Report on Zero Emissions at the “Target Zero” conference, Melbourne 30 June
by Lindsay Quennell
I was very impressed by the quality of the presentations. Unfortunately I was only able to attend the first day which focused on the scope of the problem and the solutions needed to implement a fast transition to a zero emissions future. This report is not necessarily complete as there were some presentations on which I failed to keep adequate notes but I believe it does give a good indication of the scope of the problem and more importantly, the wide range of possible solutions. The overall message from all speakers was that climate change is of critical importance to everyone on the planet and that to prevent a catastrophe in the coming decades we must act with great urgency. Talk of action to reduce greenhouse emissions by 2050 misses the point. We need to take major steps in the next 5 – 10 years, starting now.
James Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies presenting from Sweden, clearly outlined the science of greenhouse gas global warming.
As carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for decades global warming will continue as a consequence of our past CO2 pollution even if we drastically reduce future pollution. In his view, for the first time in the world’s history, man now has control of world climate, for good or for ill. Global warming is maximum at higher Northern hemisphere latitudes and there has been an acceleration of Arctic ice melting and Greenland icecap melting in the past few years, much of the evidence coming from accurate satellite measurements.
The only way to prevent this continuing is to hold the level of CO2 below 450ppm and this will require immediate action.
The consequences of neglecting to do this are;
Major flooding of low lying areas of the world from significant sea level rise with the displacement of millions of people.
Stress on vegetation and on many animal species from isotherm movement with major plant and animal species extinctions as the rate of isotherm change will out pace species adaptation.
Extreme weather events such as droughts, storms and heat waves.
His suggested solutions are:
Stop all conventional coal power plant production and only use coal if CO2 sequestration is introduced.
Stretch the future use of oil and gas via incentives such as a carbon tax and stop any moves to use oil from the likes of tar and shale deposits.
Reduce non-CO2 forcings from methane, nitrous oxide and black soot.
Draw down atmospheric CO2 by the more judicious agriculture and forestry practices.
He stressed that it is cumulative CO2 emissions that count and that already we have more than enough accumulation to generate significant and potentially dangerous warming. USA has produced 3 times the amount of atmospheric CO2 as any other country and, on a per capita basis, it is followed closely by Canada and Australia.
His response to questions from the floor: “What about clean coal and nuclear power?”
Clean coal technology is feasible but it must compete with efficiency measures and renewables. A price must be put on carbon.
Nuclear technology is getting safer but there is still the problem of waste disposal and terrorism.
What is zero emission minus and how low do we go? ( Philip Sutton, Greenleap Strategic Institute).
We must ensure real change in emissions so that this deals with the problem and the solutions must be practical. At the same time the human economy world wide is growing , nature’s economy is diminishing. In the past, changes in both have been relatively slow but we are fast reaching a cross over point where human activity exceeds nature’s ability to adapt.
We should distinguish between tactical emission targets and strategic targets. We should recognise that the mindsets of politicians deal in short term goals. In discussion with politicians we should acknowledge that they are working in the right direction but encourage them to stretch goals further.
When it comes to community education we must focus on strategic goals that will lead to effective solutions.
We must also acknowledge that there is still quite a degree of uncertainty in climate prediction. However, if we look at the situation from an insurance perspective, we should take steps to reduce risk. We were referred to page 195 in the original Stern report when considering risk. He posed the question about how comfortable people would be travelling on an airline where the risk of a crash for each journey was 3%. That would be considered far too high a risk yet human society seems to be ignoring far greater risk from global warming.
His key message was — Don’t let global warming exceed 1.5 degrees. Our problem in preventing such a rise is that the human economy has a huge inertia built into it. We must start effective action now, not in 50 years.
Carbon equity (David Spratt, Carbon Equity Project Australia).
His key message is to bring emission reduction to a local level so that those who use most, pay more. Leaving responses to large corporations will likely be inequitable. His solution: a swipe card for individuals when they use major carbon energy sources e.g transport, house lighting and heating etc. Those who fly a lot or use private vehicles will have their carbon pollution deducted from a set person allocation. If they exceed this they will then be able to purchase more from individuals who do not use up their allocation. Such a scheme is being seriously considered in the UK.
Energy Efficiency ( Bruce Thompson, Moreland Energy Foundation speaking in place of Professor Alan Pears).
Energy efficiency is quick and equitable as a means of reducing carbon emissions. It could result in an effect as great as introducing nuclear power plants. Already there is clear evidence that mandatory targets work. For example, new home fridges with a 5 star rating use 15% of the power that old units use. ( unfortunately many old fridges are relegated to beer fridges in the back shed!)
Many national and state mandatory efficiency measures are weak, piecemeal and seriously under resourced. New commercial buildings have no mandatory energy efficiency requirements and there is little action to improve existing buildings, equipment and infrastructure. Mandatory 5 star rating for dwellings in Victoria has resulted in an increase in energy use of 6% because houses are now much larger. Instances were given of owners of new houses discovering that required ceiling insulation was missing because of builders’ shortcuts and quite inadequate inspections.
He reiterated that energy efficiency measures result in greater equity.
Sustainable buildings. ( Andrew Walker-Morrison, building material expert.)
He gave several overseas examples of innovative community infrastructure and housing that were energy efficient ( shaded &/or using sunlight to effect and used locally produced energy to heat or cool neighbourhoods). He pointed out that eaves are a simple solution to limit summer overheating from the sunlight, and that a significant proportion of new Australian homes are built without them.
He also pointed out that absurdity of the size of many new homes. The average area of an Australian home built in 1945 was 90 squares whereas in 2007 it is 260 squares. There are many measures that could be taken to minimize the energy usage in new houses, both in the energy embedded in their structure as well as in their usage. The architecture profession is rather belatedly focusing on this and he cited several helpful websites.
A Friends of the Earth representative made some interesting points about the future of nuclear power for electricity generation. There are presently 440 nuclear reactors across the world and 180 of these are due to be decommissioned in the next 20 years. At the present rate of use, the world has 50 years supply of high grade Uranium ore. If lower grade ore is used the energy required for extraction makes the process much less efficient. One point that is often overlooked is that no insurance company will insure nuclear power plants, or communities or individuals against nuclear accidents ( travellers will notice this exclusion in their travel insurance policies). Governments taking on this responsibility in effect highly subsidise the nuclear industry.
On the horizon.
Carbon trading.( Mike Cebon, Carbon Trade Watch).
A system of carbon trading without caps on production
On the Horizon.n will be quite ineffective. To reduce emissions to the necessary level, permits must be regularly reduced in any cap and trade system. An example of a system that has worked is the EPA cap and trade system that was introduced in 1990 to reduce sulphur dioxide pollution. It was effective because there were only about 2000 emitters world wide whereas there are millions of carbon emitters.
The EU system got away to a bad start because caps were set too high and permits issues were free. This resulted in huge profits for large corporations but no real reduction in pollution.
He cited the proposed Australian emissions trading scheme as being very flawed.
There are no targets; permits will be issued for permanent pollution; penalties for exceeding permit levels are small; and the scheme excludes certain sectors that make up 40% of the economy
After outlining the pros and cons of personal quotas that can be traded using a swipe card system ( being seriously considered in the UK) he gave his argument for a carbon tax system. This would produce a revenue stream allowing governments to equitably distribute the tax income and the tax could be progressively increased ( whereas permits are issued for a set time period and large corporations reap the rewards).
Solar Thermal ( Dr Keith Lovegrove ANU).
He summarised the different systems to tap solar radiation and convert it to heat for power production. There is a new 64 MV solar plant in Nevada that took 15 months to build and the potential for expansion is huge. Another plant in USA has been in operation for many trouble free years. ANU has built a dish concentrator unit that will produce superheated steam to run a turbine. Concerns about variability of production during night hours can be readily overcome by using energy storage either as heat storage or using exothermic/endothermic chemical reactions. There is very little government support for research and development in this area especially
when Australia is very well placed to capitalise on free sunlight. The UMPNER report barely mentioned this as an alternative power source.
Hot fractured rocks. ( Dr Adrian Williams, Geodynamics Ltd)
His firm is confident it can capture the immense heat energy pool from deep fractured granite deposits that have been heated over millenia by radiogenic decay. They are concentrating their effort on the deposits at over 4.5 Km depth in the Cooper basin in South Australia but there are several other promising sites around the country also. The have drilled and have confirmed that the rock formation is the hottest in the world at 270 degrees. They propose to have a closed, superheated water system using water already discovered in the fractured rocks to drive a conventional turbine similar to those used in geothermal power plants in operation in other parts of the world. A rig capable of drilling to a depth of 6 Km is presently on the way to their site and they hope to complete their third drilling by the end of 2007 and to be in production by 2015. ( all going according to plan).
There are several other firms that have licences to explore other sites so this has great potential even though the sites are remote from high population areas. Direct current transmission would limit energy loss to 15%.
I came away from this conference with a increased optimism that there are steps that can be taken to alleviate greenhouse gas pollution that are effective and relatively cheap and which can be applied in a much shorter time frame than the likes of nuclear power generation or carbon sequestration from coal burning power plants