Tipping Points in Australia's Climate Change debates. Where to now?

Tipping Points in Australia's Climate Change debates. Where to now?
Image: Lannon Harley, ANU
Thursday 6 February 2020

By Dr Dorothy Horsfield, Foundation Fellow, Australian Studies Institute

This article appeared first on the Russian International Affairs Council website, January 27, 2020 - view here »

A record-breaking high summer came early to Australia in 2019. By October, the daily weather map of the country was charting the rapid spread of catastrophic bushfires in disparate regions across the entire island continent. This meant recurrent, intense weather events that combined 40°C temperatures, ferocious winds and dry lightning storms, in which sparse rainfall evaporated before it reached the ground. With the forecasts came repeated warnings: the country’s substantial resources and manpower provided no guarantee the fires that were erupting in such conditions could be contained. Nor that local people and properties could be safeguarded.

For months on end came each day’s tally of the nightmarish realisation of the forecasts. By early January 2020, almost two million hectares of the countryside had been reduced to blackened landscapes. Among the hardest hit were the eastern states where 80% of Australia’s population live. Out-of-control fires in the tinder-dry old eucalypt forests and remote mountain bushland were merging into megafires. Along a 1000 kilometre front on the New South Wales seaboard this meant up to 60 metre walls of flame and ember showers that created windblown spot fires up to 30 kilometres away. With little chance of saving their homes, residents of towns and villages evacuated to makeshift community centres and nearby beaches. An estimated 800-900 houses were destroyed, with a higher number anticipated as evacuated families gradually return to streets of rubble and ash. Driven by the strong winds, a thick, toxic pall of grey smoke had also blanketed coastal areas, as well as inland regions including the national capital of Canberra. Peaking at around 20 times acceptable levels of pollution, the pure mountain air of Australia’s showpiece garden city now had an Air Quality Index that was among the highest in the world. The city’s government handed out free face masks, advised its citizens to stay indoors and for a time closed public institutions and offices. With the sun a spectral red in a sepia-coloured sky, the result was a sensation of eerie, off-world emptiness. As one commentator suggested, the bushfires were like some relentless, hellish creature stalking Australians from all directions.

Meantime, the season of horror and catastrophe has brought renewed momentum to the country’s climate change debates. These are strongly politicised debates. With at least a thirty-year history, they have ranged from the baneful nonsense of the Far Right’s outright climate change denial; to a hesitant, ill-informed scepticism about the limits and accuracy of the science that links Australia’s weather patterns of recurrent droughts, floods and bushfires to wider global climate change; to claims that our carbon emissions are insignificant when compared to those of China, Russia or the US; to apocalyptic predictions of an imminent ‘sixth extinction’ caused by wilful ignorance of the extent of humankind’s destruction of the planet’s eco-systems. In more recent years, there also has gradually emerged qualified optimism that innovative, adaptive technologies can and will provide solutions to the environmental threats.

But in the wake of the bushfires, the prevailing consensus among Australians is challenging the confusion and complacency generated by these debates. To an angry public, the destruction wrought was unarguably unprecedented and only explicable in terms of global climate change. This is evident across social media outlets, the mainstream press, elite opinion makers, the emergency services, the rural towns and farming communities, the more progressive voices in the corporate sector, and to the thousands of anti-government demonstrators on the streets of the state capitals calling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s dismissal. Their insistent view has been that their country was blindsided by its third-rate governance under Morrison’s extreme Right-Wing leadership. Specifically, this has meant federal government inertia, dismissal of warnings by independent experts, and funding cuts to key bureaucracies, climate change research institutes and fire control services. The result has been that Australia was drastically ill- prepared for the impact of the coming summer of extreme temperatures combined with prolonged drought.

Moreover, the Morrison government has been widely accused of falling back on traditional, nationalistic ‘meet and beat’ rhetoric. Here what is implied is that we resourceful Aussies would voluntarily rise to the challenge of the seasonal bushfires and emerge victorious. It has also been the Prime Minister’s sloganizing term for his repeated claim that Australia continues to advance towards its 2030 carbon emission reduction targets. For the country’s climate change researchers, and probably most of the rest of the world, this last apparent reassurance severely strains credibility. Not least this is because the current fires have been belching poisonous carbon monoxide and dioxide into the stratosphere, already reaching approximately twice the levels of Russia’s 2019 Siberian wildfires. According to data from a December, 2019 World Economic Forum Report, the bushfires had already pumped out half a year’s CO2 emissions. As well, the report warned that ‘vegetation vital for absorbing CO2 is being destroyed by the blazes.’ To paraphrase a recent media headline, when it comes to climate change debates, ‘Australia has a serious bulldust problem.’ In short, Prime Minister Morrison’s ad hoc political strategies have been perceived as omitting any substantial forward planning or persuasive policy agenda.

All of which raises the question of the extent to which the bushfires might prove to be a turning point towards a more enlightened, informed plan to protect and nurture our environment. The concern is that it might be slow in coming. With some fires yet to be extinguished and smog predicted to choke cities and regional areas at least until April, 2020, for the immediate future the focus is on clean-up and recovery. The Morrison government is providing a two billion dollar funding package for a range of welfare services and for rebuilding communities, as well as for the millions of injured birds and animals to be rescued, nursed and relocated to surviving bush habitats. Australia’s Defence Forces have also been deployed to help in the recovery efforts. Though much needed, it is a strategy that has been satirised by one of Australia’s leading political cartoonists as a panicked Morrison with his backside on fire holding out a fistful of dollars to a scornful polity.

What then of this alleged absence of substantial national policy-making, of the urgent need for transformational planning as the world changes? At a grassroots level the bushfires are already proving to be a further stimulus to a long list of environmentally conscious initiatives, from the rejection of plastic packaging, to voluntary community replanting of tree coverage and grasslands, to fashionable inner-city restaurants surrounded by their own patches of homegrown vegetables, to eco housing design that includes the use of fireproof materials and air filters, to cycling to one’s workplace. For example, in Canberra its territory government guidelines require all new housing to include a water storage tank under the foundations and solar panels on the roof; there is a network of bicycle paths across the city, weekend markets for regional organic farm produce, and fenced sanctuaries to protect native wildlife, which are monitored by park rangers. In line with other state capitals and countries, the city is also phasing out the use of gas, as a stepping stone towards a target of zero carbon emissions by 2045.

With the hope of a more fundamental impact that transcends federal government complacency, there is also an expanding, grassroots focus on the applied science of long-term regenerative agriculture, whose aim is to rescue the arid, drought-ravaged farmlands. Its methodologies go beyond the long-standing European techniques of artificial soil fertilisation and piped irrigation, of the kind that have risked turning the inland lakes and river systems, most notably the Murray Darling Basin, into shallow, permanently-polluted puddles. Instead the starting point is a geographical survey to identify the potential of a degraded, natural water course. The next step is the planting of an abundance of native trees, shrubs, reeds and rushes along its banks and erecting stock proof fencing. As well, ‘live weirs’ are built at intervals to provide erosion control structures that slow water flow and help to reinvigorate the surrounding floodplain through spreading seepage. Within a decade or so the result is described by its practitioners as: a healthy, vibrant ecosystem, filtering water through its extensive reed beds, capturing flood sediments, recycling nutrients and providing complex habitat for birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs, fish and invertebrates. Productivity on the floodplain also increases by around 60%.

The success of an initial project on Mulloon Creek in the New South Wales hinterland has not only been profitable, but has led to establishment of the Mulloon Institute. The Institute has since been selected by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) as among its top five for its world class development of environmental resilience alongside agricultural productivity. Its current aim is to facilitate 100 landscape projects across Australia and internationally that are similarly profitable and sustainable. Incidentally, it has also been pointed out that these methodologies might well have prevented the fertile gardens of ancient Mesopotamia’s Tigris/Euphrates floodplain becoming the deserts of modern Iraq.

What follows considers a more comprehensive national economic plan that addresses directly the failures of successive, backward-looking conservative governments in preparing the country for the savage onslaught of climate change. The plan incorporates more than a decade of econometric monitoring by the University of Melbourne’s Professorial Fellow, Ross Garnaut, that compares the rising financial costs of maintaining our fossil fuel industries with the profitability of transitioning to renewable energy sources. When he began his study in 2007, Garnaut says, his data confirmed the prevalent assumption that a transition economy based on renewable energy and zero carbon emission technologies would be marked by a period of austerity detrimental to both developed and developing countries. His most recent book, Superpower Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, published in November 2019, reviews his earlier data, concluding that such economic considerations have changed fundamentally and will continue to do so. Falling global interest rates which have reduced the cost of capital, combined with the likely rising price of fossil fuels as a result of increasing demand in large developing countries, is making products and projects that reduce green-house gas emissions more lucrative alternative investments.

In addition, there have been relatively rapid transformative cost reductions in machinery for producing electricity from wind and sun, in battery storage of electricity, and decarbonisation through electrification of transport and in other areas from small to medium businesses to large-scale manufacturing. In other words, for an imaginative, forward-looking company there is a considerable wealth to be made in the transition economy. Garnaut also concludes that Australia is singularly blessed with the geography and resources to be a front-runner in the creation of multi- billion dollar domestic and export industries in renewables. ‘If we all understood the economic value of a transition to renewables,’ he says, ‘we could move from policy incoherence to hope.’ With regard to the issue of whether wishing makes it so, of whether despite his detailed pursuit of statistical evidence in the dismal thickets of economics, Garnaut errs on the side of optimism, his book elucidates a couple of core Australian case studies. The first charts his personal experience of applying research-based knowledge in partnership with private-enterprise. In 2015, he became Chairman of Zen Energy, a South Australian company, with plans to scale up from a relatively small supplier of solar energy and battery storage technology to providing renewables to entire communities and industries. In 2017, the company merged with the British- based, multi-billionaire, Sanjeev Gupta’s global GFG Alliance. Though the evidence is not yet available, the rebranded SIMEC Energy Australia has claimed it will supply 100% of South Australia’s electricity needs by 2019. As Garnaut puts it: ‘…what in 2008 and 2011 I had perceived to be a possibility of modest dimension had become a high probability of immense economic gain.’

A second of a number case studies outlined in Garnaut’s book is the massive investment in solar farming in the semi-desert expanses of Northern and Western Australia. A $20 billion development by a Singapore-based company, Sun Cable, together with substantial planning and investment by two of Australia’s wealthiest men, Michael Cannon-Brookes and Andrew Forrest, is currently building what it promises will be ‘the world’s largest solar farm.’ The plan is for a 15,000 hectare array of 10-gigawatt capacity panels, backed by battery storage, which would not only supplement domestic electricity needs. The clean energy would also be exported to Singapore, using a 4500 kilometre, high-voltage, submarine cable. The company’s Chief Executive, David Griffin, describes the project as capturing ‘one of the best solar radiance reserves in the world,’ adding it will operational in less than decade. Further to the west in the Pilbara region, plans are also currently being developed by the Asian Renewable Energy Hub for an even bigger wind and solar hybrid plant, using giant wind turbines and solar panels. The electricity generated would be used primarily to run a hydrogen manufacturing hub to supply a proposed export market in Japan and South Korea.

Among many other researchers, Garnaut describes these projects as climate change mitigation. Implicit here is the deep-seated global concern that they will not be adequate in meeting the imperative that carbon emission increases should be less than 2% - and preferably closer to 1.5% — with a reduction target of zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the acceleration of catastrophic weather events. There is some comfort to be had for Australia in his findings that the country is already embracing a global trend towards a transition economy. But Garnaut also implies that there is little to be gained from a federal government that has continued to stump the debates for renewables against fossil fuels. Instead, state government support, grass roots initiatives, private sector enterprises, expertise that informs new developments, global partnerships and investment have been emerging as a way forward to a more hopeful future.

Dr Dorothy Horsfield is a Foundation Fellow in the Australian Studies Institute and is a member of the Steering Committee of the university’s Emeritus Faculty. She has a Master of Strategic Affairs (Hons) from ANU, a Master of Science (Hons) from London School of Economics and Political Science, and a PhD in Post-Soviet Russia from ANU. She has worked as a journalist in Moscow, the UK, Berlin, Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan, the Thai-Burma border and Australia. She has published five books of both fiction and non fiction, as well as poetry and articles in academic journals and in the wider print media. Her most recent book, Russia in the Wake of the Cold War Perceptions and Prejudices, (Lexington US) was published in 2017.

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Updated:  7 February 2020/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications