Australia can go from ‘Laggard to Leader’ on Climate

Monday July 23rd I popped along to Beyond Zero Emission‘s presentation on their recent report: Laggard to Leader: How Australia Can Lead the World to Zero Carbon Prosperity. The report was authored by Fergus Green and Rueben Finighan; Green and I attended COP 15 together (although, as I’ve written…I remember little of him).

I’m a big fan of BZE’s work. They play a crucial role in the climate movement, providing a technical legitimacy for the grassroots campaigners promoting a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy. In Bill Moyer’s Doing Democracy (which I’ll soon be reviewing in detail), the sociologist describes how powerholders confronting a social movement, once they give up on defending the status quo, aim to create fear and uncertainty about the movement’s proposed alternative. Having a group like Beyond Zero Emissions instilling confidence in and familiarity with wind, photovoltaics and baseload solar thermal, is excellent.

The event was surprisingly enjoyable. I’m the sort of nerdy recluse social butterfly who sees the release of a report on climate change as an opportunity to catch up with old friends; the twitter stream was also alive with banter, insight, and friendly RTs. Many climate events are so boring or poorly organised as to be counter-effective, but on Monday BZE put on a wonderful event, with engaging, highly-competent speakers. Their data management also gets the Dignam thumbs up. (They highlighted my name as I entered).

Now to the actual content.

Laggard to Leader reframes Australia’s responsibility for global carbon pollution. Australia is already a significant polluter: we are the worst per-capita of the developed countries, and in the top 20 overall. Despite this, there is a myth that our domestic action is insignificant on a global scale. Laggard to Leader blows that myth out of the water by emphasising our control over our export emissions from coal, and the potential to drive down the global cost of baseload solar thermal.

At the presentation, Green began by contrasting two approaches to the diabolical problem of climate change. He described the contemporary paradigm as “treaties, targets, trading”. This approach seeks an international treaty, which sets targets for pollution reductions, and achieves these through emissions trading. Of course, this doesn’t work. The most recent accord, which came out of Durban last year, isn’t enough to give us a safe chance of avoiding 2 degrees of global warming.

Instead Green advocates a “sphere of influence approach”. This would involve Australia’s considering not only our domestic emissions but, notably, our exported emissions. Australia is the king of coal. 25% of the world’s coal exports come from Australia and this is a contribution to global warming, within Australia’s influence (and the influence of Australian campaigners…) which has for too long been neglected by our polity. Taking our export emissions in to account, Australia is the 6th largest emitter, emitting 4% of the world’s carbon pollution. Green argues that Australia has a moral responsibility to consider the climate impact of our export emissions, that this gives our Government greater opportunity to act on climate change, and, by implication, that this gives campaigners greater opportunity to effect change.

Next up to the plate was Finighan. Green had discussed how we control what’s beneath the ground, Finighan talked about how we can affect what’s above it. His argument? Australia can drive down the global cost of renewable energy like baseload solar thermal by initiating massive domestic deployment. Once the price of clean, safe sources of energy that never run out (wind, photovoltaics, baseload solar thermal) is less than the cost of coal (ie, ‘parity’ is achieved), states will inevitably begin favouring these sources, beginning a global transition to clean energy economies. So, if Australia invests in renewable energy, it doesn’t just change the economics and systems here – it has global ripples that support the deployment of clean energy around the world.

Finighan concluded by pointing out that such a project is in Australia’s national interest. In addition to the huge benefits of strong, early action on climate change, shifting from coal to renewables would insulate Australia against the economic shocks of being dependent on coal as the world decarbonises – something of a ‘jump or be pushed’ situation. Finighan quoted numerous important and reputable sounding bodies that argue the world is dangerously over-invested in dirty fossil fuels. Currently companies are trading on the security of fossil fuel reserves that, if we want my generation to have clean air and a secure water supply, cannot be burned. Once the full implications of this are felt, all hell will break loose for investments in fossil fuels. Better get out quick.

I found the presentations stimulating and informative. Having campaigned on climate for what feels like a long-time, I can see the value of this argument for addressing objections about Australia’s impact on the rest of the world. I think it’s also very useful for the thinking of campaigners themselves – it helps us to better estimate the value of what we are doing in Australia. While I have my uncertainties – I asked a question about potential double accounting using the sphere of influence approach – the presentations were strong and coherent and promising.

The fact is, we have to leave coal in the ground. Burning all known fossil fuel reserves will radically change the composition of our atmosphere and endanger lives for scores of generations to come. Australia’s significant coal reserves, and significant solar and wind resources, provide both our nation and our climate campaigners with a fulcrum to advance progress on climate change not just domestically, but across the world.

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