By KIERAN FINNANE
Perhaps because this can be a hot place anyway, there was little heat in the Alice Springs conversation with the Climate Commission; and perhaps because it’s an expensive place to live anyway, there was no whinging about the “great big tax”. The science was clearly accepted; people’s interest was in ‘where to from here’.
Were the commissioners worried, then, that they were preaching to the converted? This was put to them from the floor, with the speaker expressing concern over the polarisation of the debate in Australia.
Gerry Hueston, recently retired President of BP Australasia, representing a business perspective on the commission, pointed out that both major parties accept the science and both are committed to reducing emissions by 5% of the 2000 level by the year 2020. The debate is in how to go about it.
We’ll never get “perfect policy” coming out of the democratic process, said Mr Hueston, but we can get policy moving in the right direction. At the moment, short-term political issues are getting in the way but that will shift. In the USA, despite division at the national level, a lot of individual states will soon be more progressed in their climate change adaptations than Australia is, he said.
Commissioner Dr Susannah Eliott, an expert in science communication, said it was important not to be too focussed on the media’s tendency to highlight difference (rather than convergence). She wasn’t worried if the audience was “converted”, as they would all be “communicators” and providing them with good information would lead to more conversations in the community, based on better knowledge.
There was some concern about the impact of the Clean Energy Act, passed this week, on the poorest people in the region. Mr Hueston explained that the legislation has taken this into account through the tax system, raising the tax threshold and decreasing taxes at the lower end. This measure should more than compensate for rises in electricity costs, he said.
The perception that people in remote communities needing to travel to town for services will be hit by rising fuel costs was corrected by Chief Commissioner and former Australian of the Year, Professor Tim Flannery: the tax is on the big polluting companies; fuel for personal vehicles is exempt. Fuel prices may go up but that will have nothing to do with putting a price on carbon, he said.
Disproportionate impact on remote communities
Professor Lesley Hughes, a biological scientist who has contributed to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that it is acknowledged that climate change will impact disproportionately on the most vulnerable, among them people in remote communities, and that the commission will be releasing a report highlighting this situation – though not necessarily providing answers.
Mr Hueston was asked whether the business community accepts “the science”, given the misinformation abroad in the national debate. He said the majority either accepted the science or accepted that climate change is a “significant risk”: when you’ve got “97% of the world’s best scientists” saying that the science is “unequivocal”, then you realise you have to “take out some insurance”, he said.
He said most businesses in his field have been factoring in a price on carbon for a number of years now. What businesses want most is certainty about policy and price, he said.
Professor Hughes was challenged on her statement that with climate change Central Australia can expect more and more intense fires. Fire scientist Grant Allan of Bushfires NT suggested that this was a “southern view”, pointing out that our fires are driven by rainfall generating high fuel loads. A hotter drier future would present fewer rather than more opportunities for the landscape to burn, he said, emphasising also that fire is an important land management tool that, regardless of climate change, we need to continue to use and learn how to use it better. Professor Hughes took his point, acknowledging that adaptations need to be regionally specific.
There were a number of questions about urban density. One speaker criticised the Australian trend towards bigger houses. Professor Flannery said this had come about on the back of cheap energy but that it will change as energy prices rise (as they have done recently in NSW by 40% – nothing to do with a carbon price).
Far-flung Kilgariff wise?
Domenico Pecorari asked the commissioners if there was “any wisdom” in the creation of Kilgariff as a suburb “far-flung” from the town. He prefaced his question by asking whether there were any aldermen or politicians in the room. There weren’t – “Why am I not surprised? The people making decisions about the town … are the least informed in my opinion,” said Mr Pecorari. (Environment Minister Karl Hampton was represented by his minder, Mandy Taylor.)
Professor Flannery answered diplomatically: there would be contact with other groups in the community, including politicians, during the commission’s visit; and, any development now is a “splendid opportunity” to develop low environmental impact, energy-efficient urban design solutions.
Should people even live in Alice Springs or should we all move to high-density urban centres, asked a woman from the floor.
Professor Will Steffen, Executive Director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, was familiar with some research in Canberra showing that people living in high density housing used less water and less electricity than people living in the suburbs. He said one of the big issues with densities is transport, a big greenhouse emitter. High density living provides the opportunity for the development of very good public transport and greatly reduced emissions.
Mr Hueston expressed his amazement at the continued development of new suburbs on the outskirts of Melbourne without “any proper transport infrastructure”.
Scott McConnell suggested that the growth of the human population “was the elephant in the room”. Professor Flannery agreed that it’s an issue. Most of it will come from the world’s 40 poorest countries, where women have an average 5.5 babies. Providing benefits to these women through a proper foreign aid program is the best way the richer countries can help hold down the increase in population, he said. (History shows that with improved education and economic opportunities women choose to have fewer children.) If this happened, population could be limited to eight billion by 2050 (the most optimistic scenario), as opposed to 9.3 billion.
Mr McConnell also suggested that we (in the developed countries) may have to “give up something” in order to allow people in “the third world” fulfillment of some of their development aspirations.
Professor Flannery thought that we could start by paying for pollution, which would lead to the development of cleaner, cheaper technologies with a much better chance of sustaining a population of eight billion.
Locking up productive land for carbon farming?
Another speaker took up the population theme, linking it to food production and asked if there was any sense in government spending money on locking up productive land for carbon “farming”.
Professor Flannery said he wasn’t familiar with local circumstances, such as the carbon sink developments on Henbury Station, but that he’s talked to lots of farmers and graziers, who are looking at the opportunities of doing both: viable food production and carbon sequestering. For example, some graziers in northern Australia would be happy to lock up the “rough country” for carbon sequestering, while continuing to run their herd on more accessible country.
As we develop more experience with carbon farming – for example, changes in burning regimes – we’ll find more opportunities for doing both: it’s not an either/or situation, he said.
Jimmy Cocking of the Arid Lands Environment Centre asked about the emphasis of the Clean Energy Future policy on mitigation (reducing emissions) with “not a lot in there about adaptation”.
Professor Hughes noted the funding support from the current and previous government of adaptation research, but Mr Cocking was concerned more about money being available, through something like the Sovereign Wealth Fund, to future generations when the economy may have deteriorated and there may not be the money to pay for adaptive infrastructure.
Mr Hueston was sympathetic to this, saying that Australia runs the risk of squandering the short-term benefits it is getting out of the mining boom.
A question was asked about the possibility of large-scale solar power stations.
“Anything’s possible at a price, said Mr Hueston, but even with a carbon price solar is still not seen as an economic “base load provider”. He said a new power station built today would likely be gas-fired, a bridging solution until renewable energy sources can deliver base load. Battery and storage technology is critical and a lot of research is going into that right now.
Carbon storage (drawing carbon out of the atmosphere by mechanical means and storing it underground) was the subject of another question. Mr Hueston said there a “hello of a lot” of work being done on this globally, not as much in Australia but it’s “bubbling along”.
“It won’t be that long before we see a trial on an industrial scale,” he said, but answers to the challenges lie in lots of different technologies and activities – there’s “no silver bullet”.
Pictured: Top – Professors Tim Flannery and Lesley Hughes at the ‘Climate Conversation’ in Alice Springs on Wednesday. Above right – Gerry Hueston, formerly President of BP Australasia. Above – part of the crowd, some 300-strong, taking part.