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Is Australia a developing nation when it comes to climate change?

The hierarchy implicit in the decision to provide climate aid to developing countries is not one that is reflected in Australia’s role in the global harm to the environment. Perhaps we should be more humble about our own environmental credentials.

At the Durban climate change discussions Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, Greg Combet announced $25 million towards helping African nations climate proof agriculture, manage resources and boost food security. While announcing the aid funding Combet did not pass up the opportunity to trumpet Australia’s emission abatement and reduction credentials:

Our new laws will cut pollution, drive energy efficiency and ignite renewable energy opportunities… This means Australia will do as we say, we will meet the emission reduction targets we have pledged, and continue to reduce emissions over the long term.

This is not an insubstantial amount of money and shows that Australia is keen to address questions of climate justice, livability and quality of life in developing countries. This should not be seen a cynical gesture as further measures on domestic climate change abatement are probably not politically salable so soon after the passing of the carbon tax.

Still the question has to be asked if we are going to address global dimensions of climate change: ‘where’s the harm?’ The answer is much closer to home.

If we are to take seriously a global perspective on climate change it’s pretty clear Australia itself is a major problem. Australia’s per capita emissions are terrible; highest in the OECD and amongst the highest in the world. It’s not like it is a close run thing either, Australia is a statistical outlier, its per capita emissions are double the OECD average and four times that of the world. Don’t mention coal.

If we take seriously the global context of our contribution to climate change the story is even worse. The world-leading bad outcomes are despite the fact that we import more manufactured goods than export and the associated emissions are not counted to our total emissions but to the country that produces them. Thus at an ethical level, if not at the strict level of accounting, Australia free-rides on overseas manufacturing emissions that are fueled by our demand to consume. One thing that Australia does export plentifully, half of our total exports, is natural resources. Including especially carbon intensive energy sources that, amongst other things are, used in these manufacture processes. Australia has thus effectively out-sourced responsibility by off-shoring the means toward unjust ends. Don’t mention coal.

The elephant in the room is coal. Common to both the emissions that occur under our name and those that occur overseas is disproportionate harm done to global climate due a reliance on coal. Coal constitutes nearly half of our national energy supply, more than double the proportion of other OECD countries. Australia also supports the global use of coal as an energy source by being the leading global exporter of coal and it constitutes our largest export earner. Australia is thus not only systemically reliant upon coal as an energy source but perpetuates a global energy regime based around coal.

Australia needs to take responsibility for its disproportionate contribution to climate change. If we can’t do that by way of effective carbon reductions we should be a lot more humble on the world stage. We rightly tout our accomplishment of putting a price on carbon but this achievement is undermined by a massive $1.2 billion subsidy to the coal industry off-set the impact of the carbon tax. If by impact we mean explicit goal.

There is an implicit hierarchy involved in the provision of aid. The decision to give $25 million for Africa to combat climate change and not ask for financial assistance or technical advice ourselves says something about how we perceive ourselves and others on the diplomatic stage.   The assumption is that Australia is a developed country that has effective processes in place for addressing climate change and it has something it can offer financially and in terms of innovative design and industry. This is despite massive economic and infrastructural impasses to address our dense national cluster of emissions.

Most of the serious arguments against taking more serious action on climate change are economic arguments. Moving away from coal-based energy sources and reducing our exports of carbon intensive resources are deemed unfeasible due to the economic impact on the economy. This economic inability to address climate change is both systemic and habitual. Does this not suggest that Australia is a developing nation when it comes to climate change?


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  • 1
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    From memory Australia was one of the few countries allowed to increase emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, I think it was about 8%. In terms of countries being able to deal with climate change, we are already on the special bus.

  • 2
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    This seems to be a conclusive argument for replacing coal exports with a much greener alternative – uranium.

  • 3
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    “Most of the serious arguments against taking more serious action on climate change are economic arguments. Moving away from coal-based energy sources and reducing our exports of carbon intensive resources are deemed unfeasible due to the economic impact on the economy.”

    Well, duh! Nice to see you’ve caught up with the program.

    Listen to what one of your own has to say. Michael Schellenberger


  • 4
    Peter Chambers
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    The obvious historical analogue for me is the British Empire and opium; never was a trade that now seems so unambiguously wrong – immoral, illegal &c – so vehemently defended as rational, integral and proper…

    @ Angra: imagine an Australia unable to export either coal *or* uranium (or any other of the minerals vital to China’s current transformation, which is having a number of highly harmful effects, as detailed here: http://www.amazon.com/River-Runs-Black-Environmental-Challenge/dp/0801442206) . Unthinkable: we would have to develop competitive advantages by investing in R&D, education, infrastructure… …we might have to build or learn something…

    But at the same time, there might be a connection between the shape of the networks of power inherent to the coal economy and democracy itself; Timothy Mitchell’s recent work provides interesting evidence to this effect. Paper here: http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=timothy%20mitchell%20carbon%20democracy&source=web&cd=1&sqi=2&ved=0CCEQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcmes.hmdc.harvard.edu%2Ffiles%2FMitchell%2520Paper.pdf&ei=gW_hTqnfOc7wmAXJuOCVBQ&usg=AFQjCNFEdbq8JjfRvdKtX-hIrJHE-3hpRg&cad=rja

    and book here:


  • 5
    Frank Campbell
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    “This is not an insubstantial amount of money and shows that Australia is keen to address questions of climate justice, livability and quality of life in developing countries.”

    $25 million? You jest. This is money down the back of the sofa. A morning’s work on Victoria’s huge wet elephant, the desal plant…

    At least there’s a realisation that Australia is the new carbon, gorging on the fossil fuel bonanza. But not a clue what to do about it. Gillard said in July “coal has a fantastic future”.
    The gap between reality and the carbon tax undermines the credibility of all progressive politics in this country. Everything has been subordinated to this futile gesture…

  • 6
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Peter Chambers @4

    “imagine an Australia unable to export either coal *or* uranium (or any other of the minerals vital to China’s current transformation, which is having a number of highly harmful effects. Unthinkable: we would have to develop competitive advantages by investing in R&D, education, infrastructure… …we might have to build or learn something…”

    When do we pull the plug on coal? Why should we not the consider uranium? What sort of developmental overlap of time do you envisage before we can just “flick the switch” without effecting our power grid or our ability to maintain our productivity and standard of living? Why penalize ourselves by not exporting resources that the world obviously wants?

  • 7
    Peter Chambers
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    @ Archer: please read this first, it is long, but is worthwhile, and perhaps answers your question


    I should add: I have friends in Japan, many of whom are concerned about this and are taking it seriously, investigating the claims made by many scientists, esp. those bought by Japan’s massive nuclear lobby. There is a fair chance that the disaster is much, much worse that has been reported. This is not a solved issue, which you might imagine it is, given the absence of coverage in Aus’ media.

    ~ in terms of your questions, I am not an expert, so cannot offer technical responses, but, taken one by one:

    When do we pull the plug on coal?

    We make a decision to begin doing so immediately, and use a timeframe to wind it down – say 10 years. Attaturk would do it in five…

    Why should we not the consider uranium?

    Please see Watts’ report, as linked.

    What sort of developmental overlap of time do you envisage before we can just “flick the switch” without effecting our power grid or our ability to maintain our productivity and standard of living?

    10 years, why not?

    On that tip, what is so good about our ‘standard of living’? It is extremely wasteful. Our foodbowl relies on practices that are depleting topsoil, destroying river systems, causing salination, and are totally reliant on diesel fuel, which means they are vulnerable to fluctuations in price, very likely in the near future.

    Perhaps an entirely different standard of living could be imagined, one qualitatively much better?

    Why penalize ourselves by not exporting resources that the world obviously wants?

    Because it might destroy the kind of planet future generations might prefer to live in?

    Think of opium again, or coca: why should Afghanistan deprive itself of the export income generated by a commodity that the world obviously wants? Or Colombia?

  • 8
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Peter Chambers @7

    Nuclear: Japan is on a the edge of a tectonic plate. It is susceptible to hundreds of earthquakes each year and that one was expected for a long time. We are on the centre of a plate and at minimal risk of earthquake and almost no risk of tsunamis. You can’t compare us with them.

    I work in the car engineering industry. It takes, at best, 2.5 to 3 years to get a a new model car from studio to production and to onto the road. And that’s with all the resources of the parent company around the world. You suggest a plan to achieve complete turnover of new power technology in 5 to 10 years.

    When I mean standard of living I not only mean agriculture, I mean power to sustain and drive industry, retail, infrastructure and domestic use. This includes factories, cities street lights, schools and building sites. Not to mention the appliances we have become accustomed to using in our daily lives. Washers, dryers, air-conditioners, cookers, computers etc. I refuse to accept that we must sacrifice or have to go backwards before viable alternatives are engineered.

    And the exported material will pay for your R&D, or some of it.

    I understand accidents will happen but I don’t understand why they built the reactors where they did. I’ve worked with the Japanese, they are very methodical in their planning and engineering.

  • 9
    Peter Ormonde
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Archer, yes Japanese society is methodical and deeply deeply corrupt. Watch what happens to TEPCO.

    Perhaps we could only sell our yellow cake to countries with – Oh I don’t know say 1,000kms – of a tectonic plate? Or 1,000 kms of a decent terrorist network, or unstable regime? Or cranky colonel with ambitions?

    Tectonic plates aside, nuclear isn’t so much an engineering problem. It is a political, social and economic one. We mere mortals – those who are not engineers – aren’t up to dealing with the stuff.

    Now I’m having some trouble tracking down your reference above to Michael Schellenberger. Heard a bit of him on TV and he sounded most interesting. But all I get on that ABC site is a wall of 20 second news clips. Far far too 2011 for my liking. Anything chunkier?

  • 10
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Nice discussion, thanks for all that.

    Archer, history has already revealed that the Japanese nuclear site was poorly positioned, and you could add a lot more but leading to the same conclusion.
    The issues with nuclear extend beyond their location. Problems include waste disposal, incredible expense, massive social opposition, & extraordinary risks. The auto industry also faces risks in the area where faults in design emerge over time and need to be addressed, often communicated via a recall. The problem is rectified and life goes on. But nuclear incidents leave indelible scars, and such events can’t be “recalled” as in the manufacturing industries. Nuclear incidents do not respect any borders: – radiation spreads worldwide and there is no mechanism to prevent that spread. Is it responsible to risk such outcomes? Not in MHO.

    But lets assume that nuclear reactors will still be built. Their cost is massive because of the security needed to be built into design and construction, the storage (and eventual disposal of spent fuel) and of course decommissioning costs. These costs far outweigh existing renewables such as wind and solar costs. Renewable costs are declining, nuclear is increasing.
    To substitute nuclear for coal would need many thousands of reactors. Current lead time for a reactor is around 20 years for just one. Uranium is not in great abundance and would be depleted in around 5 years if it replaced coal. OK, there is thorium, and the next generation reactors (that don’t exist yet) may offer some promise.But if we are already close to climate tipping points, or our ability to arrest change, then nuclear will be too late on any scale to save us from runaway climate change. On the plus side, a couple of the new generation models being considered can use largely unrefined fuels, and some can produce hydrogen gas, which just might enable hydrogen as a viable transport fuel.

    Standards of living? These will need to change because our use of resources and energy are too high to be sustained at the current levels. There is much that can be done to soften the blow, but a change in lifestyle will occur in either a controlled manner or otherwise. Some insight into regional issues precipitated by over-use can be seen simply by looking at our Murray-Darling system.

  • 11
    Peter Chambers
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    @ Archer #8: You can’t compare us with them.

    Actually, you must, for three reasons:

    1) where do you think Japan’s radioactive material comes from?

    2) the Japanese are, as you mention, a methodical lot: problems of corruption notwithstanding (as Peter O rightly points out). But are Australians not corrupt? Corruption takes many forms… It’s also the case that power corrupts, and that might include the power that comes through the grid…

    3) Australians are not, last I checked, any ‘different’ to the Japanese, unless you posit some kind of Australian exceptionalism. Are we not building desal plants to be fed with brown coal from power stations drawing clean water from the catchments? That doesn’t seem very clever. Don’t we have an aluminum smelter in Portland that draws electricity from the LaTrobe valley, losing almost 50% of the power in the transfer. Might be that power in the political sense plays an important role here as everywhere else…

    ~ then think: Australia is planning to export to India. Yes, accidents will happen.

    ‘You suggest a plan to achieve complete turnover of new power technology in 5 to 10 years.’

    Well, ten years (we don’t have Attaturk here, or some other kind of benevolent dictatorship): what would it mean to begin posing the question, imagining the possibility? It is certainly impossible if you think it’s ‘out of the question’ to begin with.

    Australia’s addiction to fuel-inefficient V6 and V8 engines is analogous: it’s a cultural preference with a specific history, not a technical impossibility. Just like the US’ preference for massive SUVs. I mean: Americans can also make the MacBook Air…

    ~ refrain: there’s politics involved…

    In a pragmatic/short-term sense, Australians can ‘afford’ to be extremely lazy about electricity generation. This is a part of our privilege. My understanding is that there’s enough brown coal in the LaTrobe Valley to keep smoking it up through Hazelwood (the power generating equivalent of a ’57 Chevy) for hundreds of years. The questions would be: at what cost? With what harm? We can blinker ourselves to the costs and harms… but they exist. And they’re coming for your kids…

    You mention a standard of living with a large number of gadgets: this is a standard, sure. My question: is it ideal? 100 years ago, maintaining standards in fine houses required ‘help’ – good help these days *is* very hard to find, but mostly it is unnecessary. I would argue: for good reason. And yet this standard was defended tooth and nail by its beneficiaries, just as slavery was in the US, just as opium was by the Company. And you can go to Singapore or the Emirates, and – hey presto – there is ‘the help’, doing all the menial tasks, the more menial, the darker the skin. And you will then, in turn, find groups of Singaporeans who defend this set of social arrangements.

    My general question that I begin with is: is our current standard ideal? I don’t think so. I’m personally quite shocked by how wasteful and short-sighted it is. If you do think so, then, okay, perhaps it might be necessary to destroy the climate system to maintain it, if that’s the trade off. It’s a question of values.

    In terms of sacrifice:don’t all arrangements require trade offs? I don’t know if you commute by car, but this is hardly an ideal (in my opinion) or optimal standard. But it is the predictable effect of a set of values, including the right to private car ownership. As is gridlock. Why road rage? If we accept car ownership as is, we should accept gridlock. That we don’t suggests, I would argue, that we ‘know’ on some level that it is a complete waste of time and human potential.

    ‘or have to go backwards before viable alternatives are engineered.’

    Would an economy not dependent on coal really be a backwards step?

    ‘And the exported material will pay for your R&D, or some of it.’

    Germany has done much better for itself since it stopped being dependent on coal. Not so Britain, but then again, top-end hi-fi notwithstanding, the Germans actually make stuff that people want (exports just past 1 trillion). The City of London just makes profits for itself and investors and risk for the socius, mostly… but back to the question raised by the post: ought we export coal and uranium if it is harmful (as per my example of opium)? Are there not things that should categorically not be sold for profit? I mean: if heroin could pay to rebuild Afghanistan, why not do it?

    The question of baseload power that you raise is central;

    this program from RN is fascinating on this topic:


    Acc. said program, a huge portion of capacity goes to service peak load, for those periods of the year (eg in summer) when people come home, turn on the telly, and crank the aircon (no doubt very tired and frazzled after a 1+ hour commute through gridlock).

    As I see it: we don’t have to live like this; once again, it’s a question of values and priorities: TANSTAAFL

  • 12
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Peter O @11

    I’m sorry, this is all I could find on the issue he was discussing. It was on the 7.30 report, not very long.

    I’ll try to find something more in depth.


  • 13
    Posted December 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Peter Chambers @11

    Hello Peter.

    I know many hold Germany as the show case of innovation and engineering, and so they should. As a designer I know and appreciate their work ethic and technical prowess and if anyone is going to produce green alternatives it will be the Germans.

    However the Germans are in a very fortunate position of being able to purchase energy from Norwegian Hydro and French Nuclear to ensure base load. We are not in that enviable position. Whatever we do has to have minimal impact.

  • 14
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    How can Uranium be a greener alternative if the High Level Waste consisting of the spent reactor fuel remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years? I’m sick and tired of the Uranium Industry apologists patting us all on the head and telling us not to worry about it. They are from the same school as the people 50 years ago who were telling us 101 ways to have fun with Asbestos without really knowing if it was safe or not. There is enough high level waste buried underground right now to bring on a major worldwide catastrophe. While Uranium is capable of being turned into weapons that could end life on this planet, leave it in the ground. All the agreements signed re not using it for this purpose are an exercise in naivety.

  • 15
    Robin Cameron
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    @ Archer, ‘Well duh’? Come one, where’s your ability to formulate genuinely pressing positions from arguments that I might normally and perhaps to quickly dismiss as conventional? In the short time this blog has been going I have come to anticipate being challenged by your views.

    My point was not the apparently self-evident economic argument against climate change, but rather that if we are really saying that we are economically constrained from addressing the ethical consequences of our consumption and trade patterns then perhaps we should not be so ready to place Australia in a position of superiority from those countries we call ‘developing’ and give money and advice to.

    This question of the ethical implications of our reliance on coal would equally extend to uranium/nuclear energy (as NAJ suggests), rather than suggest that coal should be exchanged for nuclear. I’m not willing to eliminate ethics through strategic or economic necessities.

    Basically I think we as citizens and as a nation should be honest and own the ethical consequences of our actions. I think if we do that coal and nuclear power sources are very hard to support.

  • 16
    Robin Cameron
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    PS if we are talking Schellenberger on the environment, we are probably talking along the lines of the general gist of what he and Nordhaus were getting at in “Death of Environmentalism”.

    This I think is a thesis that broadly supports my argument. They suggest that environmentalism conceived as ad hoc economic solutions (especially government initiatives) are useless. Instead a fundamental Copernican-style shift in world-view needs to occur so that the global ecosystem is the unquestioned and primary orientation of economic and technological development. Environmentalism should die and be reborn as an animating progressive politics and foundation of a new social contract.

    Heady stuff. They make me sound practical by comparison.

  • 17
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand half of what you are talking about, mostly because you’ve shifted the discussion from Rob’s (ruefully) abstract notion of social ecology to the practical level of resource allocations, economic impact, accidents etc.

    However, to feed into that for a sec: this is the best statistician take on Australia’s economic health I’ve seen of late, also contextualised around ‘exceptionalism’ which talks to some of the points raised earlier in the thread: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics/2011/12/08/australian-exceptionalism/

    Do look into the literature on the ‘resource curse’ – I know a guy who wrote 70% of a pHd on it and then changed his mind – so will ask him to blog on it.

    On the issue of uranium, I do have some established thoughts. In brief, it troubles me the way the discussion is termed coal vs uranium – as Pete says, because of the social and environmental implications, but also because of the highly politicised – at the national, inter-national and global levels – arena in which that latter resource is traded.

    As to nuclear material, research facility and plant accidents or ‘attacks’, useful source is Prof Scott Sagan.

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