making arguably the greatest strategic error in Australia's history.

For whilst Australia is moving backwards on climate change reform and ignoring peak oil, the rest of the world is vying for leadership of the low carbon economy. A decade hence it is likely that the incremental demand for our high carbon products will have evaporated. At that point we will be left with a large inventory of stranded assets, minimal investment in low carbon alternative energy, little resilience to weather the impact of both climate change and peak oil and strident calls to bail out companies that are "too-big-to-fail".

The irony is that Australia has some of the best resources and greatest opportunities to benefit in the low-carbon world, which we seem determined to ignore - renewables, new generation nuclear, and innovative technologies we have never even thought of which will come out of the woodwork once a clear strategic direction is set.

There are also far wider benefits in moving away from the domination of fossil-fuels. A complete reappraisal of our lifestyle, which is long overdue, becomes both inevitable and desirable. It is not just high oil prices and climate change, but the very question of the sustainability of humanity on the planet as population rises from 6.5 billion people today to 9 billion in 2050, all aspiring to an improved quality of life. New technology will undoubtedly come to our aid but that will not be enough - our values must also change. Conventional economic growth in the developed world will have to be set aside in favour of a steady-state economy where the emphasis in on non-consumption and the quality of life rather than the quantity of things.

There will be far more focus on local food production, opening up new opportunities for rural areas, cities will be re-designed using high-density sustainability principles to avoid urban sprawl, and integrated with public transport to minimise energy consumption. Work centres will be de-centralised. Rail, powered by renewable energy, will become a major transport mode for both freight and high-speed passenger traffic. Air travel will reduce unless new technology develops jet fuel from, for example, bio sources, and even then emission constraints may limit its use. The internal combustion engine will disappear in favour of electric vehicles for many applications. Cycling and walking will become major activities for both work and pleasure - obesity and diabetes will decline!.

The challenge is enormous, but it is the greatest opportunity we have ever had to place the world on a sustainable footing, for what we are currently doing is not sustainable. We must not waste this opportunity, but it needs far bolder and broader thinking than we are seeing at present.

In Drucker's terms, we are becoming ever better at doing things right, but failing miserably at identifying the right things to do. A triumph of management over leadership, driven by nonsensical short-termism. The time has come for a radical re-think of our strategy for the 21st Century.

These are the issues that our potential leaders should be debating before we have to choose. In particular, serious discussion on what a sustainable population really means.

Ian Dunlop is a Centre for Policy Development Fellow and a contributing author to their recent publication, More than Luck: Ideas Australia Needs Now.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ocean changes accelerating

The first comprehensive synthesis on the effects of climate change on the world's oceans has found they are now changing at a rate not seen for several million years.

In an article published on 18 June 2010 in Science magazine, the authors reveal that the growing atmospheric concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases are driving irreversible and dramatic changes to the way the ocean functions, with potentially dire impacts for hundreds of millions of people across the planet.

The findings of the report, The impact of climate change on the world's marine ecosystems, emerged from a synthesis of recent research on the world's oceans, carried out by two of the world's leading marine scientists, one from The University of Queensland in Australia, and one from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the USA.

Read the University of Queensland’s media release on the findings here.

Sustainability of indigenous hunting

In an opinion piece on the Australasian science website ScienceAlert, Dr George Wilson, a Senior Fellow at University of New South Wales Institute for Environmental Studies, examines the question of whether current Indigenous hunting practices are sustainable, and argues for greater science support for Aboriginal practice:

Despite the importance placed on it by Indigenous people, land and wildlife management is a minor component of current Australian Government resource allocation for addressing Indigenous need.  Redressing this situation is urgent because Indigenous wildlife use and hunting in Australia, as it currently practiced, is often unsustainable. Our investigations which have been published in the CSIRO journal – Wildlife Research, examine the opportunity for greater science support for traditional Aboriginal practice.

In pre-colonial Australia, adherence to customary law maintained wildlife species Indigenous Australians wanted. Today the long-term sustainability of Indigenous wildlife harvesting is threatened. Where Indigenous communities lack leadership and other social problems exist, the capacity to apply customary land-and sea-management practices and to operate cultural constraints on wildlife use is reduced. In addition, increased hunting pressure follows human population increases and modern technology such as vehicles and guns.

Read Dr Wilson’s full opinion piece here.

The full paper published by Dr Wilson and his colleagues from Australian Wildlife Services may be found in CSIRO Wildlife Research; Volume: 37; Issue: 3; 10-17.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Penny Sackett’s Next Big Question

Professor Penny Sackett BS MS PhD is a physicist by training, an astronomer by profession and an educator by inclination. She is a member of several international astronomical societies and the Association for Women in Science. Her career also includes journalism and policy advice on several national science advisory panels. She was appointed Chief Scientist for Australia in November 2008.

For more about this project see The next big question.

Cash for clunkers

Frank Jotzo, Deputy Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, and a participant in the Joint forum on climate change convened at the ANU on 12 July 2010 by Australia 21, Universities Australia and the National Business Leaders’ Forum on Sustainable Development, contributed the following analysis of the Government’s “cash for clunkers” scheme to the Monday 9 August edition of the online political newsletter Crikey:

A carbon price beats throwing cash at new car owners
Frank Jotzo, deputy director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, writes:

Populism and procrastination reign in Australian climate policy, and what new policy proposals there are, on both sides of politics, consist largely of spending taxpayer dollars for little gain.

Labor’s "cleaner car rebate" is a particularly striking example. A year after the US and European countries finished up their cash-for-clunkers programs, Labor proposes that Australia start one. The European and American cash-for-clunkers schemes were squarely aimed at helping the car industry through the recession, but in Australia it is dressed up as climate policy.

The proposal boils down to this. Government would spend $400 million of taxpayers’ money to buy older cars from people who are well enough off to afford new cars. Any car better than the existing fleet-wide average qualifies, so the great majority of new cars would be eligible, not just the most efficient ones. Many of the older cars that attract the subsidy would probably be scrapped soon anyway. The money would be diverted from other climate programs, in particular advanced solar power.

By Labor’s reckoning, the car program would cut carbon dioxide emissions by one million tonnes, presumably stretched over several years. Australia’s total emissions in just one year are 500 times that. The fiscal cost per tonne avoided would be $400. By comparison, a carbon price of just $20 per tonne would drive widespread change in the power and industry sectors. Even relatively high cost renewable energy options, such as the ones supported by government programs that are to be cut back to pay for cars, are estimated to come in at about $50. So the car subsidy policy would backfire in terms of emissions, because money is drawn away from options that would have delivered a much bigger and long-lasting effect.

The tendency with policies such as this is to lead to a maze of expensive subsidies and cumbersome regulation, with plenty of bureaucratic churn and political interference. It will be expensive, and fall short of even the lower end of the 5%-25% reduction range that both parties have signed on to.

The Coalition, meanwhile, promises to pay emitters for reducing carbon, rather than imposing a price on emissions. By necessity, it would need to use highly uncertain estimations of the reductions achieved, compared to some hypothetical baseline. The Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism relies on this principle. It has managed to draw money into clean investments, but in a very patchy fashion, with huge bureaucratic overheads, and with uncertain environmental benefit.

What is more, the Coalition claims as an advantage that prices of energy and goods will not rise. But as always the money will have to come from somewhere, in this case from taxpayers. And if power prices do not go up, then extra incentives need to be created for end users to save energy, through extra government interventions and more subsidies. Achieving any kind of meaningful reduction would rack up an enormous tax bill.

The underlying problem is that neither of the main parties can summon up the courage to go with the policy that is so obviously the key to an effective and efficient climate policy: putting a price on carbon, through emissions trading or a carbon tax. Business is calling for it to put an end to crippling investment uncertainty. The Howard government prepared for emissions trading already in 1999 and made it its policy in 2006. And Australia would by no means be out in front: Europe has had emissions trading for five years, and despite setbacks in the US Senate, schemes for carbon pricing are in place in many American states. Even China is set to introduce emissions trading of the next five years.

Julia Gillard has stated that she is committed to carbon pricing, but not just yet. Her citizens’ assembly seems little more than an excuse for further delay. It would not bring new insight on an issue that has been so well researched and so widely debated as climate change. The science of climate change is crystal clear, the case for action has been made convincingly, and consensus among the expert community in economics and business is that carbon pricing is the right policy choice. Climate change has been in the centre of public debate for years now, and attitudes among the Australian public have been surveyed and re-surveyed dozens of times.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Demolishing the myths on emissions trading

The following piece by Australia 21 Director Ian Dunlop appeared on the ABC’s web forum The Drum: analysis and views on the issues of the day on 2 August 2010, under the title Demolishing the myths on emissions trading.

Demolishing the myths on emissions trading

One of the great myths being perpetuated in this election campaign is that the Greens, by refusing to support the Government's CPRS (Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme), prevented the introduction of effective emissions trading in this country, thus blocking serious action on climate change. Penny Wong was at it again on ABC's Q&A on Monday night. Utter nonsense!

The CPRS is appalling policy. By weakening the underlying emissions trading mechanism with multiple escape clauses and compensation, it runs counter to all the recommendations of the sound policy design work that had been carried out in Australia, ranging from the AGO 1998 National Emissions Trading framework to the 2008 Garnaut Review, as well as practical overseas experience. The rot set in with the 2007 Report of the Task Group on Emissions Trading, which was initiated by the Howard government and dominated by fossil-fuel interests. Rudd and Wong then continued the race to the bottom, even before the Garnaut recommendations were released, throwing aside what little CPRS integrity remained in the final horsetrading with Malcolm Turnbull. If the CPRS were to be implemented in its current form, it would impose an enormous cost on the economy for minimal reductions in emissions.

Turnbull deserves credit for standing up to the climate luddites in the Coalition, but he is still not prepared to honestly acknowledge the nonsense which the CPRS represents and, more importantly, the size of the problem we now face. The only political party to do so are the Greens. Christine Milne laid it out clearly in her Re-Energising Australia Report, released in 2007. The science now indicates even greater urgency for action.

The inertia of the climate system, particularly the slow warming of the oceans, means that the results of our emissions today only become evident decades hence. Thus, unless we take rapid action now, we may well be locking in irreversible climate change of catastrophic proportions for future generations; indeed we may have already done so.

There will always be scientific uncertainties on an issue this complex, with year-to-year climatic variations continuing to be used selectively by deniers to discredit the mainstream science; but the overall trends are clear and they are all moving in the wrong direction. It is tempting to believe the deniers are right, but faced with the mounting empirical evidence, prudent risk management dictates we should not gamble on inaction.

The world is starting to understand that, if catastrophic outcomes and climatic tipping points are to be avoided, the real target for a safe climate is to reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations back to the pre-industrial levels of around 300ppm CO2 from the current 392ppm CO2. This will require emission reductions in the order of 40-50 per cent by 2020, almost complete decarbonisation by 2050 and continuing efforts to draw down legacy carbon from the atmosphere.

Looked at from a total carbon budget perspective, to have a less than 25 per cent chance of exceeding the 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase relative to pre-industrial levels, which is still the official political temperature objective, the world can only emit a further 800 gigatonnes of CO2 in toto from today, a budget which would be used up in less than 20 years. Accepting a 50/50 chance allows the budget to increase to 1,200 gigatonnes of CO2, used up in less than 30 years. The Australian budget runs out in around five - eight years. If the temperature target has to be less than 2C, which is now almost inevitable, the budgets are considerably lower.

Put bluntly, we face a global climate change emergency, which requires an emergency response; both major parties are well aware of this from their scientific briefings. In this context, the emission reduction target of 5 per cent by 2020, which they are so graciously offering is derisory. The only possible conclusion is that both parties do not believe in human-induced climate change and are going through the motions purely to placate the electorate. I, for one, object in the strongest possible terms to the future of my children and grandchildren being thrown away by such irresponsibility from those who would profess to be our "leaders".

Christine Milne is quite right to hold out for serious climate change policy rather than this "Clayton's" variety offered by the major parties' deniers.

Ian Dunlop is a CPD Fellow and a contributing author to the CPD book, More than Luck: Ideas Australia Needs Now, launched this week. Ian chaired the AGO Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998 to 2000.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Forthcoming publication: Resilience and Transformation

Later this month CSIRO Publishing will release Resilience and Transformation: Preparing Australia for Uncertain Futures, edited for Australia21 by Australia21 Fellow Dr Stephen Cork.

Resilience and Transformation explores what factors contribute to Australia’s resilience, what trends are apparent, and what actions are required to better prepare us for the immediate and longer term future.

Resilience is a word used more and more across societies worldwide as decision makers realise that predicting and controlling the future does not work and that preparing for uncertainty and surprise is vital. Many viewpoints have emerged on how to assess and achieve resilience of individuals, organisations, communities and ecosystems, but rarely has the resilience of a nation been considered. As Australia moves into a millennium that promises major economic, social, technological and environmental change, Australia21 has assembled some of Australia’s leading thinkers to give their perspectives on the extent and direction of resilience across our nation’s social, economic, ecological and disaster management systems.

Full information about this publication may be found, and orders placed, on the CSIRO Publishing website here. It is a 216 page paperback, priced at $39.95.