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Ten days out from the NSW elections
Politicians in denial on global warming

By Matt Mushalik
15 March 2007

In a recent interview on the ABC’s Lateline, our Prime Minister answered a question by presenter Tony Jones on what Australia would look like at the end of the century with a possible temperature rise of between 4 and 6 degrees (transcript here).

JOHN HOWARD: “Well, it would be less comfortable for some than it is now, but, Tony, I think it's very, very hard for us, in 2007, to try, with that kind of mathematical accuracy, with great respect to the scientists, to sort of extrapolate what things might be …”

On Tuesday evening’s 7.30 Report, climatologist James Hansen from NASA, a respected scientist, gave some clear answers to Kerry O’Brien (transcript here): “ … If we get warming of two or three degrees Celsius, then I would expect that both West Antarctica and parts of Greenland would end up in the ocean, and the last time we had an ice sheet disintegrate, sea level went up at a rate of 5 metres in a century, or one metre every 20 years. That is a real disaster, and that's what we have to avoid …”

KERRY O'BRIEN: You said just a couple of weeks ago that there should be a moratorium on building coal fired power plants until the technology to capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions is available. But you must know that that’s politically unacceptable in many countries – China, America, Australia for that matter, because of coal industry jobs and impact on the economy.

JAMES HANSEN: Well, it’s going to be realised within the next 10 years or so that we have no choice. We're going to have to bulldoze the old style coal-fired power plants. We can burn coal, provided we capture the CO2 and sequester it, and we're working on technology that would allow us to do that and we should have been working a little harder but, nevertheless, we will have, within five to 10 years, we will have that technology. In the meantime, we should be emphasising energy efficiency so that we don’t need new old style coal fired power plants. We're just not doing that.

So what’s the NSW Government doing to avoid this disaster? Yes, you guessed it – approving more coal mines and plans for a third coal loader in Newcastle. And a desalination plant powered by electricity from coal.

Those who think that geo-sequestration of CO2 can be made to work should consider this: the capacity of Australia's coal (export) industry is limited to the extent its clients can safely, successfully, and in time before 2025, have geo-sequestration of CO2 in place. As a matter of urgency, proper assessments of this limited potential have to be completed before any decisions on new coal mines and coal loading facilities at ports are made.

Feasible rock formations for geo-sequestration will mainly be depleted oil and gas fields off-shore. So there will not be too many sites available for Australia’s coal customers. CO2 dumps on-shore will be even more dangerous than nuclear waste dumps.

One of the factors to be considered for deep sea burial of CO2 will be the availability of drilling rigs. Just now, as we are entering the second half of oil, we'll need more and more drilling rigs to squeeze out the rest of the oil. Geothermal projects will need drilling rigs, too. Stark choices will have to be made.

For those who doubt that renewable energies are the way to go, Mark Diesendorf, from the Institute for Environmental Studies at UNSW, describes in his paper “A Clean Energy Future for Australia” (PDF here) how a mixture of energy efficiency, biomass power, wind, solar, geothermal and natural gas as a transitional fuel can replace coal.

And how about the Federal Government’s proposed nuclear program? You’ll be surprised to learn – and this fact is hardly mentioned by anyone in the nuclear debate – that annual emissions under this proposal would actually increase. That is because Howard’s 25 nuclear power plants would be just packed on top of untouched coal plants only some of which would be retired – mainly because by then they’d be falling apart anyway.

In the meantime, coal miners in Newcastle fear for their jobs. So what is the NSW Government doing about it? Yes, you guessed it, giving 80 per cent of a recent rail carriage contract to an overseas supplier. That job should have gone to the rail workshops in Newcastle.

Politicians, back to the drawing board! It’s just 10 days until the state election.