Realised I’ve posted close to nothing here recently so I thought I’d let y’all in on an article I wrote for the Sydney University Climate Action Collective, of which I am a member. It’s shorter than most of the stuff I write on here, and an even *shorter* version appears in our Zine. Enjoy!
In Australia, the majority of carbon emissions are produced by the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas, to generate electricity. When adding in the emissions from transport fossil fuel usage amounts to 70% of Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions. A rapid transition away from fossil fuels must be the most crucial aspect to any plan to fight climate change.
Renewable energy technology is quickly reaching the stage where it can replace fossil fuels. A 2010 report by the non-profit group Beyond Zero Emissions in conjunction with the University of Melbourne estimates that Australia could generate all its electricity needs by 2020 with renewable energy technology that is already available. Under the plan, 40% of Australia’s electricity would be generated by wind farms placed strategically around the country to ensure baseload power. The remaining generation would be provided by concentrated solar thermal power plants. The plants consist of thousands of mirrors that concentrate heat energy from the sun on a single molten salt tower. The salt can in turn be used to generate steam for use in turbines, as well as being stored for 17 hours, allowing for the generation of electricity well into the night or during cloudy days.
Such plants are already in existence around the world. The best example is the Gemasolar plant in Spain. Opened just last year, the plant has already generated electricity continuously for 24 hours, and is able to run consistently during the peak demand period between noon and 10pm.
The Beyond Zero Emissions plan is estimated to cost $370 billion over ten years, averaging about 3% of GDP a year. Whilst this would clearly be a very large expenditure it would still be within the amount that was spent to put Nations on a war-footing during World War 2, or what has been spent to bailout banks during the global financial crisis. Importantly it requires government intervention. Renewable energy technology is prohibitively expensive to the private sector, with little short term profit to be made. Yet the only way to reduce the cost is with a massive rollout of renewable energy infrastructure, which would bring with it experience and mass production. Only the Government and the Public Sector would be able to provide such investment.
Not only is renewable energy required to fight climate change, but a series of infrastructure is required to reduce emissions. A new grid would have to be planned and constructed to connect the new power plants to places of production and residence. Houses would need to be retrofitted with insulation and solar water heating. A massive upgrade of electrified public transport is needed to reduce reliance on automobiles, trucking and even aeroplanes. City planning would need to be used to increasingly integrate rural and urban centres to reduce unnecessary transport. All these elements necessitate central coordination and funding which could only come through the Government.
Instead of implementing such a program, the Gillard Government is relying on market mechanisms to drive the climate agenda. The $23/tonne carbon price is generally accepted as being too low to make renewable competitive. Even if the price was higher it would not deal with the structural disadvantageous that renewables face, such as the lack of an adequate grid. Government investment in renewable energy is based on the existence on private sector funding, further tethering public funds to the will of the market. In contrast, the Government is content in providing $12 billion per year in subsidies for fossil fuel use.
Rarely is the hypocrisy as clear as in the recent decision by the Federal Government to withdraw funding to the Moree Solar Farm on the basis that it failed to attract outside finance, whilst extending a $100 million grant to the HRL coal plant in Victoria. On top of this is the Liberal State Governments in both NSW and Victoria, which have recently passed legislation to severely restricting the construction of wind farms.
Despite the urgency with which climate change presents itself, both sides of politics refuse to deal with the crisis. Whilst the Coalition continues to wink at denialists, the ALP maintains its support for market based false solutions. What is needed now is Government investment and intervention to ensure the closure of the fossil fuel industry, with a massive ramp up of renewable energy technology in a democratic and equitable way.