Monday 11 May 2009

20 proposals for Australia

A friend of mine asked me what I think Australia should be doing about climate change. So, off the top of my head …

1. Before they'll accept the prescription, voters need to better understand the diagnosis. Government should fund the CSIRO (a trusted source) to do a lot of science education, including a very public version of what David MacKay has done in his book "Sustainable Energy -
Without the Hot Air" (free online at As part of this the CSIRO should establish public indicators we can track, like the ozone readings on weather reports. Bottom line is CO2 counts (US NOAA publish the global measure monthly), but most indicators should be ones that will turn positive: e.g. % energy generated by renewables.

2. Accept that we are going to have to have a target of zero-net carbon by 2050. Australia has to get down to 2 tonnes or less per capita of emissions (against 25 now), then it has to help the world suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. More on that later.

3. Develop a program to cut energy usage by 25% through energy efficiency. This is the big and easy win, especially because payback periods are 5 to 10 years at the most. For householders and smaller business owners we need a national opt-out scheme funded 15% by govt (pays for low-income housing) and 85% by private finance in the form of energy bonds. It will require a 10 year program of refit for the whole country, with financing paid for by using the savings from reduced energy expenditure to create an income stream for investors. Government will provide building assessors but the work will be contracted out to private companies who will bid for area rights (with reward schemes built around sustained energy savings from an area baseline).
Householders can say no, but otherwise they are automatically in the scheme - their energy bills should drop without any effort on their part except letting contractors into their homes. There'll be lots of jobs for the construction industry. The whole scheme depends on economies of
scale keeping energy efficiency fit-out costs right down.

4. For renewables it's a national feed-in tariff financed by climate bonds; but this may not have to be a premium feed-in tariff if the payback time frames are long enough. Government agrees to regulate clean energy prices - maintain them at a level matching fossil fuel energy rates projections (a slow climb), but for 40 years or until bonds are paid. Private companies then bid for generation projects, etc. Private companies can also issue the bonds themselves under the government verification and auditing (seal of approval) scheme. This could be operating at an international level from next year.

5. Energy authorities plan and develop grid investments to create a DC supergrid linking new renewable areas (e.g. Cooper Basin geothermal, North Queensland biomass, Bass Strait wind, desert solar thermal) to markets. This could also be financed by government climate
(hypothecated) bonds. Governments need to facilitate distributed plug-in, so any developer can plus on a source wherever they can get it going.

6. Remove all fossil fuel subsidies. These are anti-competitive, and market distortionary in exactly the wrong direction. Clean energy investors will be demanding this.

7. Keep CCS research going, except assume it will be for capturing CO2 from the air and burying it; i.e. the very difficult coal generation capture is a bit academic.

8. Open up uranium exports. For at least a 100 year interim period some countries are going to need nuclear power (until the uranium runs out!) even with vast renewables and energy efficiency investment. It's a better option than coal.

9. Work on a coal export plan to reduce the volume of sales and drive up the price. We have 40% of the export market and we have high grade, in-demand ore; we can do this. The goal is to sell less coal but get the same revenue for it; a higher price will force energy switching in other
countries. Mind you, this one could lead to war. The planet goes terminal if we burn more than 25% of the coal we have, so plan to close the whole industry down by 2050, keeping the coal (and oil) in the ground.

10. Institute a ten year plan to increase by 50% Australia's sequestering forest cover, especially in the North where rainfall is increasing. Focus on plantation forestry (as carbon absorption is
highest in fast growth stages) with minimal emission harvesting practices (the CSIRO knows exactly how to do this). A broad plan can probably be paid for by investors harvesting carbon credits (as well as timber) under a government "good practices" compliance scheme. If supply
starts to meet demand (this will take 15 years, but might be avoided if we can replace supplies from tropical country lumber operations) plan to market wood as a substitute for energy intensive building materials.

11. Institute a ten year plan to shift agriculture from nitrogen and other emissions intensive fertiliser to sequestering biochar. Target should be a 50% shift, but it may be able to be 80%. This will require industrial strength biochar creation, but carbon credits will help the
economics of doing this.

12. Institute a ten year plan to massively grow a biofuels industry in the North of Australia, using waste products of food agriculture. This should be able to contribute 4-5% of total energy needs, largely for aviation, shipping and long-distance trucks.

13. Have a 20 year strategy to shift the entire urban transport fleet to electric power (there isn't enough biofuel to power them, if we want to fly as well). Have tax breaks for electrics and a national roll-out of recharging stations (in London they're already appearing next to parking
meters - they look the same). "Better Place" autos can probably do the lot without government money if needs be.

14. All cities and towns have to get denser to reduce energy footprints and lower transport energy usage. That requires different urban planning rules. Legislate for binding national guidelines. That will also allow public transport to be more price-competitive.

15. Mandate that all government agencies develop a plan to shift internally to zero net emissions footprints by 2025, especially defence. Shift procurement guidelines to have a low-carbon bias.

16. Set up a government Green Investment Bank to manage financing programs and package project deals for all of the above.

17. Phase in a carbon tax so that end net revenue change is zero, by dropping taxes on clean products and ratcheting them up on high emission products.

18. Issues government climate bonds that pay a penalty if carbon targets are NOT achieved. These can be used private companies as hedges for renewables investment.

19. Have an overarching industry plan to grow clean energy and tech industries by 30% p.a. for next 15 years. Institute a large-scale skills development plan to match.

20. Ask then there's public transport ….

The key point is that the scale of the challenge is such that we have to do everything, not just some things.

In a couple of years this will seem simply sensible rather than a stretch, especially as this year's science filters down a bit more. (I've been at a few presentations by climate scientists recently, and they are very gloomy at the speeding up of climate change; the most recent CO2 chart I've seen shows that levels are now tracking at about 5% above the IPCC's worst case scenarios).

Our difficulty is timing; if we don't get the industrial transformation that we will have to have underway fast enough, we will miss the opportunity to avert what are now being accepted as important tipping points: 450ppm C02 concentrations and 2C warming. If we get to those
levels the train takes off and no amount of mitigation helps (we 're beginning to understand that climate shifts on this planet are generally non-linear); we tip over into a different climate setting at a temp level 6-7 degrees higher than at present.

Have a look at a recent New Scientist map for what this would probably mean: Then think of the wars and movements of people's involved in that happening; it would be a new Dark Ages; that's where the James Lovelock scenarios become reality, we lose two thirds of the world's population, etc.

The game plan has to be:

1. Cut energy use drastically (the easy, profitable, wins). > ten years. Mainly a first world activity at first (Denmark and Japan have done it, the rest of us haven't), but making sure developing world leapfrogs to best practice

2. "Re-industrialise" into a zero-net-carbon economy. Start now, but it'll take 20 years at best, probably 40.

3. Prepare to sequester a lot of C02. R&D needs a few years, but by 2020 we should be able to start with industrial scale sequestration everything from biochar/forestry type solutions to large plants in deserts to liquify C02 from the air.

It's do-able, with industrial mobilisation levels like WW2.

There's a separate discussion to have about financing this (that's the area I'm working on) but that's eminently do-able as well.

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