Kopenhagen is currently witnessing two comic relief shows. One is regularly seen in the amusement area known as Tivoli, and the other is the climate change conference. The core element of pure humour in the second circus is that the actions of many governments are diametrically opposed to their words, mainly for the benefit of a watching population that wants tough words but no real action. It is like watching one clown after the other pretending to be sad whilst laughing if the rest of the clowns backs are turned.
Let us over the fold once more review the core elements of the actions and the words in this debate, and let us start at home.
The actions of the Australian Federal and State governments are to prepare for more energy use in the future. Highways are being broadened around the country, tunnels are dug in Brisbane and elsewhere, and low petrol prices are being lauded as a good thing. Note for instance what the Australian Institute of Petroleum argues: Australian consumers clearly benefit from our highly competitive fuel market where retail petrol and diesel prices are among the lowest in the developed world. These highways are not just built for tomorrow: they are built to accommodate the expected increased traffic flow for the next 20 years. With the current technology this inevitably means more energy usage: whether they run on oil, benzene, gas, or electricity, they ultimately produce carbon emissions because even the electricity is generated by fossil fuels. If a decision were made to go nuclear, this wouldnt change the energy mix in use the next 10 years at least because it simply takes a long time for these reactors to be built. According to ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) Researcher Pat Mahony, given the long construction times required for nuclear power plants, as well as the time required to find a suitable site, conduct rigorous environmental impact studies, etc, it is unlikely that Australia would have a functioning nuclear power plant until at least 2025.
It is not just in infrastructure that we are preparing to use more energy. The desalination plant in Tugun, a major electricity guzzler, is now all but ready to start using more fossil-fuel generated power. According to the Federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts a desalination plant similar to Perth’s, even with energy recovery capability, will consume about 24 megawatts of electricity to produce about 45 gigalitres of water per year. This represents about 185,000 megawatt hours of energy per year. Desalination plants are also on the table or already being build in various other states, with proposals to build plants in Sydney, Wollongong, Melbourne and Adelaide and a plant under construction at Kwinana.
What goes for energy usage via water and roads, also goes for most other areas of major energy use: airconditioning is only going to be used more in the future since more houses are built in the warm north rather than the cooler south. Agriculture is in no way facing the threat of constraints to keep generating emissions. Airports are planning expansion, not reduction. Industry too has now been all but promised that it wont have to do much.
So where is the action in terms of emissions reduction? In what should be termed pure window-dressing areas, such as solar panels on the roofs of urban households. Large subsidies are used to put these solar panels up, even though urban private household energy consumption consists of only10% of total energy usage in Australia. According to the ABS total energy usage in Australia has increased by 15 per cent over the last six years (roughly in line with GDP which is set to double again the next 30 years), and households account for 12 per cent of our country’s energy usage.
The main con trick that Australian politicians are playing at the moment is of course to pretend that it is none of our business that much of the planned additional energy consumption of the rest of the world would happen in the shape of burning Australian coal. If Australian politicians (or its public) were serious about wanting to do something about climate change via emission reductions, then the number one thing it can implement tomorrow is to ban the export of coal and coal related products. This would quite probably increase the world price of coal and other fuels (which are substitutes), leading to higher incentives for other countries to truly reduce their usage of energy. That would consistitute ‘doing our bit’ and could be sold as ‘helping other countries reduce their dependency on coal’. It wouldnt even cost Australia that much because the total export of coal is worth only around 3% of total GDP. Better still, one could see it as a form of savings because it keeps the coal in the ground for the future. There are thus plenty of good environmental and economic reasons to simply stop exporting coal. Hence, you should understand the eagerness of the government to be seen to support an ETS more as a smokescreen to protect the coal exports rather than as a genuine attempt to help the planet, though I doubt very much that the involved government ministers realise that this is the actual effect of their actions. They probably truly believe they are trying to do the right thing.
What goes for Australia is true around the world. My country of birth, the Netherlands, pays tomes of lip service to the idea of emission reductions but is meanwhile planning 4 more coal-fired power stations to fuel the economic growth its public is still eager on! China is building roads, air conditioning, airports, and coal-fired power stations like there is no tomorrow. India and the other rapidly growing major states of Asia are close behind, and much of the coal they plan to burn to fuel their economies is expected to be dug up here. The idea that all these long-term investments into future energy consumption are going to be undone any time soon belongs to fantasy land.
Hence, what is really driving the agenda at Kopenhagen? The main thing to note is that world opinion has been convinced that emissions are something to be feared and that humanity should do something about it. Yet world opinion does not really translate into green votes. One might naively think that the strong public support for ETS schemes means the population really wants to reduce their personal energy usage and that of the country as a whole, but woe betide any mainstream politician who doesnt promise more growth and doesnt support planned increases in energy use! The same people who claim to worry about climate change have 4-wheel cars, fly around, have extensive air conditioning, and vote for politicians who promise to get them out of recession and into more energy usage. Hence the realist should drily note that there is a great demand amongst the general populace (seemingly around the world, not just in the Western countries) to pretend to do something about emissions, whilst the support to truly reduce emissions is minimal. We are in the fairly incredible situation where the world population virtually demands that their politicians perform a ritualistic rain dance in favour of emission reductions as long as nothing truly changes.
Hence the circus we now see in Kopenhagen. The watching public gets what it demands of the politicians: American, Chinese, and other ministers are making beautiful speeches about the need to preserve the planet and the dire consequences if real action is not decided upon now. Some of the small Island nation ministers actually seem to mean it too. Yet the big governments are at this very moment planning ever more emissions for the next 20 years. It is a circus show solely meant for the consumption of the home viewers who clearly demand a circus show. I challenge anyone who believes that the world will truly reduce emissions (whether a half-baked agreement is reached or not) to a bet on the actual growth of emissions in the next 15 years.
The one interesting aspect that may come out of this circus is that some of the truly interested nations, i.e. the pacific island nations, may learn from this conference that they have been duped and that the rest of the world will happily see their islands sink beneath the rising ocean rather than truly change their own way of life in terms of energy usage. The interesting thing then will be if these pacific islands (and some other, more powerful countries with large areas of low-lying vulnerable coastland) will decide their only real chance is to implement some desperate technological plan to cool the planet down (see: here). It may seem far-fetched at the moment but I wouldnt be surprised if we would quite quickly see a push towards experimentation with geo-engineering initiated by the Association of Small Island States. As I argued before, geo-engineering is the only realistic way forward if you’re really worried about global warming.