Friday, 27 June 2008

Life beyond coal forum

Many thanks to Bob Phillips who provided these comments for the Life beyond coal forum held in Newcastle City Hall.
It was quite cold last Friday 27th at 7.30 pm, but the weather did not deter a large number of people from turning up at Newcastle City Hall to hear six speakers’ views on the transition Australia must make from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Questions and discussion following the six presentations revealed that the audience agreed with Ian Dunlop, the first speaker’s argument, that the unprecedented speed of climate change demanded radical changes in our use of the earth’s resources, and that we can no longer stick to our “business as usual” approach to these problems.

Ian Dunlop’s former career as a senior executive in the gas and oil industry gave weight to his warnings on climate change. His presentation emphasised that the concurrence of the three looming crises involving water, food, and peak oil would intensify the growing impacts of climate change. Moreover, the cautious predictions of the last report of the UN Inter- Governmental Panel on Climate Change, were now being superseded. The present rate of melting of northern hemisphere glaciers and Arctic sea ice are phenomena that the IGPCC had predicted to occur near the end of the century.

Ian Murray also has an interest in the coal industry as he is Northern District President of the CFMEU, Mining and Energy Division. He stated that his union’s policy was to support the change to renewable energy but maintained that carbon capture and storage should also be researched. However, he was adamant that the coal industry, that is making huge profits, should bear the full financial burden of this research, and that the Federal Government’s $500 million grant for “clean coal” should be withdrawn.

He was also very critical of the subsidies and tax breaks presently enjoyed by the mining, transport, and fossil fuel industries amounting to about $9 billion every year. In particular, the coal industry was allowed $1.9 billion in diesel fuel tax rebates during the years of John Howard’s government, and this concession has still not been withdrawn even though the industry is now making record profits.

Professor Dlugogorski, director of the Priority Research Centre for Energy at Newcastle University, explained the process of pumping water into hot rocks below the earth’s surface to produce steam that generates electricity. However the geological formations where these rocks are located are limited, and for the next decade or so this Geo-Thermal contribution to our energy requirements would be very small.

A dose of youthful enthusiasm was injected into the forum discussions by Jarra Hicks, who is National Convenor of the Australian Student Environment Network. Jarra’s grassroots campaigning at Newcastle University persuaded the University authorities to change to green energy and to set a 2020 target to become carbon neutral. She urged everyone to practise energy conservation in their own homes and workplaces.

ALP Councillor Marilyn Eade did not canvas ALP policy on climate change, but outlined what the City Council has achieved. By carefully auditing its operations over several years it has reduced its energy consumption by 40% and its water use by 25% compared with 1995 levels. She stated that Council will continue to advocate and lead by example, using its Together Today program to show business, schools, and the community how they can monitor and reduce their use of energy and water. She said that while people might be interested in the reasons for climate change, they will be convinced when they are shown how they can take effective action.

Greens Senator Christine Milne deplored the myopic approaches of the major parties to the problems of climate change. She maintained that Australia is uniquely positioned to exploit the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. Governments should be working to rapidly phase out fossil fuels in our transport and power industries and promote employment in new green industries. No other country has a greater potential for solar and other renewable energy because of its exposure to sunlight, its industrial potential, and its high levels of education. Yet our governments stand aside while other countries such as China and the USA commercialise the leading edge technology our researchers have developed, and they lavish money on dubious and unproven technology to maintain the profits of fossil fuel industries that have no future.

The forum ended after 10.00 pm, but there were still people who wanted to ask questions and many continued informal discussions over coffee.

Instead of futile point scoring over petrol prices, why can’t our Federal ministers promote policies such as demand management, solar thermal power, water recycling, and solar hot water that would have an immediate effect on our carbon emissions?

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