Thursday, October 15, 2009


I had the opportunity on October 1st to listen to a panel consisting of Tony Maher and Sharan Burrow of the ACTU along with Paul Toni from WWF (all Southern Cross Climate Coalition member groups). They were addressing a forum entitled "Just Transitions: Energy, Employment and Environment" in Morwell, organised by the Gippsland Trades & Labour Council. It was quite illuminating, in a perverse kind of way: here is a report.

WWF: no clean energy technology needed for next 10+ years

There are various plans on how to prevent dangerous climate change, with varying degrees of optimism, and various levels of radicalism. On the other hand, there is wishful thinking, which is the most charitable comment I could make about this forum and particularly WWF’s contribution.

Maher and Burrow have their own contradictions, but it was Paul Toni from WWF, speaking last, who as an “environmentalist” gave the most appalling presentation.
The three emissions reduction strategies that Toni advocated be prioritised were reducing energy use, Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) and geo-thermal power. CCS, he claimed, is proven from the last ten years of its use by Norway. The ETS, he claimed, was critical to smooth the transition for the coal industry, delivering $600 million for CCS deployment and testing, $3.9 billion direct financial assistance to electricity generators, and $200 million for “structural adjustment packages”. He said that the geothermal and CCS technology needed to be tested – especially in the Gippsland basin.

I asked one of the first questions in discussion: given that ETS is not projected to reduce Australia’s actual emissions until after 2030, and that both CCS and geothermal plants in Australia are at least ten years away (and then only if we’re being very optimistic, in the case of CCS), how do they propose to address climate change in the meantime?

Toni gave the Peter Garrett defence where the ETS is concerned: you can “never be sure what will happen” with a law once it is passed, it will be “revisited”! He said we have to peak emissions well before 2030, and would like to see CCS up and running and a Feed-In Tariff as well as the Renewable Energy Target (I guess Garrett will get that one up for us too). He expressed hopes for “big renewables” like wave power, geothermal and solar thermal. Of which, I should point out, only the last is at a stage of actually being built at commercial scale anywhere in the world right now. (Wave power shows great potential, but it hasn’t been put into practice yet. Likewise, Australia’s geothermal reserves are not the standard type that is already used for power in many parts of the world: our geothermal potential is HDR – hot dry rock – which requires extensive testing before successful power generation can occur from it.)

CCS: the cheque’s in the mail!

Tony Maher told the audience that the latest CCS study he has seen (not yet published) shows that the Gippsland basin has the capacity to store all Australia's CO2 emissions, from all sources(!), for the next 100 years. Needless to say this came up for questioning from the audience!

Mark Wakeham from Environment Victoria, in the audience, cited prior studies showing there may be only 40 years of CCS storage from the power stations in the Gippsland basin – which is just one generation of power stations (they usually last about 40 years). Toni’s response (also undermining Maher’s figures) was that the most conservative estimates of the capacity in Gippsland now exceed 40 years’ storage, but 40 years is all the transition period we will probably need.

Maher said he didn't believe we'd ever get a "green economy" and just hoped it would be "more sustainable". He did foreshadow the need for economic restructuring of every industry and economy on the planet in about ten years, but didn't elaborate exactly what he meant. He said it was immoral to refuse 3rd world development - "they want their iPod too!". He did then admit that there would be no future for the coal industry if it didn’t clean up it’s act. He suggested that coal’s share in our energy generation mix would go from 90% down to 40% by 2050 – and here’s the best part! – only if CCS “becomes commercially viable” – quite an admission from such a strong supporter of the technology!

To balance things out, Maher blamed the Australian Coal Association (ACA - "barnacles on the arse of progress," he called them) for the jobs scare in the coal sector. He blasted the Victorian private power generators who paid about $10 billion for the industry and are now asking for $10 billion in compensation for the ETS! He said that if they get anything, it should be conditional on investment in emissions reduction technology (by which I think he means CCS). On the other hand, despite blaming the ACA for jobs scares, he cautioned that green criticism of coal “risks a split in the community”!

We wouldn’t want the community and the coal companies to have a falling out, now, would we?

Smoke and mirrors and no substance

The presentation seemed to be aimed at an audience that weren’t educated about the speed at which climate change is progressing: just sell “clean coal” CCS to them and they’ll stop worrying. Burrow did the best to go beyond this, pointing out that even with the difficult goal of restricting climate change to two degrees, island nations like the Maldives would be wiped out, as would the Great Barrier Reef, but she left it pretty much there.

It was interesting to see how quickly the speakers went into retreat after a couple of questions. In response to my question above, Burrow pointed to the subsidised home insulation program that the SCCC had added to the government’s stimulus package. She said the ACTU would have preferred a carbon tax over the ETS, but it was too late to worry about that any more. As it seems I have been hearing for years from union officials, she wished the government would have a serious “industry policy” to build up industry here.

Wishes and hopes, but what program of action? Back to the Peter Garrett solution I guess.

From the audience, Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth nailed it when he suggested that the plan outlined was really just status quo plus CCS, not a transition. He said that it looked like just another empty promise to the Latrobe Valley (of which there have been many). Burrow’s response was that CCS was just one measure, there is no “silver bullet” and all measures must be tried. She said that energy demand keeps shooting up and there is no peak in sight. Given that the “other measure” (the solar plant at Mildura) is in deep trouble, yet government funding to CCS research continues unabated, one wonders what serious other measures she is thinking of!

Toni’s response was simply that to keep temperature rise under 2 degrees, it is essential to use CCS technology and there is no other way. To which I could respond, if we are relying on an unproven technology over ten years away from implementation to save us, then we may as well give up now and save ourselves the effort!

Lucky that I (and many others) don’t believe that coal industry propaganda. Why do our unions let themselves be fooled by it? As climate change deepens, I don’t think their members will reward them for their stance. Will Rudd and the ACA still be around to look after their careers?


  1. jeez, these people are such chumps! They haven't got a clue. You can see them frantically spinning and spinning their message, trying to keep business as usual going as they drown in a sea of scientific fact.

    Pretty depressing that they are in leadership positions. Their aims seem to be to keep people ignorant, complacent and voting for the Labor Party!

    In the meantime, here comes global warming!

  2. Good write up Ben. And I agree they are total chumps :) I was told by the CEO of the conservation council here that "people are over global warming" and by another envirocrat that if we want to get 5000 people out for Walk Against Warming we'd need a $5000 budget. (Does anyone remember the anti-war committees back in 2001 having to budget $1 / person they mobilised? No, me neither, maybe we just mobilised people to act for a clear political demand at a time of crisis - maybe.
    My point is that frustrating as these envirocrats are right now, they are increasingly being exposed. It's time for climate activsts to move forward with confidence. Local climate groups, city-wide coalitions, workplace meetings... all the stuff we're doing and more!

  3. -sigh- I went to highschool in Bunbury, WA, which is very similar to Traralgon in demographic and economy. It's sad to see so little hope being put forward for change, like they think that the people of an area aren't capable of recognising a real threat to their livelihoods and changing. In reality, many of the people who live in this kind of area go from job to job with the market and availbility, there's a lot of on-the-job training. It doesn't matter too much what the job is as long as there is one and it doesn't require more than Year 12 and maybe a TAFE night class.


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