Coming up soon is my summary of 2019 from an environmental perspective (awful, worse than ever). It was the world’s second hottest year, Australia’s hottest and driest year ever, the ocean’s hottest year. And Australia’s greenhouse emissions kept on going up. But there was some good-ish news, generally in the form of proposals and predictions, which I should get out of the way first before returning to curmudgeonliness.
1. The distinguished University of Melbourne economist, Professor Ross Garnaut, had Super-Power published by Black Inc. He was Prime Minister Hawke’s economic adviser, and a former Chairman of a bank and a gold miner, so he’s not exactly a communist. As Australia’s ex-Ambassador to China, he knows that country well too. The book is perfectly briefly summarised on the 7am podcast here (or in a less digestible one hour lecture by Prof Garnaut here). He says:
a. Of the developed countries, Australia is the most vulnerable to climate change.
b. Of the developed countries, Australia is best positioned to exploit the post-carbon economy (‘No other developed country has a comparable opportunity for large-scale, firm, zero-emissions power, supplied at low cost’, with an unparalleled endowment of solar and wind energy).
c. The price of renewable energy has plummeted in a way he had not predicted in the highly regarded federal government commissioned Garnaut Review of 2008.
d. Intermittent renewables could undoubtedly meet 100% of Australia’s electricity requirements by the 2030s, with high degrees of security and reliability, and at wholesale prices much lower than those in the last half dozen years.
e. We could take the emissions out of many Australian industries and transport through the use of renewable energy, and export the considerable surplus energy.
f. Better, we will be able to process iron ore in Australia (we supply 60% of the world’s exports) with zero emissions energy (hydrogen energy generated with solar or wind powered electricity which, when burnt, emits only water rather than greenhouse gases). Just China’s steel production, powered by Australian coal exports (it produces 50% of the world’s steel, and we supply it with 70% of its iron ore imports), accounts for 3.5% of global carbon emissions. If we turned 25% of our iron ore exports into iron metal (steel’s precursor) and half of our alumina into aluminium using renewable power generated hyrdogen energy, those industries would be substantially more remunerative than our coal and natural gas exports.
g. We also have great potential to harvest plants (the mulga and the mallee in particular) to create greener energy (electricity generated by burning biomass), and adjust land and forest management to promote massive natural sequestration in soils, though I must admit I don’t quite understand how this works.
(I observe that the more the rest of the world decarbonises its economy, the better the market for Australian produced zero emission electricity and (more transportably) liquid hydrogen, so we should encourage other economies to go the hack decarbonising.)
2. The government is getting into hydrogen (but unbelievably, is putting half a billion dollars into a pilot project for hydrogen generation by burning fossil fuels). Soon enough no one is going to want to buy ‘brown hydrogen’. The smart money will be in ‘green hydrogen’. This Oxford professor says jet fuel should be manufactured in Australia by combining carbon dioxide with green hydrogen generated by solar power. I include this in the good news annals because the fork in the road between green and brown hydrogen industries is still ahead of us, and hopefully a competent government will arrive before it is reached.
3. Possibly the loveliest of Australia’s billionaires, Mike Cannon-Brooks, and the iron ore billionaire Twiggy Forrest, who was lovely enough to donate $70 million to fire relief efforts (if I were a twiggy forest, I’d probably do the same), are proposing to build a vast solar electricity plant in the Northern Territory’s desert with a view to powering Singapore by an undersea direct current cable 4,500 km long. Cost: $20 billion.
4. A lot of trees are getting planted, or that’s the plan. ‘In July, Ethiopia began a huge nationwide strategy in which 350m trees were planted in one day… In 2017, 1.5 million Indian volunteers planted 66m trees in 12 hours in Madhya Pradesh. The government in New Zealand launched a plan to plant a billion trees by 2027 (including 83m [in 2018]). In Pakistan, the programme to plant a billion trees to combat the effects of climate change was completed ahead of schedule in 2017. Their new target is 10bn trees.’ See here. ‘Thanks to the Trillion Tree Campaign, to which Donald Trumb recently subscribed, China has planted 13.62 billion trees, even deploying 60,000 soldiers to help achieve this goal.’ Ireland has committed to planting nearly half a billion new trees, wants to have a million electric cars within a decade, and wishes to have zero emissions by 2050. See here. (There are in the world about three trillion trees, and about 15 billion are killed per annum. Tree planting is the cheapest, easiest and most important climate change mitigation strategy, but not nearly enough by itself, as Greta promptly informed Donald.)
Australia also has a plan to plant a billion trees (who knew?), but the justification is that we will need to cut them down because it is in our interests to supply the world’s quadrupled demand by 2050 for wood. The only reference to climate change in the thousands of words in this government document is the following bizarre non sequitur:
‘Australia’s forest industries are part of the solution to climate change
Ensuring transparency in the management of our forests can demonstrate how the environment is being protected while showcasing the technology and innovations that forestry operators are adopting.’
Tree planting now makes money for state governments which engage in it, under the Emissions Reduction Fund. But we clear more in six months than we plant in several years, and it is not always done how it should be. Rather it is done in a way which maximises carbon dioxide sequestration at the expense of the local environment, disregarding ground cover, and planting trees which do not naturally occur in the local ecosystem.
5. According to George Monbiot, farming will soon be unnecessary for the feeding of the masses, providing scope for the kind of rewilding of the planet (or at least modification of pastures) necessary to tackle climate change in a serious fashion. Late last year, before the fires, National Geographic reported a suprisingly high level of support across a large sample space in 12 disparate countries for the proposition that half of the world’s lands and half of the world’s oceans should be protected for the direct benefit of all the species other than us, for our indirect benefit. No doubt they were all thinking about the other half of the world, though.
6. Dan Andrews’ government in Victoria phased out old growth forest logging (theoretically saving 900 km2 of forest, but that’s not as good as it sounds because old growth logging in fact probably continued). Premier Andrews also protected another 960 km2 of greater glider habitat, and announced it will phase out native forest logging within 10 years; greater glider numbers have decreased 80% in 20 years (though how they figure this, I have no idea). But that’s not great news either, since the greater glider habitat protected was promptly burnt down by the unprecedented bushfires of the spring and summer of 2019-2020.