The missing link

Some years ago I wrote an essay entitled ‘What if it’s not emissions’. I was not in denial or even sceptical about climate change, more concerned that we had become fixated with emission reduction as the solution to climate change. So convinced had we become that it was a given that if emissions came down, we would have fixed that awkward problem and all will be well with the world.

My real issue was that we risked putting all our eggs into the emission reduction basket.

Burning landfill site, GaboroneAfter more years of political inaction than seems decent, the Australian government has just released a clean energy future policy on climate change. And, guess what? We still have the same fixation. The proposal is all about emission reduction, initially through a tax on pollution followed by a cap and trade system to make emitting greenhouse gas so expensive that no rational business could afford such behaviour.

It might be about emissions, but the policy formulation sees only a modest reduction target – 5% below 2000 emission levels by 2020. This means in 2020 Australia is pledging to emit 509 million tCO2e in greenhouse gases or 56 million less than it did in 2009.

Only by 2020, even with the proposed intricate emissions reduction policy fully functional, emissions of 679 million tCO2e are predicted.

Actual emissions will increase because the Australian population will grow in numbers at roughly 890 people per day, the economy will grow and so will affluence. Economic growth will require energy to follow the historical trend of a doubling in consumption every 30 years. And although the policy does talk about energy efficiency and alternative sources, the required capacity increase will inevitably be met by traditional means.

Emissions growth will leave a shortfall in the target of 170 million tCO2e or 30% of current emissions. So it would seem that the emissions reduction basket has few eggs.

This again begs the question ‘What if it’s not emissions?

Let us accept what the science tells us and agree that it is emissions that are a significant driver of the current climate warming. What the policy shows is that, rather like American debt ceiling, we cannot quite admit the severity of the problem. And, more importantly, we lack the courage to tackle the problem head on. It is just too hard and too scary.

And this would actually be ok if we hadn’t missed the critical issue in all this.

We have stopped talking about how 7 billion people are going to sustain growth in affluence on a warming planet. We have forgotten about adaptation. Forgotten that we will need to use water wisely, deliver sustainable production on farms, and manage our landscapes when the temperatures change, rains forget to fall, seasonality shifts, severe weather events become more frequent and the sea levels rise.

Less than $1 billion of the $25 billion revenue generated from the carbon tax will go incentive land management through carbon offset projects. They will mostly be Kyoto compliant activities such as permanent tree plantings and flaring methane – just as the international agreement to proceed with a second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol teeters.

There will be money for biodiversity initiatives. Good stuff, but just more of what we have already been doing.

What happened to incentives to revegetate the landscape and put carbon back into the soil? The critical activities that will help us manage that scarce water, produce reliable quantities of food and help save what is left of nature. Missing, presumed dead.

Seems like we should ask again, ‘What if it’s not emissions?

Forest for the trees

There is a consensus among climate scientists that the net greenhouse gas emission reductions we must achieve to keep warming below dangerous levels cannot happen without the agricultural sector. They are right, it can’t.

There are three reasons for this assertion.

The first is that emission reductions from energy efficiency, mitigation and renewable projects will struggle to keep pace with ever-growing emissions from global energy demand. Mitigation projects in energy sectors will slow emission rates but leave legacy emissions in the atmosphere.

The second reason follows from a need to deal with this legacy. Smart agricultural and forestry practices can suck back CO2 and store it in vegetation and soil – so-called biosequestration. In Australia the sequestration potential in agriculture alone is 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (CO2e) per annum, or a quarter of Australian anthropogenic emissions with the bonus that soil with more carbon in it is far better for production that soil with less.

The third reason, and the big one, is land clearing. Globally we are still cutting down forests to grow food at a rate of 35,000 hectares a day, or an area equivalent to the urban footprint of Sydney every five days. On its own, this source accounts for 18 per cent of global emissions.

The problem is how to reduce land clearing.

We have cleared vegetation ever since we invented agriculture some 10,000 years ago and even the Ancient Greeks knew that clearing altered climate. Yet we can’t stop ourselves, because mechanised agriculture has become the engine of prosperity from Persia to Pennsylvania. It is quite something to tell a government minister that his government should forego the economic opportunity and the social security a robust agricultural sector brings. “Why not develop available land,” he will say, “there are mouths to feed.”

It is much easier to sell the idea of keeping the trees to the indigenous land owner, who is pained when forced to fell his trees to fund his children’s education.

And this is the nub of the matter. For what we have cleared are forests – vast stands of carbon locked up in the timber and in the soil that supports the trees (at least 40 per cent of the carbon even in the tallest rainforest is in the soil as plant roots and organic matter). Even where the logs are taken for product, clearing releases the carbon from the tree branches and roots through fire or decomposition and as exposed soil dries out, so the carbon oxidises to the atmosphere.

Enter a hugely contentious solution called REDD, reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. The text of the Copenhagen accord describes what it means:

We recognise the crucial role of reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation and the need to enhance removals of greenhouse gas emission by forests and agree on the need to provide positive incentives to such actions through the immediate establishment of a mechanism including REDD-plus, to enable the mobilisation of financial resources from developed countries.”

In short, the west pays to avoid deforestation and so help reduce that 18 per cent slice of global emissions.

REDD, and its latest manifestation REDD-plus (same idea but with wider scope), are criticised for two reasons.

REDD projects amount to welfare payments to the developing countries where the projects reside. And welfare is disliked by both giver and recipient.

Then there is a vociferous green argument against the market approach to delivery as in this case there will be cowboys and governments who rip off the funds before they reach the resource owners. So despite the accord, REDD has been slow to start.

Lost somewhat in this debate on clearing is another mechanism for reducing degradation of forests, Improved Forest Management (IFM).

This is where emission reduction comes from projects on lands designated for forestry. Mitigation is achieved through combinations of longer harvest rotations, improvements to silviculture, better harvest practices and a specific category of protecting forests that would otherwise have been logged.

Whatever the specifics IFM is more like a commercial transaction, industry to industry, and is more comfortable to buyers. The outcome is better managed forests that continue to sequester carbon while emissions are avoided. In the developing countries where these projects are most likely, the forests also remain to supply traditional use.

It would be unfortunate if arguments over REDD derailed or slowed the “immediate establishment of a mechanism …to enable the mobilisation of financial resources from developed countries,” as stated in Copenhagen, because IFM already exists as a mechanism that can deliver.

It would be cheeky to call IFM green, but it is definitely not REDD.


This piece first appeared in Climate Spectator in 2010.

Climate change policy: Does Australia need it?

The other day I listened to a presentation from the CEO of a company in the carbon game. Branching out from bio-energy, this company has developed smart technology to grow algae using the CO2 emitted from coal fired power stations.

It was an impressive story. The algae do what algae do in high-tech plastic bags and convert carbon dioxide to plant material at a claimed rate of up to 800 t per hectare (for comparison average wheat yield in Australia hovers around 1.5 t per hectare).  A quarter of the algal biomass harvested is extractable as vegetable oil and the rest as vegetable protein (dry pellets). The potable water byproduct is recycled back into the bags for the next batch of algae.  The list of salable items that can be manufactured from the algal produce was endless.

If I were an investor I would be muscling my way through the heavy hitters already camped outside the guys office and buy whatever shares I could. Not surprisingly the owners see no need to sell shares in the company to the public.

And the thing was that this particular entrepreneur, with a genuine smile on his face, did not care one iota about a carbon price, greenhouse gas emissions or a climate change policy. Why would he? He had salable products (oil and protein) that a host of buyers wanted, and he was making them from industrial waste (CO2) that everybody wants to get rid of. He had found a great win-win. And when that happens it’s all good, including in this case a powerful combination of greenhouse gas abatement and mitigation with the bonus of food production.

No doubt you are thinking, ‘Oh, but there has to be a catch’. And maybe there is in the scalability, sources of nitrogen, finding enough land next to power stations or many others we haven’t conjured up. The point is though, that the combination of smarts, entrepreneurship and willing investors can be a powerful tool when let loose on a problem.

If business actions can fix the climate problem, then why do we need policy? The reason is this. There are only a few courageous entrepreneurs and, especially in Australia, even fewer risk taking investors. This means that the rest, the mainstream who are risk averse and a tad timid, need help to solve the problem; and this is the role of policy. For policy can provide support, encouragement rules for a social climate that help us help ourselves.

Since the Australian government dumped its own Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, an emissions trading solution to what Prime Minister Rudd has called ‘the greatest moral challenge of our age’, the media has talked of backflips and the taxi drivers have expressed their disappointment at broken political promises. All the people I have spoken to are just a bit depressed at it all.

These reactions to political weakness are inevitable because we do need policy, we need it to give us confidence and in the case of climate change policy we need it now.

The hip pocket

A young colleague recently claimed that her generation has great concern about environmental ills. She thought that her y-generation all have deep feelings about the woes of our world. They want something done about it, especially climate change. She claimed that late alphabeters will be angry at any government that promised action on climate change but then reneged as the Australian government has just done.

“Are you sure,” I said, ‘won’t they vote with their hip pockets?”

“No they have all they need,” she said, “I mean we all have food and shelter and with those needs met we want to do the right thing.”

I believed her, at least the intent part. And I am sure it is how she feels herself having moved her own career path away from high finance into an environmental company. Unfortunately I don’t think that we have the freedom from basic needs that our apparent wealth implies.

It may be that most westerners are well fed, sleep in a bed, have a wardrobe, watch TV and take the occasional holiday. And it seems that all primary needs are covered (yes, it is true the TV is now a basic need according to the UK social services) and, therefore, higher values should mature. We should think about values beyond the basic, including care for the environment.

But this wealth, that supplies all the basics and more, has not given us emotional freedom. We are not free to think of higher things because we are still struggling to keep our wealth coming. We are locked into long hours of work to pay for large mortgages, excess food and more clothes than we could ever wear. And as we are at work we have to pay for someone else to look after the kids, and someone to do the washing, to mow the lawn and so it goes. In the end we have to keep the kids at home until they are middle aged to help us pay for it all.

And what if we just stopped? If we gave it all up in order to be enlightened, then the monetary flows so essential for our economies would stop as well. Our material world would collapse in a heap. And, well, it just can’t happen. Back to work we go, stressed to the max, a hand checking on the hip pocket.

Let us hope that I am just a cynic, a product of a different generation, and that the youngsters really do have a sense of higher value – although anyone who has seen a Lady Gaga music video may have to search hard for higher value.  Let us hope and believe that these youngsters will vote on their beliefs and give with their voice to help change the way we think.

Let us hope that they won’t vote with their hip pockets.


Recent raucous debate on climate change In the Australian parliament resulted in the Greens, a minor party with environmental leanings, voting twice with the opposition against a Climate Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) policy proposed by the government.

The CPRS legislation was an emissions trading scheme that would leverage market forces to drive behaviours of consumers and investors to cleaner more efficient energy options to lower emissions. I say ‘was’ because the policy option has just been shelved. This decision means that climate change will not be a central item in either government or opposition campaigns in the upcoming election, handy for both major parties.

And why did the Greens oppose the legislation? Because, they said, it did not go far enough. It was too weak and too kind to the heavy polluters. The reduction targets were a joke, so the rhetoric went.

This is a curious position for green politicians to take. The CPRS was an attempt to restructure the way we generate our energy and a mechanism that would money would be made from climate change adaptation measures. In other words legislation that would push more funds towards environmental benefit than any previous conservation measures in the country’s history. Instead there is no climate change policy and no serious debate on climate change legislation likely for at least another two years, possibly longer. And without a policy there is no emissions target at all.

Someone once said that the perfect can get in the way of the good. After the excesses that brought us anthropogenic climate change, it would be irony indeed if the desire for excess in redress scuppered the good.

Climate change policy on the shelf

So it finally happened. The Australian government has given up on its climate change legislation. After failing twice to get the bill passed through the Senate, dithering under opposition pressure and then realizing they have a tight budget to deliver, the Climate Pollution Reduction Scheme has gone.

Action on climate change was the core platform that effectively won the last election for the Labour party to put them in office after more than a decade in opposition. Much was promised but all that happened was a photo opportunity for the prime minister in Bali, failed legislation and some tantrums in Copenhagen. Under Australian parliamentary law, two knockbacks on a bill is enough for the government to call an election, a double dissolution. They didn’t, instead they put the bill to one side until 2013 at the earliest.

An election is due, however, so why risk public frustration over broken promises? Because the analysts have figured that public interest, concern, will, call it what you will, has lapsed from the Inconvenient Truth fuelled clamor for policy action so prevalent during the last election campaign. The public will forget or forgive the failure to deliver policy on climate change because the issue is no longer important. At least not sufficiently to affect the result so long as climate change is not an election issue. A double dissolution would have put the issue front and centre, so better to just shelve the legislation.

The real reason the CPRS ended up on the shelf is money. Searching for the A$5 billion needed to fund health care reform and a budget already hit hard by huge incentive spending still in place to cushion the effects of the global financial crisis, the CPRS was simply too expensive. And, as everyone knows, voters vote with a hand firmly on their hip pockets.

Read more on the importance of climate change policy action at Greencollar Think Tank

It is very hot today

It has been hot and humid here for the past two weeks. Even the trees are wilting. Needless to say the media are onto it.

‘Is this heat wave global warming?’ they ask Dr David Jones, Acting Head of the National Climate Centre in Australia.

‘It’s a complex discussion. What global warming does is… it increases the frequency of hot events and decreases the frequency or likelihood of a cold event.’

I wonder how many of us know what this solid answer from Dr Jones means?

Is it hot because of global warming? No, it is hot because it is summertime. And in the Australian summer there is a chance that it will not only get hot, but also that it will stay hot for several days. Down under hot means over 40 degrees Celsius. What Dr Jones was saying is that as the globe heats up, so there will be a greater chance of these warm events occurring.

It is like weighting a coin. Spin a normal coin and there is an equal chance that it will fall heads or tails. Put a little extra weight on the head side and it will fall head side down more often than 50% of the time.

So warming weights these hot events, they are more likely to occur.

Global warming is really global climate changing. Especially change in the frequency of certain events.
Dr Jones did a good job. It’s a tough gig being the person everyone asks when there is a question about the climate.