Time for Change

Sustainable Australia

October saw a controversy: the terrible bushfires in New South Wales were caused by climate change, said the United Nations. No, they were not, said Australia’s new government…

As usual, neither argument was complete and therefore neither was completely correct. But as we head into 2014, there is a mounting sense of urgency about the whole climate change, sustainability, energy consumption and conservation debate and the distinct potential for some kind of denouement.

One pointer is the sheer welter of earth-sciences conferences and conflabs scheduled for Australia in the coming twelve months. From the biennial meeting of the Special Group in Tectonics and Structural Geology (Thredbo Village, Kosciuszko National Park, 2-8 February) to Orebody Modelling and Strategic Mine Planning (Perth, 24-26 November), there are dozens of important meetings addressing our future-defining challenges to make the world a sustainable place for the next generations. Their preponderance here in Australia suggests the outside world has finally caught onto the potential here for global leadership in these related sciences.

One of the most interesting events is sure to be a symposium entitled ‘Resources and Environment – The Next 10 Years’, organised by the Australian Institute of Geoscientists (31 March-1 April, Fremantle). Titles of presentations are straight to the point and include: Climate Change and Tomorrow’s World; Climate Change – A Strange Beast Indeed; Cleaner Energy – Options for the Future; and Water Supply and Demands under Development and Climate Change Pressures.

Another star turn will be Sustainable Australia (7-10 July, Newcastle), which has already attracted a galaxy of star climatologists and also promises a public forum on Energy 2050. This will address what the future holds for Australia.

As the organising Geological Society of Australia points out, “an abundance of relatively cheap energy has been the critical support component of the quality lifestyle we enjoy in Australia… the shift from the industrial era to the sustainability era must come, if we are to maintain our lifestyles through the 21st century and beyond. Alternative renewable sources of energy are available, but many of these have their own limitations in terms of capacity, environmental effects, and high production costs. At present they represent less than five per cent of our energy production.

“What are the best resources / alternatives to secure a reliable energy future and what are their environmental effects? Are alternatives really viable and what are the implications of transitioning society into the ‘sustainable era’?” Valid questions, and both the consumer and the business community need answers that do not depend on political or commercial spin.

Some hopes, as our new Prime Minister clashed in high profile with executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres. In a TV interview, and speaking about those NSW bushfires, she said: “What we have seen are just introductions to the doom and gloom that we could be facing… We are already paying the price of carbon. We’re paying the price with wildfires. We’re paying the price with droughts.” Calling for achievement of global zero net emissions within the second half of this century, she added: “We are paying the price with so many other disturbances to the hydrological cycle. That is all the price we are paying. So what we need to do is put a price on carbon so that we do not have to continue to pay the price of carbon.”

Mr Abbott gallantly accused Ms Figueres of “talking through her hat.” He reckons that as bushfires have been around a lot longer than climate change science, they are not linked; “not a function of climate change – they are just a function of life in Australia.” Greens leader Christine Milne immediately sneered that Mr Abbott “has no regard for evidence based science and prefers ideology,” hardly raising the level of debate. It must be said, though, that the UNFCCC does not have a strong record of scientific achievement itself, having been responsible for little more than a lot of hot air (the massive junkets in Rio, Kyoto and Johannesburg being memorable). As one observer said of the Kyoto summit and its minuscule aims, “never has a treaty aimed so low and still missed by so much. It’s the equivalent of cutting down smoking from 60 ciggies a day to 59.”

Another pointer to the urgency of the situation is the incoming government’s promise (or threat, depending on your views and sense of optimism) to tackle the thorny issue of the Carbon Tax. It wants to throw away carbon pricing in favour of what it calls ‘direct action’.

The problem with the latter is that just about everyone beyond the Front Bench is chorusing that direct action (still a rather vague concept) will cost even more than the hated carbon pricing scheme – if, that is, Australia is interested in meeting the challenge of seriously reducing its emissions rather than turning a deaf ear to the arguments, in favour of low taxation. And Canberra’s Climate Change Authority just joined the fray. According to the Guardian, its first draft report “joins a bookshelf full of previous reports to governments saying much the same thing. But the Coalition government appears determined to ignore all of them. It is determined to ignore evidence that the rest of the world is starting to act on climate change.”

The authority suggests that while China and the US are taking strong action, Australia – judged by its current targets – is lagging behind and will have to increase its target for reductions by 2020 to between 15 and 25 per cent (itself a rather wishy-washy ‘target’) and by 2030 to 35-45 per cent.

All the pollies are now under pressure to explain how their ideas for reducing emissions might be the cheapest and best way to meet Australia’s escalating long-term commitments. “It’s not that direct action can’t work to reduce carbon emissions,” says the Guardian. “It’s that all the modelling shows it can’t work for the money that’s on the table and with the restrictions that are on the table, and that it can’t be effectively ‘scaled up’ to meet the tougher emission targets that are coming our way. And every modeller, every expert, and most business organisations argue it’s crazy for the Coalition to refuse to use international permits to help meet our targets most cheaply.”

Does anyone have a clear handle on the reality of the situation? How bad is it here and how much will your business be crippled by either taxation or smog? Consulting engineers Pitt & Sherry (featured in their 50th anniversary year in our sister magazine Construction in Focus this month) have for some years been compiling a carbon emissions index (CEDEX). In September it reported: “Total emissions continued to fall and, for the year ended June 2013, were 1.3 million tonnes CO2-e lower than they were in the year ended March 2012 and over 9 million tonnes lower than in the year June 2011 to 2012.

“The established pattern of the last three years continued, with falling electricity generation emissions more than offsetting growth in emissions from petroleum fuels, while emissions from non-electricity natural gas use fell slightly. June 2013 was the fourteenth successive month in which annualised emissions reported by CEDEX fell.

“However, the net drop in emissions was slight with a smaller fall for the month in [total national market] electricity emissions, while growth in petroleum emissions continued unabated. Our judgement, based on limited and lagged data on emissions from electricity generation and gas consumption in WA, is that Australia’s total energy combustion emissions may not be falling. This highlights that, if Australia is to reduce its emissions by 2020, it will be important to establish policies which address the continuous growth in emissions from petroleum fuels as effectively as current policies have been in driving down electricity emissions.”

As ever, you take your pick. Energy consumption is dropping – or not; fast enough – or not. As you can read elsewhere in this issue, there are measures you can take for your business. Choose carefully; take your time to examine the maths; disregard the hype. But then feel free to take action that could secure your commercial lifeline, not to mention your children’s future environment.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 3:52 PM AEDT