The historic and unusual election result of 2010 is an opportunity to hit the ‘reset’ button on the climate change debate and turn it in a more productive direction.
Whether we like it or not, it is this generation’s challenge to decarbonise the economy and provide for our energy needs in ways which will stretch our capacity for innovation to the limit. Government and civil society in every corner of the world is waking up to this challenge in different ways. In Australia, we see the drying of formerly productive farmlands and imminent threats to coral reef systems; in Russia the alarm bells ring with epic wildfires; north of the Arctic circle the debate rages around permafrost melting and the disappearance of summer sea ice.
The challenge is profoundly simple and formidably steep: to substitute the industrial foundation of fossil fuel combustion with zero carbon sources, within a timeline made perilous by years of political dithering. It is happening against a backdrop of resource depletion and entrenched poverty, and calls for a spirit of global solidarity and international leadership that recognises we’re all in the same lifeboat.
As we hit the reset button, it’s instructive to take a look at the findings of the ‘Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan’ produced in mid 2010 by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) (http://beyondzeroemissions.org/) and consider what it tells us.
If we choose it, within ten years Australia could be running on a combination of utility-scale baseload solar thermal plants and widely dispersed wind farms. The report tells us everything we need to know about the cost, timescale, land area and labour force requirements, even how much cement and steel it will take.
If we choose it, we can roll a large fraction of the urban transport task onto electrified light rail and revitalise our regional rail networks, dodging an oil import bill that is set to almost double from $16 billion a year to $30 billion by 2015.
If we choose it, we can start designing our homes to work with the climate instead of against it, creating comfortable and efficient dwellings and slashing electricity bills permanently.
If we choose it, our world class research institutions can link arms with a revitalised manufacturing sector to home-grow a massive export endeavour and provide the world with what the 21st century actually needs: cheap zero emissions energy, on an industrial scale, fast.
If we choose it.
The BZE study, if anything, undersells the jobs and investment potential of a renewable economy. The promise of geothermal energy is barely canvassed, and the local genius of the Carnegie wave energy system may even have to go offshore to get to the economies of scale that we should be encouraging here. An energy system founded on the essentially infinite flows of wave, wind and sun gives us a shot at permanently kicking the depletion habit: once the plant is built, the fuel sources cost nothing.
What these reports don’t tell us is how to crack the political paralysis that has beset Canberra and Parliaments around the country since Australia first signed the Framework Convention on Climate change in 1992. That is a job which properly rests with every Australian, on the streets, in the workplace and at the ballot box, and at long last it’s happening.
The first initiative of the Greens in the new Parliament was to jointly establish a cross-party committee tasked with delivering some form of carbon price, a key building block in turning the Australian economy toward the sun. The difficulties are immense and only time will tell if the gulf in policy differences between the parties can be surmounted, but at least the process has begun.
There is another path of course, which is to take our chances on the commodities boom, allow the big miners to liquidate the Pilbara and the east coast coalfields as rapidly as public infrastructure subsidies will permit, and walk backwards into the 21st century with our fingers crossed.
Until the dust had settled from the 2010 election, this appeared to be the default position of both the old political parties. The vision of Australia as a low-value quarry economy has had its day. Surely we’re better than that.
The next few years will give us the opportunity to find out.