Tips on bushfire preparedness

There’s a new post at the Helidon Hills Smokespotters website summarising some tips coming out of newly published research from some major wildfires in the western United States and from Ignite Change, a relatively new Australian blog on bushfire awareness.

If you are living in Australia with any kind of bushfire threat, this would be a really good time to start updating and upgrading your bushfire protection, and the links above might just give you some ideas that will increase your property’s survivability.

Other relevant posts:

Fire Danger & Weather Conditions:      My other blog is the website for the Helidon Hills Smokespotters, an informal community group with members located at over 20 locations around the Helidon Hills in the Lockyer Valley.  You can find out about the Smokespotter group here.  The group’s motto is: when it comes to bushfires, we are all neighbours.  Though the group […]

The Fire Danger and Weather Conditions Tab above

Living with and understanding fire risk     Those of us who live on rural properties face varying degrees of fire risk.  Most of us are aware of the risk in a general sort of way, and many of us take active precautions to reduce the risk to some extent.  Few of us, however, think about how the reasons for living where we […]
An unexpected bushfire      The weather last Friday morning was quite unusual.  In fact I was commenting on it at the time in a blog post I was writing over at the Helidon Hills Smokespotters web site.  The general feel of the morning said “Fire Danger”, even though the actual Forest Fire Danger Rating was only High (we have […]

Wind power is cheapest energy, EU analysis finds

A new report prepared for the European Commission shows that onshore wind is cheaper than coal, gas or nuclear energy when the costs of ‘external’ factors like air quality, human toxicity and climate change are taken into account.

The report says that for every megawatt hour (MW/h) of electricity generated, onshore wind costs roughly €105 (£83) per MW/h, compared to gas and coal which can cost up to around €164 and €233 per MW/h, respectively.

This was reported in The Guardian, in an article by Arthur Neslen on 14 October.  The following is excerpted from the article.

>>Nuclear power, offshore wind and solar energy are all comparably inexpensive generators, at roughly €125 per MW/h.

“This report highlights the true cost of Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels,” said Justin Wilkes, the deputy CEO of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). “Renewables are regularly denigrated for being too expensive and a drain on the taxpayer. Not only does the commission’s report show the alarming cost of coal but it also presents onshore wind as both cheaper and more environmentally-friendly.”

The paper, which was written for the European commission by the Ecofys consultancy, suggests that the Conservative party plan of restricting new onshore windfarms will mean blocking out the cheapest source of energy when environmental and health facts are taken into consideration. It has been suggested the Tory plan could be done through a cap on onshore wind turbines’ output, lower subsidies or tighter planning restrictions.

“Any plans to change policy for onshore wind must be looked at in the context of this report,” said Oliver Joy a spokesman for EWEA. “Investors need long-term visibility. ‘Stop-start’ policies as well as harsh retroactive changes can blindside investors, driving up the risk premium and cost of capital.”

….

Sustainability and resilience is also about your pension

You probably didn’t expect to see a post on pension funds in this blog, but if you think about it we all want to be able to get through our “third age” without having to think too much about where the money is coming from, and without being forced into unsustainable options just because of a lack of funds.

On Tuesday in attended the  one-day ‘Economic Growth, Climate Change and the G20’, conference hosted by the Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.  One of the best conferences I’ve ever been to for a lot of reasons.  Everyone was “on message”, the facilities were fantastic, the room held 250 people without being crowded or anyone not being able to see or hear the speakers.  But what really made it great were the members of the four panels and their moderators.  I’ve never been at a panel-type conference where the panel members were so knowledgeable and lucid in relevant fields.

One of the panelists in the session that addressed the question of how capital markets address un-burnable carbon (think “stranded assets”) was Dr John Hewson.

Dr. Hewson’s business career before entering politics in 1987, was as a company director and business consultant and included roles as Foundation Executive Director, Macquarie Bank Limited and as a Trustee of the IBM Superannuation Fund.  Dr. Hewson’s political career included 7 years as a ministerial advisor (to two successive Federal Treasurers and the Prime Minister) and a further 8 years as the Federal Member for Wentworth in the Federal Parliament. He was Shadow Finance Minister, Shadow Treasurer and Shadow Minister for Industry and Commerce, then Leader of the Liberal Party and Federal Coalition in Opposition for 4 years.  He has worked as an economist for the Australian Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the IMF.

And, most relevant to the topic of his panel at Tuesday’s conference, Dr Hewson is also the chair of the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP), an independent global not-for-profit organisation whose objective is to protect members’ retirement savings from the risks posed by climate change.

A key activity of the AODP is an annual survey and assessment of the world’s 1000 largest pension funds, pertaining to their management of climate change risks and opportunities.  This results in published rankings to allow members, stakeholders and industry to see which funds are better than others at managing climate risk.  These funds currently manage in excess of US$52 trillion and of this high-carbon assets often constitute 50-60% portfolios, with low-carbon assets typically representing less than 2% (DB Climate Change Advisors, January 2010).

You can look up the AODP Climate Index of pension funds to see whether your super/pension fund is there and how it rates.  You can use the drop-down box at the top of the page to restrict the range of funds shown (e.g. Australia, or Asia-Pacific).  It’s interesting to see that six Australian funds are in the top-20 globally.

As a footnote, Australia’s Local Government Super (for local government employees and Councillors) ranked top of the 1,000 funds assessed last year, and second this year, for their climate-change-ready investment portfolio – while our Lockyer Valley Regional Council is still developing a climate change policy.

 

Growing Dragon Fruit from cuttings and looking after your growing plant

This post is a work-in-progress compilation of material on growing this delicious and low maintenance fruit.  I will edit it from time to time as I come across more/better material.

[Sunday night Oct 5: Have just revised the links at the bottom of this page - quite a few useful sites there now]

[October 6: added table of nutritional values of pitaya, added photos and associated text, added new links to source]

Our Dragon Fruit Experience

We started out with some cuttings of red dragon fruit in 2010 or early 2011.  They grew successfully in large pots, but we didn’t have anywhere where we could plant them out, so they stayed in the pots for ages, with some eventually extending roots through the bottoms of the pots and into the ground.  These plants are nothing if not hardy.

Three of them were planted out on a beam trellis in a shade tunnel in mid-2011 (the 30% shade cloth on these tunnels is extended only during the hotter parts of the summer).

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First dragon fruit bud – February 2012 – while the plant was still in the original pot

Two buds were produced in late summer 2012 – probably in late summer because the plants were not sufficiently established to flower earlier that summer.  Neither of these produced fruit.  In the 2012/13 summer we had two flowers and two fruit.

In October 2012 one-third of the floor or the shade tunnel was dug out to a depth of 200-300mm and filled with dead timber, including tree trunks, branches, twigs and leaves, and chip mulch from our annual firebreak clearing, then covered over with the soil taken out of the hole (or rather the two-thirds of the soil that remained after the rocks had been sieved out)  to make a modified heugelkultur/raised garden bed.  That’s the lush area in the background of the photo below, 10 months later.

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One of the dragon fruit on the trellis – late July 2013.  This shot gives you an idea of the post and beam trellis.  It actually recommended for red dragon fruit, but I fail to see why, and I know a commercial grower who has changed over from this to post and frame trellises.

In late July 2013, just before the photo above was taken, the remainder of the floor of the shade tunnel was turned into a modified heugelkultur bed.  The raised bed on top of the timber was a lasagne bed with layers of straw, poultry manure (including quite a few carcases), and compost.

By late December 2013, only five months later, the dragon fruit had responded dramatically.

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The same plant as above, but five months later (there is a second plant growing up the post in the background, but the branches here are from the one in the foreground).

We eventually had seven fruit from nine flowers on four plants from the 2013/2014 summer, harvesting the last of the fruit in May and June.  One fruit didn’t develop, and one was on a new plant growing out in “possum land” beyond the electric fence and was eaten by the possums before it was ripe.

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The same plant in mid-2014 prior to pruning

In hindsight it was really dumb to plant dragon fruit above a vegetable bed inside a rather narrow shade tunnel.  These things need to be able to grow as wide as they want, and they need to have a combination of old and new branches hanging down (fruit comes from both).  It just doesn’t work, and forgetting that the vines are there and standing up under one to get one of those small spines in the soft part of the ear is not fun.  As soon as we get an extension to the garden fenced we will be planting lots of dragon fruit there, from cuttings off these plants.

Propagating via Cuttings

While it is possible to propagate dragon fruit from seeds, it is along process and does not result in a vine with the same fruit producing properties as the parent.  With the cuttings you are getting a clone of the parent, and much more quickly.

You can make multiple stem cuttings from the one piece of stem, but focus on the lower and middle portions of the stem (away from the growing tip) to get the most robust material.  If you have an “intermediate” section of stem with narrow stem portions at each end, then it probably doesn’t matter where you take the cutting.

Try to use a stem that is a few inches in diameter (> 2 inches), but smaller stems will work – the danger is that the stem may dry up too much when being “cured” or before it produces roots in the pot. Thicker cuttings suffer less stress.

When you make a fresh cutting, it’s best to place it in a shady location for a week or more to allow the cut end to dry and “heal” to avoid fungal infections, before placing it into soil.  You may see roots starting to develop during this period, but it is not necessary to wait for roots before potting the cured cutting.

Thereafter, a good, well-drained potting mix will serve to encourage roots to grow.

Water once every one to two weeks and let the soil dry up, too wet can cause fungus attack.  Keep mulch away from the base of the plant to avoid introducing fungi and rot.

With filtered sunlight and warm temperature, the vine will grow a root first, then, once the root is established, new branches will sprout from the nodes.

When new growth appears (this may take as long as four months, depending on the weather and season) they are ready to plant in the ground in a sunny location.

 

Growing the Mature Plant

Dragon fruit need to grow up a trellis, but they need to be able to “hang” their side branches out from the main stem (or from a beam or frame on top of the trellis) in an arc.

Remove lateral growth until the stems reach at least a few feet up their support. Then you can prune the tips of the stems to induce multiple branching, and eventually, fruiting.

This cactus develops some pretty thick and heavy stems, so your support will need to ultimately hold quite a bit of weight. Use twine or bands of fabric to help attach it to the support, avoiding wires that can cut into the weighty stems.  Eventually the stems will grow aerial roots to grip onto the support.

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A man inspects dragon fruit trees on a plantation in rural Cambodia. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post: 30/7/12

This plant is very efficient because it can grow roots on any surface. It can also absorb water and nutrient through any surface. It can also utilize low light or partial shade but it grows better in full sun. BUT be careful when the plant is moved from low light to full sun – on very hot days the vine can sunburn easily.  Growth and fruiting are better in full sun (and the plant needs at least half a day of sun), but in the hotter part of summer I use 30% shade cloth.

Flowering, Pollination and Fruit Development

The main flowering is in summer and then fruit develop into autumn and winter, however the time taken to reach maturity depends on the size of the fruit, so from flowering to ripe can be as short as six weeks or, more usual, several months.

[Need to add more information here]

Feeding Your Dragon Fruit

Dragon fruit needs low nitrogen and high phosphorus in the soil, particularly as it approaches, and during, the growing and fruiting season.  They “hibernate” in winter in our climate.

Pruning

When your plant is at least one year old, strong and vigorous, and ideally having proven its ability to bloom and fruit abundantly (this may take 18 months to two years in our climate), you can begin to take stem cuttings.  Because the plant needs to be pruned once it is mature and has fruited (in order to produce many new side stems and therefore many fruit) you will have an opportunity every year to make cuttings from the pruned material.

It is on the new branches sprawling over the top of the support structure where most of the new flowers are produced, although flowers can pop-up anywhere on the plant.

The Nutritional Value of Dragon Fruit

Nutritional Value of Pitaya

Click on the table to go to the source at: Dragon Fruit: Nutritional Value, Health Benefits and Calorie Count for more information

 Some useful links

NT Government AgNote D42: The Pitaya or Dragon Fruit A four-page technical note on key aspects of cultivation.

NT Government Growing Note: Pitaya (Dragon Fruit) One-page note with some material not covered in above AgNote

Dragon Fruit Production Guide (Pinoy Bisnes Ideas) A lot of good information, some of it in more detail than the above publications.

Pitaya Growing in the Florida Home Landscape  One of the most complete sources I have found on growing dragon fruit.

Dragon Fruit (Pitaya) – How-to Guide for Growing   Includes a video on hand pollination.  A very good source of information on growing dragon fruit, with some information that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.  This is actually an Australian self-sufficiency website, and the author is based in South East Queensland.

Pruning Pitaya (Dragon Fruit) (Sub-tropical Fruit Club of Queensland Instruction with photos for pruning. Use the search box on this page “pitaya” for a huge amount of useful/interesting information on Dragon Fruit

Dragonfruit Cactus (Botanical Growers Network publication) Some of the information fills gaps in the above sources, or gives a different slant on some topics.

Improved Production Technology for Pitaya (Philippines Bureau of Agricultural Research) Check info on when to prune, time to first production and time from flowering to harvest.

http://dragonfruit.foodlywise.com/ An annoying site because of its strange links but there’s some good information if you can figure out how to follow them.

http://dragonfruit.foodlywise.com/how_to_grow_dragonfruit/growing_dragonfruit_commercially/growing_dragonfruit_from_cuttings/dragonfruit_stem_cuttings/  Covers several aspects of growing dragon fruit from cuttings.

http://www.vivapitaya.com/dragon-2.htm A selection of photos of dragon fruit growing in different circumstances – some ideas for supports, and indications of what healthy plants look like in the tropics.

Nicole Foss in Laidley, talking about threats and options

Went to the talk by Nicole Foss (the person behind The AutomaticEarth website) in Laidley on Saturday afternoon on the threats to Australia from the combination of excessive personal debt, over-leveraged banks, the approaching global limits to growth (including peak oil) and climate change.

This wasn’t some gloom-and-doom hand-wringing session.  Foss takes a solution-oriented approach and explored a range of choices available to people at the individual, family and community levels. She covered the alternatives, ranging across urban, rural, suburban retrofit, intentional community, eco-village – and summarised the advantages and disadvantages of each option. 

Along the way she offered Australia an outline of a “Plan-B”: stop basing the economy on feeding the Chinese demand for resources; stop trying to feed 60 million people (and destroying Australia’s soils in the process) instead focussing on food security for Australia into the long term; and replace the sense of complacency with a sense of urgency.

The talk was a logical follow-up to the presentation she gave at the Queensland Institute of Technology in early July, on her speaking tour with David Holmgren.

Nicole Foss, who sometimes writes under the name of ‘Stoneleigh’, is a Canadian sustainability, energy, and finance expert. She is best known for her works on her website, The Automatic Earth.  She was editor of the Oil Drum Canada website where she wrote on the connections between energy and finance.  She now lives in New Zealand.

The event was organised by SavourSoil Permaculture (a Laidley-based small business), and in my opinion made an important contribution to local understanding of the most significant issues facing us and the Earth and, most important, provided a window into the approaches we will need to adopt to ensure personal and community resilience. Thanks Michael, good to see people wiling to make such a contribution to the community.

Rafaele Joudry from Atamai Eco-Village in the north of New Zealand’s South Island (where Foss now lives) gave an overview of Atamai and its philosophy.

A DIY Compost Thermometer for under $30

I’ve just “upgraded” my compost thermometer.  Previously it consisted of a digital cable-probe thermometer taped to a length of reinforcing rod.  Simple, effective, and awkward to use, and risking breakage of the thermometer and the probe.

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Overview of the new compost thermometer

The new model is made almost completely from bits and pieces lying around in the workshop, things from Reverse Garbage in Brisbane, or cheap “off the shelf” parts from plumbing supply shops, supermarkets, or eBay.  The shaft length is 880mm, plenty long enough for reaching into a 1 cu.m. or larger compost heap.

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Side view of the top of the thermometer showing the main components

The thermometer itself is housed in a plastic kitchen container from the local supermarket – cost about $2.  It’s held onto a short length of threaded 25mm PVC water pipe (cost about $3.50 for a 300mm length from Masters Hardware, and I’ve still got the remainder with a threaded end to use for another project) with a 25mm conduit saddle clamp (cost $0.65 from hardware). This screws into a threaded PVC “T” (from my plumbing spares box – cost maybe $2.50) that is closed off on the other side with a 25mm bung (also from my plumbing spares box and not really necessary).  The T joins the shaft via a 25mm nipple joiner (only used in order to achieve a join with the blue part of the shaft – cost maybe $2.00).  The internal diameter of the nipple didn’t quite match the blue part of the shaft, so I cut off a short section of rural polypipe (from a huge heap of off-cuts) and hit it with the heat gun to slip it over the blue shaft.  No glue needed.  The piece of blue PVC conduit came from Reverse Garbage in Brisbane (cost maybe $0.70 – Reverse Garbage is a fantastic place to browse.  I always come away with things I didn’t even know I needed until I saw them).

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Thermometer screen unit inserted into cut-out in the top of the case

The main thermometer unit with the digital screen on the front is made to be inserted into an instrument panel, so the black “flashing” around the screen is a few mm wider than the main housing, to hide the edges of the cut-out.  On each end of the main housing there is a “lug” which pops past the end of the cut-out to hold the unit in place. I carefully measured the main part of the thermometer housing and marked the outline onto the top of the case, then cut it out using a drill and a hacksaw blade.

Using this waterproof kitchen box helps to keep moisture and dirt from getting onto the back of the thermometer when using it around compost piles.

I got the thermometer from Jaycar in Brisbane years ago for $14.95.  They haven’t had them in stock for quite a while, but you can buy these on the internet or on eBay.  Make sure the cable length is long enough, and that there is an on/off switch (if you want one).  Good idea to check the range too, though the range we are interested in for compost-making is usually within the range of this type of thermometer.  Oven/barbecue thermometers are generally way overpriced and not easily adapted to something like this.

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Conduit saddle clamp holding the case to the short section of threaded pipe.

The case is held onto the threaded pipe with a 25mm saddle clamp made for clamping conduit or water pipe onto a wall. The short bolts I had in my “odd nuts & bolts” box needed large washers because of the large holes in the clamps.  On the other side I used large washers inside the case to spread the force so as not to crack the case.

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Mounting the case onto the pipe

Because the clamp isn’t tight around the pipe I put a Tek screw (wood thread, not metal) through a hole drilled in the base of the case and into the wall of the pipe.  This needed a largeish washer under the head of the Tek screw so that the pressure of tightening the screw didn’t crack the case.  The hole where the cable exits the case could be sealed with silicone, but I’d be wary of causing condensation inside the case.

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The back of the thermometer when it’s mounted in the lid of the case.

It’s really easy to pop the lid off the case to press the on/off button on the thermometer.  This prolongs the life of the battery, but I’ve had a couple of similar digital probe thermometers that don’t have on/off switches lying around for months, with the display constantly “on” and their batteries haven’t gone flat yet – you could always take the battery out between uses (store it in the case) if battery life is an issue.  Note the possibility of leaving the probe in the compost heap and recording the maximum and minimum temperatures over a period.

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It’s necessary to find a way to get the probe down the shaft of the thermometer

Depending on how you mount the thermometer case on top of the shaft there are many ways of getting the probe on its cable to the other end of the shaft.  I chose to drill a hole in the “T” above the shaft and drop the probe down there.  You need to make sure that if there are any joins in the shaft they do not stop the probe from passing.  I could have (and probably will) put some silicone over this hole – mostly so that if anything snags the cable it doesn’t transfer the strain to the cable-probe join.

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The probe housing on the end of the shaft

The end of the shaft is a metal section that looks like it was once a short, snap-on leg for a piece of equipment (from Reverse Garbage).  The “snap-on” end is crimped to just the right size to fit into one of those disposable applicators that come with silicone tubes (or glue, or gap sealant, etc. etc.) for use in caulking guns.  I cut off the tip of the applicator so that the opening was just wide enough for the probe to be squeezed through, then filled the space behind it with wall panel glue, putting some around the end of the shaft to hold the applicator on.  In theory this should hold the probe securely in place when it is pushed into the compost heap.  I forgot that the glue I used needs contact with air to harden, and putting the applicator straight onto the shaft before the glue was dry meant that it dried very slowly.  I gave the probe a testing “wiggle” a few hours after I’d put the glue in, but the glue was far from dry so that there is now some movement in the probe.  Dumb!  That doesn’t really matter, since I’ve always used a length of conduit to make a hole in the compost heap to insert the probe, so I’ll just keep doing that.  The applicator was free, and the glue was already in the workshop.

It’s not shown in any photos, but I’ve found a bit of communication cable conduit that has just the right internal diameter to slip over the shaft, and fit firmly around the rural polypipe at the top.  This is longer than the shaft, so it protects the probe when the thermometer isn’t being used.

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The compost thermometer in use.

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First reading!

The thermometer takes longer (1-1.5 minutes) to reach a steady reading than it did previously, probably because part of the probe is inside the end of the shaft.  This compost heap was reading 54 degC before I gave it its second turning yesterday (about two weeks after the heap was made).  It’s already back up to 46.2 degC, and might get into the 50s though it has already had a high temperature phase in the first week.  I’ll be happy if it sits in the 40+ range for a while.  You can see details of the making of this heap here.

So there it is.  A compost thermometer for less than $30, depending on how much you can make use of “found” and recycled items.

How does it compare to other compost thermometers?

First, it can measure compost temperature, probably at least as accurately as any other compost thermometer.

Second, with the digital thermometer I used it is possible to stick it in the heap, turn the readout on and leave it there for days or weeks, giving a constant reading of temperature as well as recording maximum and minimum temperatures (I haven’t tried this yet, but the function buttons are there on the back of the case).  I haven’t seen a commercial unit which has these functions.

Third it probably isn’t as robust as commercially available compost thermometers, but if it is treated carefully it should last well.  And, at this price I wouldn’t be too unhappy if I had to replace the thermometer unit or a part of the housing or shaft.  If I’d bought a commercial compost thermometer and it broke I’d be very unhappy because of what they cost.

And that brings me to the fourth consideration – cost.  You can get a compost thermometer in Australia from Agricultural Solutions for AUD$160.  A friend of mine bought one recently and he is happy with it, and I’d assume there are others out there for around the same price.

Until at least the middle of 2013 you used to be able to buy a compost thermometer from the Permaculture Research Institute (Geoff Lawton’s organisation) for AUD$294.72 via the online shop on the Permaculture News website.  However that unit no longer appears in the products listing.  It was built like a truck, with an analogue dial like an old fashioned oven thermometer and surrounded by a steel “wheel” grip, but functionally it was still a thermocouple in a shaft probe with a readout – that’s all.  I had some discussion via email with Craig Mackintosh (the PRI website editor) about the price/value issues with that unit, after he rejected a comment I’d submitted to a posting which promoted it and linked to their shop.  I’d described the unit I was using at the time (an early prototype of this one) and it’s very low cost, and in the email exchange Craig asserted that “There is no comparison between the two probes you’re speaking about.”  Well, no, at least not in terms of price.

So there are other units out there, and you can buy one of them off the shelf much easier than making a unit like the one described above, if that suits your available time and resources.  But the option does exist to make a fully functional compost thermometer for a very low cash outlay and at the same time recycle some resources.

 

Economic growth in a finite world – the stupidest oxymoron you could imagine

I’ve just finished reading Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, so I’m pretty ‘primed’ in terms of statements urging “economic growth” as the solution to the world’s economic ills.  One thing the book has made me realise is just how often we are bombarded with the mantra of economic growth, and how much it is seen by politicians, conservative economists and the media as the only way to achieve social, industrial and political goals.  And if you combine references to the need for economic growth with the media’s fascination with economic indicators such as GDP and stock market indices, it’s really clear that we are on an economic growth express train.

I’d always been of the view that targeting economic growth is the lazy policy option, believing that we can have a fair, effective and comfortable society without growth – it would just take a lot more brain-power than the average policy formulator is willing to apply.  However reading Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s book convinced me that a steady state economy is the only way forward, though I felt that there was little chance of there being any kind of mainstream movement toward this approach before it is too late.  How often do you even see or hear the term “steady state economy”?

Well, an article in today’s edition of The Conversation might indicate that we are going to hear about it a whole lot more in the near future.  It’s an important opening to a conversation that the world has to have now (and should have had long ago).  I hope it won’t spoil the story if I tell you the author’s conclusion: Climate stability demands nothing less than a wholesale economic shift – moving beyond growth and into a culture of consumption based on sufficiency. Or as Dietz and O’Neill say: Enough is Enough.  Read the book next.

Reblogged from The Conversation:

A newly released report called Better Growth, Better Climate draws the seductive conclusion that “we can create lasting economic growth while also tackling the immense risks of climate change”. But while…

Economic growth is incompatible with the rapid emissions reductions that are now necessary. AAP Image/David Crosling

A newly released report called Better Growth, Better Climate draws the seductive conclusion that “we can create lasting economic growth while also tackling the immense risks of climate change”.

But while the report, spearheaded by former Mexican president Felipe Calderón and UK climate economist Nicholas Stern, wisely points out the importance of efficiency improvements and renewable energy, it fails miserably to back up its core message.

The fact is that the world has a finite carbon budget, and we’ll blow that budget – sooner rather than later – if economic growth remains our objective.

Carbon budgets

The fundamental weakness of the new report can be shown by considering the implications of the world’s carbon budget, a notion that has entered the vocabulary of climate science in recent years. This concept refers to the maximum carbon emissions that can be released into the atmosphere if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

Although the science underpinning the carbon budget is increasingly robust – and has been built into the modelling of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – scientists, politicians, and the broader public have been slow to recognise its radical socio-economic and political implications.

The unpalatable truth is that, for developed nations, continued economic growth as conventionally measured is incompatible with climate stability. Indeed, a safe climate requires that we now need a phase of planned economic contraction, or “degrowth”.

The prospect of deliberate economic contraction will strike most people as an outrageous proposition, but the numbers below speak for themselves. My research has focused on this need to power down our energy-intensive economy if we are to avoid blowing the carbon budget.

This does not simply mean producing and consuming more efficiently and shifting to renewable energy, necessary though these changes are. It also requires that we produce and consume less – a conclusion that few dare to utter. Fortunately, the extent of wasteful overconsumption in the developed nations means that degrowth can actually be in our own interests, if we manage the transition wisely.

Degrowth and the carbon budget

To set our carbon budget, we have to answer three initial questions:

  1. What temperature rise above pre-industrial levels should we be aiming to avoid?
  2. What risk of exceeding this temperature limit are we prepared to accept?
  3. How should the resulting global carbon budget be distributed between nations?

In order to unpack the economic implications of carbon budget analysis, I draw on the seminal work of climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, whose analyses are based on the following answers to the above questions.

1. Temperature

The world should aim to keep warming below 2C relative to pre-industrial levels. This threshold has been reaffirmed in recent international climate negotiations, including at Copenhagen and Cancun, so it represents an agreed goal.

Nevertheless, in recent years evidence has indicated that many ecosystems are more sensitive to increases in temperature than previously thought, meaning that 2C might not be a “safe” threshold after all. Many scientists, not to mention the small island states, argue that a 2C average rise in global temperature would be extremely dangerous, and that 1.5C or less would be more appropriate. Far from being a radical goal, 2C is actually a moderate one.

2. Risk

Because the future effects of further carbon emissions are complex, they can only be expressed in terms of probability. For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll aim for a carbon budget that gives us a 50% chance of avoiding 2C of warming. Given the dire consequences of exceeding the 2C threshold, the precautionary principle really demands a far higher probability of success than 50%, but let’s stick with this for now.

3. Distribution

Developing countries (known in UN climate negotiations as “Non-Annex 1 countries”) deserve a greater per-capita share of the global carbon budget, primarily because they are home to billions of people who still live in poverty and because these nations are less responsible for historic emissions.

Nevertheless, a stable climate calls for ambitious assumptions about when developing nations’ emissions should peak and begin to fall. Anderson and Bows assume that non-Annex 1 nations will peak in emissions by 2025 and then decarbonise at an unprecedented rate of 7% per year.

Such ambitious emissions cuts would also benefit developed (“Annex 1”) nations, because less of the global carbon budget would be consumed by the developing nations.

The carbon budget for the developed nations is calculated by subtracting the developing nations’ budget from the global budget. In order to keep to this budget, developed nations must reduce emissions by 8-10% each year in absolute terms (rather than per unit of economic productivity) over the coming decades. (For more detail on this calculation, see here.)

These numbers were formulated in 2011. Since then global greenhouse emissions have continued to increase, so these emissions-reduction targets should be regarded as a bare minimum.

The economics of cutting carbon

We can’t make such deep emissions cuts while still growing the economy. In his landmark 2006 review, UK economist Nicholas Stern calculated that decarbonisation of more than 3-4% is incompatible with economic growth. He noted that emissions reductions of more than 1% per year have historically been “associated with economic recession or upheaval”.

We can decarbonise our economic activity progressively by moving to renewable or low-carbon energy systems, and by producing goods and services in more energy-efficient ways. But this takes time – probably decades. Also, don’t forget that renewable energy systems themselves require energy to build.

We can’t cut emissions by 8-10% per year – as the carbon budget says we must – purely through energy efficiency and renewable power, especially if we expect to keep growing the economy while we do it. Significant emissions reductions will require us to use considerably less energy. And because energy use and economic activity are intimately related, less energy means less production and less consumption.

Beyond economic growth

It therefore follows that developed nations should immediately begin a strategy of planned economic contraction, with less energy and resource use. This “radical” conclusion follows logically from the moderate assumptions stated above, and it contradicts the widespread assurances that maintaining a safe climate is compatible with continued economic growth.

It is even harder to reconcile climate action with economic growth when you consider that the assumptions above are too moderate anyway. If we were to decide on limiting warming to 1.5C instead of 2C, with a higher chance of avoiding that threshold (say 80% or 90% instead of 50%), then that would render our carbon budget even smaller – or already used up.

Climate stability demands nothing less than a wholesale economic shift – moving beyond growth and into a culture of consumption based on sufficiency.

The conclusions drawn by the Better Growth, Better Climate report seem to suggest, however, that disciples of growth are still not ready to let go of their god. They will continue to insist blindly that we can “green” capitalism and grow ourselves out of our ecological crises.

Moving to a stable, post-growth economy is a complex, challenging and confronting prospect for many people. Success is unlikely, admittedly, but it is even more unlikely if we don’t have the courage to face the facts.

As thousands prepare to rally in New York and around the world ahead of next week’s United Nations climate summit, we need to challenge ourselves to transcend growth fetishism and see the world with fresh eyes.