The following essay was published today on ABC The Drum’s Unleashed website. It’s a repackaging and honing of some of the key lines of argument that have been developed on BNC by me, my guest posters, and the blog’s many regular commenters. I hope you find it a useful pointer to the way forward — or at least a sounding board off which further ideas can resonate.

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Climate debate missing the point

I’m increasingly of the view that the government, and indeed much of the classic ‘environmental movement’, are badly missing the point on climate change and energy security.

There’s a lot of recent debate about whether an emissions trading system is the right model for putting a price on carbon – or whether a simple tax, or a fee-and-dividend model, would be better. We argue about whether climate change is happening, or if it’s important, or whatever. Blah di blah.

There are also endless back-and-forth arguments about how much we need to cut our emissions by a given date, with no resolution. How many times have you heard an environmentalist cry “We must cut our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate change”, only to have a politician or industry spokesperson say “Australia is taking an economically responsible course of action by aiming for a 5 per cent cut below 2000 levels by 2020″. Who’s right? How do you parse this?

The truth is that we can never be sure until after the fact. We can’t be sure how hard we (and the rest of the world) must cut back on carbon emissions, and we don’t know how fast we need to do it.

Current science says that humanity would be unwise to emit more than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon over the entire period of industrial civilisation, yet we’ve already used up about half of that long-term ‘budget’. So, the sooner we start to cut, and the deeper we cut, the more likely humanity is to avoid really serious climate disruption and its many unpleasant consequences.

Further, we really don’t know how fast or hard we CAN cut back, or how much this will cost. Sure, we can look at ways to increase the efficiency of our energy use, and we can consider the current economics of ‘clean’ (low-carbon) sources such as nuclear, wind and solar energy. But are these options scalable? Can we build them fast enough to replace fossil fuels and yet maintain a reliable electricity supply? Will the rest of the world follow our lead, even if we do succeed?

To have any hope of answering these questions, we need a realistic plan for implementation. Not just ‘the market will fix it’ dream, but an energy plan that achieves our desired goal, is likely to work in the real world (that is, it relies principally on established or demonstrated technologies), and is economically feasible. The plan then needs to be executed, via directed and sustained action.

Clearly, this will require bipartisan support – at least in terms of agreeing on the general need for implementation – even if the details are up for political ‘fine tuning’. However, I’m confident that we can get agreement for reasons well beyond climate change – avoiding local and regional pollution, long-term energy security, avoiding peak-oil-related shortages and fuel price escalation, increased need for desalination and intensive agriculture to support a growing population, and so on.

What would such a plan look like? Well, I’ve certainly got one in mind, but it’s probably rather different in detail to yours. Yet, disagreement doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to get broad consensus on the desirable, pragmatic elements that are required for any workable plan.

First up, it can’t bankrupt us. Actually, I’d go further than that. If we really want to guarantee that a plan will get majority support, it can’t really afford to cost more than our current system. Here I’m reminded of a quote from a friend of mine, Californian entrepreneur Steve Kirsch:

Pouring money into token mitigation strategies is a non-sustainable way to deal with climate change. That number will keep rising and rising every year without bound. The most effective way to deal with climate change is to seriously reduce our carbon emissions. We’ll never get the enormous emission reductions we need by treaty. Been there, done that. It’s not going to happen. If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.

Is it possible to find ‘clean energy’ alternatives that are cheaper than coal, oil and gas? Not immediately, no, but it should be possible – indeed, inevitable, when future supply constraints are considered – if we avoid unnecessary and unfair regulatory and investment burdens. I suspect that if a proposed plan requires massive, permanent subsidies to work (such as ongoing feed-in tariffs, purchasing mandates or energy certificates), it’s probably a dead duck. Loan guarantees to kick-start private investment – which are not subsidies, but risk management aids – seem like one of the most effective forms of government intervention to making things happen.

Second, the plan must be logistically and technologically feasible. Massive transmission grids linking Australia to Asia to Europe might be a great concept, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Space-based solar arrays or fusion power are far distant prospects, probably well beyond our lifetimes. We need to get serious about what’s here and now, or at least just on the horizon.

Finally, it must be technology neutral. All systems that meet certain underlying goals (low carbon, safe, able to effectively manage waste, sustainable, and so on) should be allowed to compete on a level playing field. A plan that says “no nuclear” or “no carbon capture and storage”, or one that imposes severe regulatory burdens on some technologies but not others, is really risky. Why? Because there is a good chance that the cheapest and most efficient solutions will be ruled out on ideological grounds, or for short-term political convenience: always a bad idea.

My considered view is that nuclear power will end up forming the backbone of any effective real-world clean energy plan, but I’d be just as happy if other prospective technologies, such as concentrating solar power or enhanced geothermal systems, are able to take a major role.

Yet, even if you disagree with my plan (or anyone else’s for that matter), you shouldn’t seek to ‘block’ any qualifying technology. And if you wish people to take your plan seriously, you must be prepared to tell them how much it will likely cost, what sort of support it will need to be put into action, and consider its implications for electricity grid stability, energy storage and sustainability.

In short, real-world energy plans have to work in the real world. Does yours?

BraveNewClimate.com - getting to grips with the brave new world of climate and energy; notes from a Promethean environmentalist
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