Bush as global warming redeemer

Sometimes when under pressure Kim Beazley succumbs to a bout of unintentional candour:

I’ll tell you something else, too, because sometimes our opponents kid themselves on this. I did spend last week in Queensland trying to sell the policy we put forward on climate change, which was a very good policy indeed and I wasn’t getting this issue of our dispute raised at any point. But every time I boarded a plane and talked to the Qantas workers, all they wanted to talk to me about was our promise to tear up the Industrial Relations Act and the bottom line is, the Australian public moves to a very different agenda from yourself and from many of those who comment on politics.

Bomber forgot to mention that they move to a very different agenda from his own too. After all, Beazley so far this year hasn’t asked a single parliamentary question about Howard’s IR reform. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Porcine Pollie that the reason his climate change “blueprint” sank almost without trace might have been because it actually wasn’t “very good” at all. There was certainly the odd latte left blogger or old left op-ed pundit who could be counted on to write a laudatory phrase here and there, but that doesn’t make it a “very good” policy unless you’re a beleaguered political leader desperate to grasp any flimsy branch offering even momentary comfort.

In fairness, there were certainly a few positive aspects to Beazley’s climate change “blueprint” . A commitment to raising Australia’s mandated target for renewable energy from Howard’s miserable 2% to “more than” the ALP’s previous commitment to 5% will certainly be welcomed by the solar panel and wind power industries, and maybe even anyone with ambitions to develop tidal power (given that most of Australia’s northern coastline has huge tidal variation and abundant shallow waters ideally suited to tidal power). The negative aspect even here, however, is that Beazley lacks the ticker to tell us exactly what his proposed target will be, presumably for fear that Howard will get the Treasury beancounters onto it and scare the crap out of voters before Bomber has a chance to “cut through” with his dazzling talent for memorable circumlocution.

I suppose one might even welcome Beazley’s assertion that Labor in government will adopt a greenhouse gas emission target of 60% reduction by 2050. Although that depends on whether he intends mandating real reduction targets during the next political cycle. If not, it’s just empty political rhetoric, even worse than “no Australian child will live in poverty by 1990”. If Bomber really does intend real targets, it would be nice to know how he plans to achieve them given that there are currently no viable technologies (e.g. carbon sequestration) that would allow CO2 emitting industries to reduce their emissions. What about a 200% tax deduction for R & D expenditure on greenhouse-reducing technologies, to encourage the development of real alternatives? No wait, we can’t give the Treasury beancounters a glimmer of opportunity can we? Far better to release meaningless policies that sink without trace.

As for Beazley’s “commitment” to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, apart from being old ALP policy anyway, Kyoto is at best a largely symbolic start to real anti-global warming policies and at worst an empty exercise in feel-good tokenism, in that it doesn’t bind any of the countries expected to be the source of future increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

But the real cop-out at the centre of Beazley’s blueprint is summarised by Australian scientist Tim Flannery who, unlike Beazley, doesn’t lack ticker:

Dr Flannery’s stay in Britain fired him with optimism that governments and citizens were serious about fighting warming.

Then he read that the Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, had followed the Prime Minister, John Howard, in announcing that energy from coal was Australia’s future. “It’s like they’re in a totally different space,” he said of Australia’s leaders. “When you travel the world you realise that position cannot be sustained.”

This is the message he wants to bring home: Australia is disconnected from much of the world on climate change. …

“Our planet blazes into the night sky with frightening brilliance,” he said, describing how, from his plane seat, he had looked down at the vast cities of Asia and Europe with their lights on, hungry to consume power.

But Dr Flannery is a pragmatist. Asked whether he thought nuclear power was part of the solution, he said it was “inevitable, indeed desirable” that China and India use nuclear power for energy.

There was a murmur of displeasure in the crowd. The Blair Government is considering expanding its nuclear program, but the plan is contentious. Wind and solar power were the answer, Attenborough declared. People applauded, but Dr Flannery did not back down.

“I am not suggesting that nuclear power is at all problem-free,” he said. Coal-burning was so devastating that hard decisions had to be made.

Yet Dr Flannery believes strongly that although Australia should sell uranium, it should not go nuclear itself. Because of its reserves of gas, geo-thermal power, sun and wind, he doesn’t think it needs to.

Precisely, and about time someone credible said it. And yet Beazley’s “blueprint” unequivocally rules out the nuclear option, in yet another tickerless grovel to the ALP factions and Bob Brown. Does any greenie or social democrat seriously believe that China or India will (or even should) halt their remarkable economic growth because of a long-term concern about global warming, when no-one can say anything precise about its likely size, speed or distribution? China and India, as the world’s two most populous nations, are almost single-handedly driving down global poverty and inequality indices. Is that a dreadful thing? Should it be stopped? Are the chances of China or India actually agreeing to do so any greater than somewhere between Buckley’s and zero? Even British PM Tony Blair agrees:

“The truth is no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem.”

So how the hell do we tackle global warming seriously (assuming one actually believes it’s a real and serious problem, as I do) in light of those political realities? I reckon Flannery is dead right. We have to find a way to safely facilitate China and India’s increasing reliance on nuclear power, because the only current baseline power alternative is coal or oil. But the trouble is that the nuclear option at best gives us a 20 year breathing space unless we’re willing to embrace fast breeder reactors (which can fuel almost unlimited greenhouse gas-free energy almost indefinitely). But that in turn inevitably also means embracing reprocessing, whose products include the plutonium that goes into nuclear weapons.

But does that mean we’re doomed to Hobson’s Choice: unavoidable major global warming or nuclear armageddon? At least the global Satan George W. Bush is aware of the problem and proposes a solution, unlike the supine Beazley. That’s what Bush’s recent deal with India over nuclear energy was all about. And the Bush administration is even grappling with the reprocessing conundrum:

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, announced by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, Samuel Bodman, on February 6, 2006, is a plan to form an international partnership to see spent nuclear fuel reprocessed in a way that renders the plutonium in it usable for nuclear fuel but not for nuclear weapons.

I’m certainly not suggesting that the nuclear option is unproblematic either. But, like Tim Flannery, I really don’t see any other viable option. Nuclear is currently the only game in town. Feel free to disagree, but try to come up with rational arguments not just warm inner glow shibboleths.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Ken,

You don’t need to engineer all this you know. We don’t NEED nuclear. Double the cost of existing energy once or if necessary twice and all sorts of things become possible – things you won’t necessarily know about. Nuclear energy is one such, but there are lots of other options. Smart buildings exporting to the electricity grid from PV paints, crop based ethanol fuels etc etc. It just costs money. It will have a small effect on growth. Perhaps we can’t even manage that politically. But one of the problems here is an idea that we have to cripple our economy to achieve large cuts. That’s not true. Quite small incursions on our growth rate would do just fine.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Oh – and from a quick look at Beazley’s policy – I agree, it’s not much chop. But I suspect we don’t like it for different reasons. I don’t like the renewables target at all. The way to do this is emissions trading. Why aren’t we letting the market decide how to reduce emissions. Why do we know that renewables are the answer? And what’s wrong with trying to make coal clean with geo-sequestration. Why do you or Tim Flannery know that that technology is a loser?

meika
15 years ago

and there is not very much fuel for nuclear power, its a sideshow, part of the mix perhaps, but less useful in the medium and long term, and as such should be reserved for space exploration as it provides the biggest push per pound, wasted it on making tea or cooling drinks is pathetically indulgent, its special and should be kept in reserve

current known reserves if used to replace current coal fired power stations would be used up in nine years, th ebest of it in three, the worst ore release 30% the CO2 as a gas power station in being refined

nuclear power is only really useful if you want to make money or bombs or both

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

Ken,

I agree with your points above.

meika
15 years ago

whatever the tech, whatever the reserves, there will be a peak nuclear fuel experience as well, I am sure the breeder reactors can extend the timeline, (if energy increases in price!! as I read above, well that good news) but like oil, its of finite extent, the sun will outlast them, a focus on renewables (which I suspect will be cheaper than breeders) for earth and saving fission for space (where we can then bootstrap the collection of more solar fusion energy) (which is safer than producing it here) and of which there is an enormous amount.

“Long-term uranium supplies are simply not a real problem. Even if (in the distant future) uranium ore does get really expensive, market forces, and nuclear technology, are equipped to handle it. Advances in extraction technology, along with higher ore prices, will exponentiate the recoverable reserves.”

!!!
You cannot extract it if its not there, sounds like some logic we get from the oil industry, no need to worry, or the ‘rain follows the plough’ rubbish of boosters from previous eras,

and what does long-term mean here? and distant future? 200 years? 2000 years 20 000 years?? 200 000 years and compared to the the half-life of some of these products? will they supply energy for the time of the expected life of the spent material, breeders sure, but there is this thing called diminshing returns

and if its dependant on a high price then other sources will be more competitive, less ‘strategic’ perhaps, mind you removing source of nuclear bombs might well be a good thing…

save it for space

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
15 years ago

meika’s central point is correct: whatever the outcome, nuclear will be a relatively small part of the energy mix. It just happens to have a very well-organised lobby.

Ken Miles
15 years ago

Nice post Ken.

I few points in no particular order:

* Carbon sequestration is scientifically viable already. It is essentially a three step process (first the CO2 is separated out of the flue gases, then it is transported to the injection point, and finally it is injected into a stable geological formation). All three of these steps are currently performed on an industry scale as part of other industries (CO2 is removed from some natural gas streams, CO2 is already transported large distances (it is a important industrial material) and CO2 is already injected into geological formation to increase oil recovery).

* The IPCC sees no problem with uranium supplies in the future.

* Carbon sequestration/wind/nuclear currently aren’t financially viable. This is because there is currently no cost associated with emitting carbon dioxide.

* Kyoto’s big advantage isn’t the effect of cuts in GHG emissions on global warming, but rather as a driver of the development of new low emission technologies. Without these technologies, we are literally sunk. With them, the severity of global warming can be massively reduced.

I still favour a carbon tax. I suspect that nuclear will fail on the basis of its costs (nuclear is only really competitive because it also generates nuclear material and nationalistic pride). But if the nuclear engineers can make it happen, all power to them.

I would then use the majority of the revenue for a tax cut (to compensate for the increase prices) and a minority for research and develop into low emissions technologies.

Robert Merkel
15 years ago

Nicholas’ point is correct: impose some kind of financial penalty on carbon emission (I’m not the economist, so I’ll leave it to them to judge which approach is the best) and let the market sort it out.

However, if I were a betting man, I’d bet against geosequestration because it’s too expensive, and I’d also bet against biofuels from conventional crops or even the cellulosic ethanols that get some people excited. All of them require far too much agricultural land to be devoted to biofuel production to be practical.

The point I would make to Nicholas is that we shouldn’t exclude nuclear from being part of the solution: on a global scale by refusing to mine the stuff to protect the coal industry (Beattie’s argument – protectionism at its finest), and locally by arbitrarily excluding it from consideration as an option for baseload power.

greg barber
greg barber
15 years ago

if i was worried about nuclear i’d be out there campaigning against it. fact is there is not a market-driven utility on earth that is building nuclear power plants for profit. governments build them for fun. in the US, despite several hundred billion dollars’ worth of subsidies since WWII, it still provides a smaller proportion of their energy needs than burning wood.

as far as the proposal for an additional tax write off for R&D, you should understand that all of the technology we need to cut emissions by >60% is already on the shelf. it’s not on the supply side, it’s in reducing demand.

a price signal will raise the IRR for implementing it, but that is not the problem as it is mostly profitable to implement it now, on a pretty short payback. there is something else missing from the equation. for a scenario on this see

Power Shift:Cool Solutions to Global Warming (Canada)

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/Publications/Climate_Change_Reports/

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
15 years ago

On the other hand, nuclear power has often been subsidised by the state when it comes to building new plants – and decommissioning them however many years later, too, come to think of it.