The Two Days that Changed the Face of Australia’s Energy Policy

This past week – perhaps even just these last couple of days – has proved incredibly significant in the context of Australia’s energy and climate concerns. Yesterday, the Government announced it will sign up to the Second Commitment Period of the Kyoto Protocol, avowing to keep to its current objective of a five per cent cut to emissions of 2000 levels by 2020. This may have been made possible by the public launching of the Energy White Paper, entailing the Government’s official policy on energy over the next few years, just one day earlier on Thursday. At the same time, coincidentally, two Professors at the Australian National University (ANU) published research which may prove to be a huge development in the pursuit of utilising hydrogen as an energy source, through coming to a breakthrough in  understanding how photosynthesis works.

So what do these developments mean for us Australians and what does it mean for our standing in the world? And how bright does our future look in regards to sustainable energy and climate concerns?

The Kyoto Protocol

Australia’s signing of the Second Commitment Period (2CP) of the world’s only legally-binding agreement to make concrete emissions reductions was a huge relief for observers who thought the Protocol’s momentum was dwindling. Thus far, only the EU, Switzerland and Norway had signed it before Australia and on the same day we did affirm our continuation of ratifying the Protocol, New Zealand vowed it wouldn’t. This follows the path of Canada, Japan, Russia and Ukraine who will not – or aren’t likely to – participate.

The non-involvement of these nations isn’t necessarily a bad thing; they may just be looking at other ways – based in flexible domestic policies rather than legally-binding multilateral agreements – to cut down their emissions. (Although this doesn’t look likely to achieve much, given Canada’s regressions in its mitigation responsibilities due to a backwards Harper Government, a Japan that has lost trust in nuclear energy and is suffering economically and a Russia who is realigning its political orientation towards BASIC and other non-Western blocs of developing nations transitioning into major economies, which cry foul whenever they are called to do more to help the global effort.) Nonetheless, Australia’s decision to continue with its Kyoto-style reductions is a great example of how it wants to be a global leader in mitigating climate change and sends a great message that other developed nations should commit to combating global warming.

But how serious is the Government’s intention to actually achieve its goals? Only time will tell, but hopefully it continues down the path of striving for an emissions trading scheme by 2015, which it wants to link up to the EU’s. If Australia forges a strong partnership with the EU, which is the world’s uncontested leader when it comes to being a shining example of how to go about tackling emissions reductions responsibilities, it could very well be setting an example of how a major economy can tackle a tough issue such as emissions trading. But, of course, this won’t exactly help cut down global emissions – it will only allow Australia to pay for other countries to do its dirty work for it. It has been unclear how Australia wants to tackle the problem of reducing emissions, until this week…

The Energy White Paper

The Government has made its ambitions quite clear in the Energy White Paper, launched on Thursday. These ambitions are inconsistent with what we are on track to achieve.

“As part of its plan to secure a clean energy future, the government has adopted a long-term target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent compared with 2000 levels by 2050,” the Paper stated.

“These goals will be reached through the measures implemented under the government’s Clean Energy Future Plan.”

As part of this Clean Energy Future Plan, the white paper says domestically, Australia will shift away from fossil fuels. It predicts the level of electricity being generated by alternative energy sources rising to 40 per cent in 2030 and potentially even 50 per cent by 2050. At the moment, 75 per cent of our power is generated by using coal. It also argues that carbon capture and storage would ”begin to make an important contribution by 2035” and will help boost the total generation of “clean energy” to 80 per cent of the total supply in 2050. It is suggesting that energy from coal will be “clean” if it can be successfully captured and stored, which is a reasonable argument.

However, carbon capture and storage need to make an “important contribution” much earlier than 2035 to help reduce emissions such that it can assist the international goal of capping the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, which is a more immediate problem. Moreover, while Australia may reduce domestic reliance on fossil fuels, it still plans to make use of its wealth of resources by exporting them overseas. The Paper boasts Australia’s energy resource projects worth $290 billion which it wishes to help “supply our domestic energy needs and service global energy markets over the coming decade”.  The table below shows the latest estimates of Australia’s energy exports by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, courtesy of ABC.

So what does this mean for Australians domestically? In the short-term, it means wealth and prosperity (hopefully). There are plenty of immediate economic advantages to utilising the apparent abundance of fossil fuels sources in our land and exporting them overseas (so long as we keep the profits within the country). But in the long-term, our prospects – both economic and environmental – are dependent on how well we manage to adapt to alternative energy sources in the short-term. This is the juggling act that the current Government and future Governments must handle with care. If our economy and industry remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels, as they currently are, then we will not reduce emissions at all and we will have an economy whose prosperity depends all on an unsustainable commodity (a combination of terms which spells doom to any savvy economist).

But beyond making its ambitions of severely reducing emissions and turning towards alternative energy sources and carbon capturing and storing, it remains to be seen how the Government is looking to do this – a bad omen when we require action as soon as possible. What’s even worse, the white paper pays little respect to environmental concerns such as global warming, and more attention to economic interests, which is a problem as it allows the Government to argue that it will perform its national duty of reducing emissions domestically, whilst at the same time exporting fossil fuels overseas for others to emit the carbon that we aren’t. I can’t put this in better terms as Ben Eltham did in his ABC article, a link to which can be found above:

“In general, environmental considerations appear to be ranked below those of resource security and economic growth. On page six, for instance, the White Paper lists eight “policy principles”. There is no formal mention of climate change, and “environmental considerations” don’t get a mention until principle number six, well below “long-term efficiency and productivity” (principle two), “well-functioning markets” (principle three) and “the long-term interests of consumers” (principle four).

This may seem like mere word play, but it isn’t. That’s because there is a massive contradiction at the heart of this White Paper – a contradiction that is never acknowledged. Despite dutifully building climate change in to the Government’s policy platform, the White Paper seems to think that carbon emissions resulting from Australian fossil fuels being exported and consumed don’t matter.

This is frankly nonsensical. All the coal and gas the government expects to be exported will be burnt. That is, after all, what overseas consumers are buying it for. And once it is burnt, that carbon will be released into the atmosphere. The same atmosphere that also circulates over Australia.”

At the end of the day, this is understandable given the context of our fragile position in this global financial crisis, but it is worrying for the overarching threat of a global environmental catastrophe. The path our Government, and we ourselves, tread in the future, both near and far, will then decide what kind of future it will be for us.

Hydrogen

Our energy future is indeed open for maneuvering. What is obvious and straightforward are the variables involved in our national decision-making process: the economic/productivity factors (for instance, what energy source is most cost-effective to consume, as well as what one is cheapest and most profitable to produce) and the environmental ones (what energy source is best for the climate, what is lest pollutant, etc), as well as the short-term and long-term considerations related to both. The path we need to take must maximise the benefits and minimise the costs.

It is fair to say we need to utilise our potentials in coal and oil while we have them. But we must start looking towards scientific and technological alternatives to begin turning our focus towards, now and not when it’s too late. The Government has acknowledged that we need to focus on cleaner energies, but has given a weak time frame and inconclusive strategies to do this. The problem with the cheap renewable energy forms which are easy to produce, existing today, is that they rely on intermittent sources – the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, etc. Other forms are just plain too expensive. Better and more cost-effective technology and methods of energy storage need to be invented for these to become commonly consumed.

On the same day as we announced we’d continue on with the Kyoto Protocol, the scientific journal, Angewandte Chemie, published research from two Australian National University Professors who used computer modelling to discover a natural method of producing cheap and limitless hydrogen. The findings have been marked as a breakthrough in research on photosynthesis, claiming that we can produce hydrogen in a lab simply by emulating the natural process performed by plantlife. The coincidence of the two announcements is interesting enough, but the research’s publication has great significance in the context of our energy future. It shows there is a plethora of possibilities we can look into with the development of scientific and technological answers to the economic/environmental debate over energy production. Hydrogen is one such example.

Hydrogen offers a fantastic alternative as a non-polluting, highly efficient fuel, but it is currently much too expensive to produce. In an interview with ABC radio program, PM, Ron Pace, one of the two Professors conducting this research, said: “basically we need a completely renewable source of storable liquid or solid fuel. Hydrogen is the best candidate because when you burn hydrogen to re-release the energy all you get is completely benign water vapour.” What’s more, it can be much more efficient than traditional electricity-generating technology such as gas and steam turbines for natural gas and coal fired plants, according to Samuel Sterling of Hydrogen Business Development. These may take up to 30 minutes to stop in order to produce the demanded electricity supply, whereas hydrogen is a much more powerful fuel source, starting combustion turbines in 10 minutes or less from a fuel cell in seconds. Therefore, hydrogen would be a much better alternative during peak-hour electricity usage (a problem, funnily enough, the Government wanted to address in the white paper).

If Mr Pace and his associates are right, the chemical details behind the process of drawing hydrogen from water and converting it to energy like plants do through photosynthesis will take a year to be sorted out. Then, he predicts it will give us “the opportunity to make hydrogen as a renewable fuel for the indefinite future efficiently from electricity”. We already know how to run combustion engines on hydrogen, so it would be easy to alter car engines to make them run off hydrogen. This could offer a fantastic solution to minimalising the pollution in transportation, a key part of the problem in both air pollution and global warming.

It still remains to be seen whether hydrogen can effectively replace the known and tested non-renewable energy sources we use today. But it is certainly worth trying to develop renewable sources such as hydrogen and other technological alternatives to help smooth the path towards a clean energy future, if that is really what the Government wants. It is proof that there are probably solutions to our need for clean, sustainable and cost-effective energy sources. And if economics are of concern to the nation, I’m sure the answer to the world’s sustainable energy and climate concerns will be worth a lot to a lot of people. So if Australians are the ones to develop the technology to utilise this energy source, then we should capitalise on our scientific innovation and try to translate that into economic and environmental benefits for the whole nation.

So the last couple of days may prove to be greatly influential for our nation’s future with regard to energy and climate concerns. The path we choose to take from here will determine whether we have a clean, prosperous and sustainable future, or a future which may prove wealthy but may also prove unclean, unsustainable and worst of all,uncomfortable to live in. There are things we can take from it and learn and things we can use to advance. But what’s certain is we can’t just keep on talking the talk without walking the walk, so to speak. We need to stop spinning rhetoric about action and actually make a move to strike a balance between our economic and environmental interests.

Image courtesy of Rebuilding The Nation: Australasia’s Infrastructure on the Move

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