Cutting greenhouse emissions – what would we do if we really meant it?

George Wilkenfeld

Mark Diesendorf Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2007 (432 pp). ISBN 978-086840-973-3 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

This is a book for a future whose time, sadly, has already passed. It is an admirably clear account of how energy use in Australia creates greenhouse gas emissions and what could be done to reduce them. Using less energy but using it more efficiently is one obvious way; producing energy in less carbon-intensive ways is another.

This may sound simple but it is not. Diesendorf systematically explains the vast range of energy forms, supply and use technologies, design principles and practices underlying these options, their economic and financial costs and the government policies which help a few (mainly the fossil fuels) and either neglect or actively discourage the rest (mainly the ‘sustainable’ ones). It is an excellent source book for tertiary students and for anyone with a more than superficial interest in Australia’s energy system, which in 2005 was responsible for 70 per cent of national greenhouse gas emissions (Australian Greenhouse Office 2007). It has enough climate science and enough politics to be a self-contained introduction to the larger climate change debate, and what Australia has done and could do.

Why, then, does it feel strangely anachronistic? Partly because it treats climate change as an issue that can be resolved through grassroots activism or by the opposition of protest movements to unjust regimes. Indeed, in the concluding section, which attempts to steel the reader’s resolve to pursue the enormous changes needed, Diesendorf takes most of his examples from these realms, for example:

Mass nonviolent action has been instrumental in the ending of many repressive regimes, including the 1986 toppling of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, the collapse of eastern European communist regimes in 1989, the failure of the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union and the ending of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s (p. 339).

This rather misses the point that the continuing rise in global greenhouse gas emissions is not a byproduct of injustice or repression but of economic freedom in the West and the unrelenting economic growth by which repressive regimes such as China’s buy legitimacy. In general, very few people want to be freed from consumption—most want the freedom to consume even more. This impulse is entirely understandable in the developing world, though it is beginning to sit uneasily in parts of the developed world.

Very few people want to be freed from consumption.

To the extent that climate change has risen to popular awareness in Australia, it is partly as a dampener on the enjoyment of consumption. Hence the proliferation of ‘carbon offset’ schemes, which offer a way out of sin without actually changing behaviour, much like the indulgences hawked by the Church in mediaeval times. (One could argue that those who purchased indulgences had more reason to believe in their effectiveness.)

Diesendorf’s book is pretty well up-to-date on technology and policies, and it is not the fault of the author that the opportunity for rational analysis of options and for a choice of energy pathways towards orderly lowering of emissions actually came and went about a decade ago.

Modern, capital-intensive energy systems change very slowly. One phase of change is the development of consensus within governing circles—the bureaucracy, business interests, engineers, governments—on whether to think about energy supply and use as a system at all or simply as a series of ad hoc decisions about investment, pollution, local development and the like.

The next phase is the emergence of a pattern of investment in supply infrastructure, which is typically very long lived. A coal-fired power station can remain in use for 40 years or more, even as the mines supplying it change and individual generating units are replaced. The oldest generating units still in use at Hazelwood power station in Victoria (one of the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions) date from the 1960s.

The third phase is the evolution of energy demand to suit the means and costs of supply, local climate and economic activity. Where natural gas is plentiful and widely available (as in Victoria, South Australia and parts of Western Australia and New South Wales) customers have invested in gas appliances. Coal and coal-derived electricity dominate everywhere else, except in Tasmania with its unique history (both political and technological) of hydro-electrification. Patterns of demand have their own inertia, supported by consumer preferences, the physical pipes and wires in streets, the design of buildings and production processes, and innovations in appliance design and marketing. These, in turn, feed back to the energy supply system and the thinking of the policy establishment.

In Australia the paradigm of massive electrification led by public sector investment, which gave us the State Electricity Commission of Victoria and the Hydro-Electric Commission of Tasmania before World War II, and the Electricity Commission of NSW and the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority immediately after, did not run its course until the late 1980s.

The next paradigm was marked by post-Thatcher economic policy, culminating in the establishment of an east coast electricity trading market, the commercialisation and corporatisation of State government energy trading enterprises and the sale of some (in Victoria and South Australia) to the private sector during the 1990s. This paradigm still dominates government thinking, and will probably do so until it runs its course with the deregulation of energy pricing and the sale of the remaining publicly owned energy enterprises in New South Wales and Queensland, if not by the present governments then by future ones.

A lot of taxpayer and electricity user money has been wasted.

The possibility of a carbon-based paradigm is only just beginning to emerge. For the first time it is driven by ‘external’ voter concern rather than from within the policy establishment. There have been ‘internal’ debates about greenhouse emissions since the late 1980s, but these have been crushed by vested interests in the mining, minerals and energy industries and by their captive government agencies. This has been documented in appalling detail by Clive Hamilton, whose book Scorcher (2007) should be read as a companion to Diesendorf’s.

Australia’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions have grown at an average rate of 2.1 per cent per annum since 1990 (Australian Greenhouse Office 2007). Since the adoption of the first National Greenhouse Response Strategy in 1992, and especially after the Commonwealth set up the Australian Greenhouse Office in 1997, there have been many schemes to slow the rate of growth. The impact has been negligible—in fact the rate of growth has been slightly higher since 1997.

The total effort has been perhaps a third of what was needed, and the programs have been about a third successful, so all up the effect has been less than a tenth of what would have been necessary to stop emissions growth, let alone reverse it. A lot of taxpayer and electricity user money has been wasted on rewarding emitters for doing no more than ‘Business as Usual’. Programs routinely take credit for normal efficiency improvements that businesses would have made anyway, and the benefits of large projects tend to be claimed by many of the companies involved and so double and triple counted. Nevertheless governments claim success on the grounds that without these efforts emissions would have been even higher.

The only measure that matters is the absolute level of emissions, not the percentage reductions below mythical ‘baselines’. We will know that the federal government is serious about greenhouse when it nominates a target year for Australia’s emissions to peak and a rate at which they should then fall, and it details how emission rights will be rationed to ensure that this happens as planned. Of course, in our pluralist democracy the views of governments balance and reflect the will of voters and special interest groups. So far the latter have dominated the greenhouse debate, and while the popular voice has become louder it is arguable that public support for action would weaken if people understood more clearly the scale of what really needs to be done.

A stringent and effective regime to reduce emissions would mean rising energy prices to reflect the costs to energy suppliers of seeking low-emissions energy sources and staying within their emission permit allocations. If structured equitably, such a regime could mean modest price rises for small energy users and massive rises for large users. Even then some choices currently taken for granted—to use as much energy as one can pay for, build as large a house or drive as large a car as one can afford—may have to be curtailed.

Public concern about global warming seems to peak at decade intervals.

Public concerns about the risks of global warming seem to peak at roughly decade intervals. Few will remember the ‘Toronto target’ of 1988 (to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to 80 per cent of the 1988 level by 2005) and its endorsement by the Hawke government in 1989. The next peak in public interest was in the leadup to the November 1997 negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The issue then abated, largely due to the anti-Kyoto stance of the Howard government and, after September 2001, the emergence and political amplification of terrorism as a more immediate threat.

Public concern surged again in late 2006 on the strength of record droughts and an early start to the bushfire season, reinforced by the publication of the Stern Review in October 2006 and the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in February 2007. The IPCC report confirmed the linkage between human greenhouse gas emissions and changes in the global climate, and the Stern Review concluded that the costs and risks of timely action to reduce emissions would be far lower than the costs of responding to massive climate change.

While both the Coalition and Labor have been forced to publicly accept these findings, in fact the new imperative for governments, both federal and state, is to manage the issue through the political cycle and to give the appearance of reducing emissions without actually doing so.

The national policy debate is still at the rhetorical rather than the substantive level, and looks set to stay that way for at least the life of the next federal government, whichever party gets elected. Greenhouse, like everything else, is grist for the 2007 federal election. The Howard Government has committed in principle to establishing a national system of carbon emissions permits, but has refused to specify any details until after the election. The Rudd Opposition has adopted a similar strategy. It has established a ‘Stern lite’ inquiry headed by Professor Ross Garnaut, to report, conveniently, after the election. It has also adopted vague ‘aspirational’ (read: ‘non-core’) long-term reduction targets which are essentially meaningless without a clear short-term strategy.

So far, Mr Rudd’s only clear statement on the environment has been to confirm bi-partisan support for the destruction of Tasmania’s old growth forests. It seems fanciful to imagine that a fresh Rudd Labor Government, in hock to the unions and to right-wing state Labor governments, with their own dismal records on greenhouse, will take on the coal, road, car industry, mining, aluminium, rural, and Latrobe Valley and Hunter Valley lobbies, to name just the obvious ones.

The reluctance of either party to embrace greenhouse gas reductions should come as no surprise. No party can afford to go to voters promising the kind of radical change in the economy, in energy pricing, and in the material circumstances of daily life that would accompany a program of large and rapid reduction in emissions, unless the other party concurs. There can be no real change without bipartisan support.

Energy use gives people comfort, speed, privacy and convenience.

If the IPCCs’ projections of rising emissions and dangerous climate instability are correct, the window of opportunity for averting this outcome through planned changes in the energy system has already closed. It takes ten to twenty years for a new energy paradigm to take hold and another twenty to 30 years to run its course. In Australia, we will probably not make a serious start on addressing greenhouse emissions until well after 2010, more than two decades after the articulation of the Toronto target. Whether this has much effect in the global scheme of things remains to be seen, but it is difficult to imagine others acting if rich, technically capable countries like Australia do not.

It is likely that there will eventually be reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, but they will be expensive and risky (for example, panic adoption of nuclear energy generation), and will occur against a background of increasing global economic and social dislocation caused by climate change itself. Ultimately, some of the reductions could be involuntary, from catastrophic failures of regions or entire nations to maintain energy and other physical and social infrastructure. There is also a risk that whatever humans do will be too late, swamped by methane releases from melting permafrost and carbon dioxide from dying and burning forests.

The alternative path, if it were still open to us, would be based on the kind of objective analysis in Mark Diesendorf’s book. It is strongest on the electricity supply options, comparing the costs of fossil, renewable and nuclear forms of generation in considerable detail and with worked examples which step the reader through both technical and financial concepts.

It is also thorough in its coverage of energy use, if a little less persuasive. In some cases Diesendorf gives ‘renewable’ energy a kind of moral advantage that spares it from the hard economic scrutiny reserved for fossil fuels. For example, he states but does not try to demonstrate that ‘Solar hot water systems are cost-effective in almost all of mainland Australia over their lifetimes’ (p. 153). This is simply not the case if one excludes financial subsidies, and even with subsidies solar water heaters are barely cost-effective compared with efficient conventional natural gas water heaters.

Worse still, electric-boosted solar water heaters actually have higher emissions than conventional gas water heaters (outside hydro-dominated Tasmania) and the emissions advantages of gas-boosted solar water heaters are so slender that many other ways of reducing emissions are cheaper.

This small example is symptomatic of an approach common among advocates of renewable energy, who are often tempted to bend the argument in their favour and over-state their case no less than the advocates of nuclear or fossil fuels. Given the weight of the competing forces, who can blame them?

Diesendorf is also rather blind to some of the dynamics of consumption. Energy use gives people comfort, speed, privacy and convenience. Many people actually enjoy driving and like their cars, and would continue to use them as long as they could afford to even if public transport were available. Whether desires for a constant stream of new goods or services are artificially manufactured or not, they are genuine factors in shaping the development of the energy system and need to be addressed directly. The energy system is a social construct as much as a technological one.

Nevertheless, the scope and detail of Diesendorf’s book is impressive. It is highly suitable as a textbook and a teaching aid, or as a handbook for activists, journalists or the more committed reader who is not afraid of numbers. As well, future historians—or archaeologists, if things go really badly—might well read it and wonder why, if we could see things so clearly, we did so little.


Australian Greenhouse Office 2007, National Greenhouse Gas Inventory 2005, Canberra.

Hamilton C. 2007, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007, Working Group 1: The Physical Basis of Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

National Greenhouse Response Strategy 1992, AGPS, Canberra.

Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change 2006, HM Treasury, London.

Dr George Wilkenfeld, an independent energy consultant based in Sydney, helps calculate energy sector emissions for the annual National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. He is co-author (with Peter Spearritt) of Electrifying Sydney: 100 years of EnergyAustralia (EnergyAustralia 2004).