Prosperity Without Growth?
Economic growth has been vitally important in creating a prosperous world. That economic growth is being driven by a global population explosion. Improvements in health care, life expectancy, education, income and well-being are all due to economic growth. The problem is that our economy and population cannot continue to grow forever. We live in a world with finite resources, and yet we live as if there is no limit to growth
It is blindingly obvious that we cannot continue with the current rate of resource extraction, materials consumption and environmental impact for ever. The problem is that we don’t know how to run an economy that isn’t growing.
Increasing our labour productivity means more work with less people, largely as a result of better technology. Better labour productivity pushes people out of work, unless the economy is growing. Growth equals jobs, which means the political pressure to keep our economy growing is enormous.
More factories need to employ more people to make more stuff so that more people can purchase ever increasing amounts of stuff that they don’t really need. We need to build more houses, schools and hospitals to cater for a rapidly increasing population, all of whom will want to consume more of our planets finite resources. Every hour we need to build 3000 new homes worldwide to keep up with population growth. We are fast approaching a limit.
What is the alternative? When economies stop growing, it is called a recession. Recessions are unstable because people lose jobs. What a dilemma; unsustainable growth versus unstable recession!
I want to escape from that dilemma. I want to buy a bit of land on the side of a hill and grow some vegetables. I could breed a few sheep and install some solar panels. I reckon with a fair bit of time and effort I could live within the finite resources of my little piece of land. It would be a full time job.
However, we would need about three planets to provide 9 billion people with a hill side retreat. The numbers just don’t add up. We are living beyond the environmental boundaries of our planet. Climate change and loss of biodiversity are a reflection of that excess.
Somehow, there needs to be a way forward that falls between unsustainable growth and recession. Anyone interested in the future of the planet should do a google search on Transition Towns.
The Base-Load Power Myth
A common criticism of renewable energy is that it is an intermittent source of energy or an unreliable form of base-load power. After all, everyone knows that the wind doesn’t blow all the time, and solar power isn’t much good at night.
There are a number of ways of getting around renewable energy’s problem of variability.
Firstly, no single technology is going to provide the answer, but if you look at a suite of renewable energy options, you can achieve a reliable energy source. Take Eden-Monaro as an example. We have hydro-electric power in the mountains, a large existing wind farm near Bungendore, and a wind farm about to be be built on the Monaro. There is are potential wind farm sites along the coast. A pilot wave generation project is planned for Eden. This is something that could be rapidly expanded along the coast. Thousands of household solar panels are being installed across the region. Biomass generation has potential and I suspect that geothermal power is going to advance quickly once some difficult development hurdles are overcome. Hot rocks are present everywhere as long as you have the technology to drill deep enough. Using a range of rapidly advancing renewable energy technologies, it doesn’t matter if the wind isn’t always blowing, or if we have some cloudy days.
Different regions across Australia will have different renewable energy resources. We are particularly fortunate in Eden-Monaro to have so many options available, which makes a 50/50 by 2020 target achievable well before we get to the twenties. Wherever you look in Australia, a range of renewable energy options are available, which means that a constant power source can be obtained.
Secondly, if you place a wind farm where there is a known wind resource, and if you use multiple windy locations, then variations in individual wind turbine outputs are smoothed out in a very predictable way. The same goes for large scale solar projects. if you have enough solar farms in good locations, then they will never all be covered by clouds. Wave generators up and down the coast in suitable locations add stability to the mix. There are always waves somewhere. Geothermal and biomass power stations (care must be taken to ensure that the fuel used for biomass generation is environmentally sustainable) add flexibility to the solutions.
Thirdly, you can back up temporary shortfalls in renewable energy supply using gas turbines. Their fuel, usually natural gas, is much cleaner than coal. Because gas turbines can be turned on and off very quickly, they are valuable for balancing sudden fluctuations in demand and supply.
With the right mix of renewable energy technologies, in the right locations, and with gas turbine back up, renewable energy can provide stable base load power which is dependable. Renewable energy can replace the the coal fired power stations that fueled the industrialisation of the last century. Renewable energy will increasingly become the driver of Australia’s economic development in the 21st century.
Bateman’s Bay Forest Forum
Positive discussions took place at the Forest Forum in Bateman’s Bay last Saturday. I attended, representing CEFE and giving a short talk on positive aspects of biomass. People who queued to get into the Soldiers’ Club conference rooms were rewarded by an impressive array of speakers.
Professor Ian Lowe from the Australian Conservation Foundation opened proceedings, confirming news of the recent remarkable statement by Gunns’ new CEO that his company is pulling out of native forest logging in Tasmania altogether. Australia has the world’s worst record for biodiversity loss – and, with over three quarters of species still unidentified, we don’t even understand the significance of what we are losing. The keystone to slowing this freefall is maintaining habitat. Quoting the recent Academy of Science conclusion that to have a better than even (over 50%) chance of holding global temperature rises under 2 degrees, the world will have to emit less than half (50%) the amount of carbon dioxide by 2020 or risk exceptional circumstances becoming common. Lowe challenged us that the future is something we create and what we do today determines the sort of world we live in tomorrow.
Our very own Bishop George Browning closed proceedings, reminding us of our moral responsibility to look after the earth and those less fortunate than ourselves. He suggests that core business of people of all faiths is to look after environmental safety and the rhythms of the created order. The sense of belonging to one family is crucial and our children depend upon our ability to make wise decisions.
In between there were fascinating talks on Tourism opportunities along the Sapphire Coast, legal battles to protect Aboriginal heritage and critical habitat for endangered species, and the exciting Great Eastern Ranges project linking corridors of habitat from the Victorian Alps through to Atherton in Queensland. Progress was reported on the volume of plantations coming on stream, with figures from Judith Adjani showing enough resource available now to replace native forest logging. The Forest Stewardship Council standard was discussed, and examples given of responsible value-adding at the Visy pulp mill in Tumut.
Closer to home, there was talk of local environment plans (LEPs) and the new State template; a project to link up Mumbulla, Gulaga and Mimosa Rocks as integral parts of the same cultural and ecological landscape; and the power of beauty and poetry to inspire us to protect forest connections between our mountains and our coastline.
Resounding throughout the entire conference was the evidence and conviction that Australia ’s forests are worth more standing up as intact carbon stores than clear-felled for paper pulp and “waste”. A motion was passed to ask Nippon Paper (South East Fibre Exports) to follow Gunn’s lead and move out of native forest logging. All present were fired up (excuse the pun!) to find a workable joint solution to the age-old conflict.
In The Balance
The 2010 election campaign was noteable for its lack of vision. No party has emerged as a clear winner, and no party has won a clear mandate to take action on anything. There is disenchantment with the major parties.
Neither of the major political parties have much to say to say about climate change. Both the ALP and the coalition agree to the pathetic target of a 5% reduction in emissions by 2020. This is well below what the science demands. The climate policies of both parties will see a steady rise in Australia’s emissions, and will not get us to a 5% target. The climate policies of both parties provide absolutely no framework for moving beyond a 5% reduction target past 2020. The election result reflects the inadequate response of our politicians to the threat of climate change.
There was only one clear winner in the 2010 Federal election, and that was the Greens. They saw a big swing in their favour, will control the balance of power in the senate, have senate representation in each state and gain a seat in the House of Representatives.
The message for the ALP and the Coalition over the next three years is clear. Don’t expect a clear majority at the next election unless you have a coherent climate policy that will allow Australia to be a part of a global solution to climate change.