Climate Tasmania

A Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Coal is starting to look like a stranded asset

Government support for King Coal is misplaced, short-sighted and foolish. [21 October 2014 | Peter Boyer]

You might think money and power are what motivate the people who make those huge holes in the ground to dig up vast quantities of black stuff to ship off to Asia.

Rio Tinto’s Bengalla coal mine in the Hunter Valley, NSW. PHOTO LOCK THE GATE ALLIANCE

Rio Tinto’s Bengalla coal mine in the Hunter Valley, NSW. PHOTO LOCK THE GATE ALLIANCE

Banish the thought. All those mines, railways, ports and ships that make up the coal export industry are really all about a benevolent, generous spirit and the long-term well-being of the world.

Don’t just take my word for it. Last week environment minister Greg Hunt talked about how Australia’s energy exports were helping “to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty”.

Tony Abbott sings from the same songbook. In May the prime minister told miners that “it is our destiny in this country to bring affordable energy to the world” by exporting coal to poorer countries. Coal is king, he declared when opening a new mine in Queensland last week.

On the same day in London, interviewed on the BBC about Australia’s “dirty” coal-exporting practices, treasurer Joe Hockey said we do it “so that nations can lift their people out of poverty”.

The earnest mantra coming from Big Coal and its political friends is that exporting coal to China and India is a massive humanitarian mission. You could almost believe they mean it.

But China and India don’t seem to share the love. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi says he wants to reduce his country’s dependence on coal and is seeking finance for a 10-year plan to generate 200 gigawatts of wind and solar energy.

China now taxes imported coal and keeps raising taxes on coal-fired power. And only three months after Australia abandoned its pioneering carbon pricing system, China announced that it would bring forward its own national pricing scheme to 2016, two years earlier than originally planned.

The burning of coal, mainly to make electricity, is the world’s single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. The burning of oil-based fuels is the second biggest, and so-called “clean” natural gas is another significant greenhouse pollutant.

The International Energy Agency says that a safe climate future requires us to leave untouched at least two-thirds of all the coal, oil and gas that we know is still in the ground. I know of no government or industry challenge to the IEA analysis anywhere in the world.

The Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has advised companies, investors and policymakers that “the vast majority of reserves are unburnable” and urged them to incorporate long-term climate change into their planning.

Yet for Australian governments, enthusiastically backing an expansion of coal exports, King Coal reigns supreme, and there can be no other way of looking at it. It’s a foolhardy position to take.

This only partially explains why government ministers and miners got so upset last week about the Australian National University’s decision to sell its holdings in seven mining companies which the university determined didn’t meet its own “socially responsible investment” requirements.

To Tony Abbott, the decision was “stupid”. Assistant infrastructure minister Jamie Briggs said it was “reckless”. Other angry outbursts came from Joe Hockey, Greg Hunt and education minister Christopher Pyne, not to mention an array of state government ministers.

Industry didn’t hold back. “Green imperialism at its worst” was the view of big NSW miner Whitehaven Coal. The Minerals Council of Australia thought it was anti-mining and anti-business.

The Abbott government says it stands for business independence, yet it complains about a decision by an investing entity about where it wishes to put its money. That smacks of hypocrisy.

To judge by the noise you’d think the ANU’s action was a massive sell-off, but the $16 million worth of shares involved were less than 2 per cent of the university’s investment portfolio and a much tinier proportion, about 0.03 per cent, of the companies’ value.

The seven Australian companies, Iluka Resources, Independence Group, Newcrest Mining, Oil Search, Sandfire Resources, Santos and Sirius Resources, were identified in a commissioned independent review of companies’ environmental, social and governance policies and practices.

There are no coal companies in the list and only two, Oil Search and Santos, are in the oil and gas business. But in various ways, all seven showed a disregard for investors’ concerns about how climate change might affect their asset valuations in five, 10 or 20 years’ time.

This is especially an issue in the fossil fuel sector, most notably coal, which must face the risk that as the impact of emissions is more widely appreciated their reserves will become stranded assets. The larger the reserve (such as those in Queensland’s Galilee Basin) the greater the long-term loss.

The ANU is far from alone in deciding to sell shares of companies which fall short on the carbon test. Anglican and Uniting churches and local government superannuation are among increasing numbers of Australian entities that are divesting on this basis.

They see what Australian governments, with Tony Abbott as the cheerleader, cannot. Coal as a global commodity is in terminal structural decline. Jingoistic fast talk won’t change that. All it’s doing is sending money, and our national reputation, down the drain.

Forget ideology. What’s in play here is pure business.

The world-wide trend toward sustainable communities

Local administrations around the world are stepping up efforts to build resilience into their communities. [14 October 2014 | Peter Boyer]

“He’s from Barcelona.” That was Sybil Fawlty’s way of explaining the physical and verbal ineptitude of Manuel, the Spanish waiter in the 1970s British television series Fawlty Towers.

Touring Barcelona streets on a hired electric scooter. PHOTO GREENELECTRICMOTO.COM

Touring Barcelona streets on a hired electric scooter. PHOTO GREENELECTRICMOTO.COM

Barcelona was then a catchword for sad failure. Now the city has a new reputation as a world-leading sustainable community.

“Your definition of a sustainable community please? Just what would that look like?” asked one of my more enduring critics on the Mercury website last week.

A fair question, and the “smart city” of Barcelona is a good place to begin. The city’s ambitious climate response, drawing on urban planning, information technology and environmental data, is already yielding dividends to a supportive citizenry. Some examples:

• The city has significantly cut energy costs by rolling out computer-controlled smart power meters across the city and water-regulated heating and cooling covering 21 square km.

• Barcelona’s street lighting now costs half what it did to operate, and it will get even cheaper. Remote control of lighting and its conversion to LED technology is about half rolled out.

• Water for parks and fountains is controlled remotely, providing maximum value from the city’s water supply during hot, dry summers, for a small fraction of the cost.

• Barcelona has deployed over 260 electric vehicle recharging points drawing on nuclear and renewable power. It now has about 300 public electric vehicles and an estimated 400 private ones on its streets, along with 130 electric motorbikes and 500 hybrid taxis.

The city expects that in each remaining year of the current decade its greenhouse gas emissions will be cut by an amount equal to 18 per cent of 2008 levels to bring it to zero net emissions by 2020.

Among many North American cities pursuing climate action agendas is Portland, Oregon (US). A year ago it updated its already-ambitious plan with 150 new measures aiming to halve emissions from city operations by 2030. The plan includes cutting energy use in all pre-2010 buildings by 25 per cent and zero net emissions from all new buildings and homes, recycling 90 per cent of all city waste, and creating neighbourhoods where 80 per cent of residents can walk or cycle to meet basic non-work needs.

New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is investing in local renewable power, home insulation, public transport and alternative transportation, recycling and composting regimes, innovation in energy conservation and developing the city as an urban planning centre of excellence.

Australian capital city councils, notably Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, have adopted highly-innovative carbon-cutting policies. Sydney, for instance, has a 2030 target of 70 per cent lower emissions using power generated from currently-available waste and biomass.

Hobart had a less ambitious climate plan, but without top-to-bottom support it was never much more than window-dressing. It has never been updated and expired in 2013, presenting the incoming council with the challenge of coming up with a new one.

Last week I explored how the idea of a sustainable city had infiltrated campaigns in this month’s elections. Looking further into election manifestos, the most detailed and comprehensive suite of climate measures that I could find was put together by Greens candidate Anna Reynolds.

Reynolds seeks ambitious and specific goals, using as an example Melbourne’s target of zero net emissions by 2020. She advocates a zero-waste regime such as that being rolled out in Brisbane, and among her adaptation measures are limits to home-building on bushfire-prone land.

But the vision of elected representatives goes only so far. Success isn’t just devising a plan but implementing it well, and that requires motivated and committed council staff.

In other municipalities climate change is understood as a factor in council affairs now, let alone tomorrow. Kingborough is leading the way in putting measures in place to cope with increasing damage from bushfire, storms and coastal flooding. Others, such as Clarence, aren’t far behind.

Money speaks. Councils are being forced to grasp the nettle of climate planning because insurance companies, alert to their own bottom line, are backing up council assessments that the physical and financial impact of drought, fire, storm and flood is increasing, not tomorrow but today.

The same is reflected in growing numbers of cities and towns around the world pursuing stronger programs for a better energy return from town precincts, individual buildings and transport, and for monitoring local climate shifts and adapting practices accordingly.

This is ground truthing at work. Local administrators are seeing things happening that higher levels of government have missed, to their shame and to the detriment of us all.

Climate change is a local matter after all

As higher levels of government have vacated the climate policy space, it’s left to the bottom tier to show the way. [7 October 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Hobart from Mt Wellington. PHOTO SUSAN MOORE,

Hobart from Mt Wellington. PHOTO SUSAN MOORE,

Public debate over how we should address climate change has tended to fixate on an Abbott government policy that’s now disappearing into fantasy land. It’s time to shift focus elsewhere.

At the heart of good climate policy is building resilient communities. Ideally, the conditions for this to happen are nurtured by higher levels of government, but now that they’ve ditched social reform in favour of saving money, local resources are pretty well all that’s left.

More than half of all people now live in a city. That proportion is estimated to blow out to two-thirds by 2050, underlining the fact that we’re a social species. How we live together is now more significant to us than ever.

Situated on the front line of public services, local government is the most neglected and impoverished of the three tiers of Australian government. But there’s reason to believe that it’s a far more potent force for climate action than the national debate has ever acknowledged.

Past elections have done little to enhance councils’ stodgy reputation. Discussion in campaigns tends to be all about what we can see and touch – roads, street lighting, garbage, local business and such like – rather than things we might imagine or aspire to.

But looking at all those standard local issues in the context of carbon emissions and our capacity to adapt to a changing climate casts them in a whole different light.

Roads are now facilities for buses, bikes and people as well as cars. We don’t dispose of garbage now; we manage it, and this involves recycling and biogas energy. Encouraging local business is no longer just a ho-hum, parish pump issue, but central to every successful community.

The evidence of this transformation can also be found in the campaigning for this month’s local government elections. In every municipality there’s a good sprinkling of candidates for whom energy, climate and sustainable communities are primary issues.

The trend is especially noticeable where you might least expect it, in municipalities where raw nature has long given way to the trappings and services of urban life: paved streets, multi-storey buildings, town water and sewerage. The less we have of nature, the more we seem to value it.

With three weeks still to go before the polls close, many candidates are still putting together campaign material. But in the Hobart City Council elections, at least, early indications are that at least half the candidates will be putting some weight on community resilience and sustainability.

As in many municipalities, a sizeable contingent of Tasmanian Greens is standing in Hobart. Predictably, all of them give a high priority to environmental matters, including climate and energy.

As sitting aldermen Helen Burnet and Phillip Cocker (candidates for Lord Mayor) and Bill Harvey (standing for deputy Lord Mayor) have the highest profile among the Greens. They’ve all spent years actively pursuing a smaller carbon footprint for Hobart, and continue to do so.

Anna Reynolds and Rachel Andrew are other Green candidates who’ve outlined strong climate and sustainability programs taking in transport, energy conservation, urban design and divestment.

We expect this of the Greens, but it’s telling that thinking along these lines has infiltrated other campaigns. Businesswoman Sue Hickey, engineer Noel Carroll, restaurateur Mike Dutta and architect Tim Penny have all in various ways expressed a wish to see a more sustainable Hobart.

Three other candidates stand out. Alderman Eva Ruzicka has for many years been a strong advocate for past successful carbon-reducing initiatives by the council. Corey Peterson, sustainability manager at the University of Tasmania, has a long track record on reducing the university’s carbon footprint and as an active member of the Sustainable Living Tasmania board.

An impressive newcomer to council elections is Suzy Cooper, a former scientist and stage comedian who has some serious and well-considered ideas about how the city can benefit from building resilience while mitigating risk through transport, housing and town planning innovations.

All this is still a far cry from a coordinated council action plan, but it points to a new council more willing than its predecessor to step into the policy space vacated by higher levels of government.

In some respects council staff are already there. As a matter of necessity local administrations are now seeking expert advice on legal implications of climate-related events, or the management of lands vulnerable to drought, bushfire, flooding or coastal erosion.

Other capitals are showing the way. Sydney has an ambitious program to cut all CBD emissions by 70 per cent by 2030, while Melbourne is going for carbon neutrality by 2020. Experience there shows that a committed Hobart could realistically pursue many ideas from this election campaign.

Last month’s report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate identified a high level of responsiveness to climate and sustainability issues by cities around the world, including major Australian centres, and recommended that they be given greater fiscal autonomy to tackle them.

Given the indifference of higher levels of government to helping build more sustainable communities, and the contrasting wealth of ideas at the level of local government and communities, this would be money well spent to rejuvenate our response to climate change.