Climate: A change is coming
Things are happening — both in our climate and our response to global warming — but which will happen faster? Climate Commissioners Professor Tim Flannery and Professor Lesley Hughes addressed an interested community at United Theological College’s “Perceptions on Climate Change” forum on June 6. Their update on the current state of the globe gave reason for both concern and hope.
The last time Climate Commissioners came to speak in Parramatta they were accosted by a sceptic in a penguin suit.
So it took some courage to return to the area soon after on invitation from the Uniting Church for a question and answer session at the Centre for Ministry in North Parramatta.
The Climate Commissioners are mandated to provide all Australians — both those in animal suits and the conventionally dressed — with an independent and reliable source of information about the science of climate change, the international action being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the economics of a carbon price.
The penguin incident suggests it has been a long and often thankless job trying to keep the public informed about the basic science, let alone the complexities, of the Earth’s climate. The overall aim is one they believe is worth persisting with in a democracy where public opinion plays an important role in shaping policy used to deal with a long-term, critical problem.
There is nothing new about the greenhouse effect or our understanding of it, said Professor Lesley Hughes, Head of the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University and a specialist on the impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems.
The atmosphere is changing. Human activities are making things warmer. Over the last 100 years nearly a degree of global increase in mean annual temperature has occurred resulting in rising sea levels and disproportionate increases in extreme temperatures. Oceans have also become more than 30 per cent more acidic than they were at the time of the industrial revolution.
What is hotly debated is what needs to be done to prevent the second degree increase during what the Climate Commission describes as “the critical decade”.
“We are already at one degree and we’re hoping we can keep the rise to below two degrees above pre-industrial times because it is generally considered that two-degree mark is where dangerous things start to happen,” she explained.
Professor Hughes began working on climate issues in the early 1980s — a point when few scientists were focused on climate change.
“Those who were thought it would be a long time before we saw a real impact,” she said.
“The thing that surprised us was that by the mid-’90s we were already seeing quite significant impacts with around a 0.6 degree of mean temperature increase at that stage. Since 1979 there have been nine bleaching events at the Great Barrier Reef. There had been none prior to that.”
She warned that it was also difficult to predict the moments that would act as ecological tipping points due to imbalance caused by loss of species.
“Fortunately there’s a lot of redundancy in ecology. There are a lot of species that do kind of the same thing. If you lose one it is a great shame from a heritage perspective and in my view from an ethical perspective, but other species can probably kick in.
“What we don’t know in most ecological systems, apart from coral reefs, is where those really critical physiological thresholds are. We really have very little understanding of that and most likely we won’t until something catastrophic goes wrong.”
One audience member used the first opportunity for questions to bring out the big gun: is it already too late? Are scientists using the word “hope” after the situation had shifted gears into what statistically appears “hopeless” or at the very least a task humanity has not proven itself capable of?
Professor Hughes stepped away from the science to offer a frank personal assessment.
“I am more or less hopeful depending on the day really,” she said. “I think most of us feel like that.
“It almost becomes a philosophical question rather than a scientific one. I think there are a lot of days where I don’t feel very hopeful at all. But I tell myself that if people give up, that if you lose hope, then it is hopeless. The only way we’ve got to save this planet is to just keep trying.”
Scientists and policy makers argue that developed countries like Australia need to start turning emissions down this decade, allowing for enough time or scope in the atmosphere for big developing nations like China and India to turn their emissions down in the following decade. Then the target of preventing a two degree rise could still remain likely.
In Australia, both sides of politics have committed to a 5 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 relative to 2000 levels.
“The depressing thing is that in the ’90s greenhouse gasses were increasing at around 1 per cent every year, last year it was close to 6 per cent,” said Professor Hughes. “So we are still accelerating our rate of increase of emissions and that is even with the GFC. Even the 5 per cent target is actually quite a substantial political thing to achieve.”
While the situation is grave, Professor Tim Flannery (Chief Commissioner, author, internationally acclaimed scientist and Australian of the Year in 2007) sees clear reasons for optimism in his work with international industries and governments.
It is an optimism that briefly faltered during the elongated closure of the 2009 Copenhagen meeting where, after founding the Copenhagen Climate Council to work with the Danish government towards good outcomes, the end result appeared disappointing.
“I went away fairly disillusioned,” said Professor Flannery. “But I overlooked something quite important actually, which was a document, produced by the leaders of six large countries, called the Copenhagen Accord.
“It was a really simple document; it just said that over time countries should pledge action to address climate change for which they would be themselves accountable.”
The resulting pledges from around 90 countries overall (if met) make up around half the cuts in emissions needed globally to prevent a two degree rise. Rapid development in the renewable energy sector could see cuts gaining greater momentum.
And Professor Flannery believes many signature countries are well placed to make and in some cases beat their pledges.
He is confident that Mexico will achieve its targets and that South Korea is highly motivated to become a world leader in the race for clean energy.
He said in China, where an absolute reduction in emissions is not possible, a reduction in emissions intensity has been set (restricting the amount of emissions put out for every unit of economic production).
“Over the last couple of years China has become the largest deployer of renewable energy anywhere. So wind and solar are being ramped up at a massive scale — at the same time as nuclear power.”
Even five years ago China was building new coal fired power plant every week. Professor Flannery said that program has slowed down dramatically and they are retiring their old plants at an unprecedented rate.
China has also pledged to trial an emissions trading scheme in its industrial heartland that will cover about a quarter of a billion (250 million) people and, in one province alone, more than 1,500 major polluters.
“We do know that it will be immensely difficult for China to do this because what they are talking about is developing a market-based mechanism in what is a regulated economy. So at the moment prices are set by committees of government for various things. And when you talk about creating a free market approach it is quite a fundamental change. Nevertheless the people I talk to in government are optimistic this will be achieved.”
In the United States, Professor Flannery noted different drivers to the emissions reductions. Aggressive car fuel efficiency standards have been brought in by the Obama administration, alongside new regulations around emissions of mercury in coal-fired power plants.
“Perhaps the most important shift in the last 12 months has been one-fifth less coal being burned in the US this year than the year before; an incredible change driven in part by a glut of natural gas with unprecedented low prices. Coal simply cannot compete.”
He sees the spike in gas to be an enduring trend that will have a significant impact due to the size of reserves.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the US comes in well in advance of its 2020 target of 17 per cent. We’ll need to see but conditions are favourable to reductions because of these factors.”
Overall, he thinks it will be an economic push rather than a moral one that drives us toward a sustainable energy future.
“I am quite optimistic about the extent to which renewable energy will cut in to the market place for a number of reasons. First and foremost among them is the very aggressive struggle that is going on within the solar industry to drive down production costs. You may have heard that BP Solar has closed down here. That is because the costs of production in places like China are going down so relentlessly and so steeply that virtually no-one can compete.”
Suntech Power, a Chinese solar company established by an entrepreneur studying at UNSW, has been reducing manufacturing costs by 10 per cent a quarter for the last two years.
“No-one can compete with that in the fossil fuel industry or wherever you are. Those cost reductions that continue on to everyone’s astonishment are bringing the costs of these technologies to within almost everybody’s reach.”
He said that Australia has been a coal-dependant country and is thus inevitably behind in the renewable energy race but there is evidence of progress.
“One of the things that gives me hope is that in the last three years, overall, electricity demand in this country has reduced year after year. And if you speak to someone like Grant King, CEO of Origin Energy, he is projecting large-scale reductions in energy demand in this country. That means some of the old plants need to be retired.”
Professor Flannery warned of the big differences unforeseen changes could make, citing the closure of a single, smaller-sized aluminium smelter in the Hunter Valley, which accounted for 3 per cent of energy use in New South Wales.
“As the global economy shifts and as companies find it is unprofitable to make aluminium in this country and they go to a place like Iceland that uses geothermal and hydro power, we may see very unexpected changes.”
He praised New South Wales for being the national leader in terms of Photovoltaic (PV) installations and said there is a growing awareness in regional New South Wales that money paid for electricity bills or energy costs generally leave the community.
“I was at Bathurst recently and the mayor made the point that that community spends 50 million a year on various forms of energy, petroleum and so forth. They could be generating their own electricity from PV and wind and the money would then stay in the community and circulate.
“People are thinking differently about these things now. I think there’s a change coming.”
Read more on the specifics of New South Wales at climatecommission.gov.au. To listen to a recording of the forum, visit utc.edu.au or call Suzanne Cullen on 8838 8915.