Who wants to prepare for the future?

This article by Liese Coulter from The Conversation seems like a pretty accurate take on how most of us deal with some of the difficult issues in our (the World’s) future.  Rather relevant at this time of annual reviewing of the past year and making resolutions about our future actions.

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For most of us, preparing for the future means having a retirement fund and health coverage, choosing our preferred tree change or sea change option and keeping on the good side of the relatives who will eventually pick out our nursing home. For the most part we don’t want to think about these things at all, as anyone who has tried to talk this over with their partners has probably found out.

Talking about preparing for a future affected by climate change is even less welcome a topic and many of the same considerations hold true.

We know there will be some big-impact events but not when and where they will happen. The Australian Climate Change Science Program (ACCSP ) produces great technical information but not what I need on a personal level. Looking at the Climate Change in Australia website I can get a general idea of the risks I face from higher temperatures and changed rainfall patterns over the coming decades, but not what to actually expect in any given year. How can I reduce the risk? Having a high-set Queenslander house reduces my risks of climate impacts from very hot weather and flooding while I live on the Brisbane flood plain.

On the same level, the National Stroke Foundation shows my changing risk as I age, but not for certain if I will have a stroke. With my family history of diabetes and heart disease, my risk is high. But I also know that by keeping fit and eating light, I can improve my chances.

Preparing for both ageing and for climate change involves managing the risks and deciding what we are willing to change and what we are willing to chance. Mostly we don’t want to think about either one and like to see difficult times as far off in the future.

How much we do not want to think about dealing with impacts from climate change was brought home to me through a series of casual conversations in 2007, where I mentioned newly released climate projections for 2050. I could see people mentally counting in their head and then say “I’ll be dead then!” as a big smile spread across their face.

When this kept happening no matter where I travelled, I came to think that many people would rather be dead than have to face what we expect from climate change.

In the same way, when young people express a horror at the prospect of getting old, they picture the losses in reduced options and opportunities, without appreciating the benefits gained over a lifetime. As old age gets closer our attitudes change along with our expectations. A fit and well off 70-year old can have a very good day, but he is still 70. Someone in 2050 dealing with unpredictable weather patterns, fewer food options and having to learn new job skills will likely have different expectations than we do now and can still have a very good day.

In some ways I think we have a failure of imagination looking at the climate-affected future. We have seen climate change as something to be stopped, that global warming could be avoided if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

Now weather patterns have started to change and emission reductions aim to keep the changes from reaching a dangerous level, even as some climate impacts have become unavoidable. Changes have been set in motion through inertia in the climate system and emissions absorbed in the oceans that will enter the atmosphere over the coming decades.

The small and large choices we make each year will shape how prepared we are to meet new challenges. Like ageing, the key to adapting to climate change is to act now to increase our capacity to enjoy the benefits and opportunities, and decrease our vulnerability to the negative impacts.

When I picture myself at 70 I have an image of my parents and grandparents at that age but with the benefits of better nutrition and medical care. What is more difficult is picturing the world around me. The very tricky thing about adapting to climate change is knowing what to expect, expressed in the standard disclaimer for financial products, “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results”. That has not stopped us investing for our retirement but it will be even more important as we prepare for climate change.

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Author Disclosure Statement

Liese Coulter works for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF). She is affiliated with the Australian Science Communicators (ASC) and the Public Communication of Science and Technology network (PCST).

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This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Conversation

We are funded by CSIRO, Melbourne, Monash, RMIT, UTS, UWA, Canberra, CDU, Deakin, Flinders, Griffith, La Trobe, Murdoch, QUT, Swinburne, UniSA, USQ, UTAS, UWS and VU

A carbon tax that cuts greenhouse gas emissions AND the budget deficit

I know it is physically a long way from the Lockyer Valley to Ireland.  The link is that both are subject to carbon taxes – and the difference is that the Irish carbon tax is cutting greenhouse gas emissions and making a significant contribution to reducing government debt.  And it’s not just carbon taxes: a range of environmental impacts whose cost is usually externalised by those responsible for creating them (meaning that we all pay for those impacts, whether we had a part in causing them or not), are now being charged to the source, whether it is a business or private individuals.

The following is taken from an article by Elisabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times  of December 27.

Over the last three years, with its economy in tatters, Ireland embraced a novel strategy to help reduce its staggering deficit: charging households and businesses for the environmental damage they cause.

The government imposed taxes on most of the fossil fuels used by homes, offices, vehicles and farms, based on each fuel’s carbon dioxide emissions, a move that immediately drove up prices for oil, natural gas and kerosene. Household trash is weighed at the curb, and residents are billed for anything that is not being recycled.

Derek Speirs for The New York Times

The Irish now pay purchase taxes on new cars and yearly registration fees that rise steeply in proportion to the vehicle’s emissions.

Environmentally and economically, the new taxes have delivered results. Long one of Europe’s highest per-capita producers of greenhouse gases, with levels nearing those of the United States, Ireland has seen its emissions drop more than 15 percent since 2008.

Although much of that decline can be attributed to a recession, changes in behavior also played a major role, experts say, noting that the country’s emissions dropped 6.7 percent in 2011 even as the economy grew slightly.

“We are not saints like those Scandinavians — we were lapping up fossil fuels, buying bigger cars and homes, very American,” said Eamon Ryan, who was Ireland’s energy minister from 2007 to 2011. “We just set up a price signal that raised significant revenue and changed behavior. Now, we’re smashing through the environmental targets we set for ourselves.”

… when the Irish were faced with new environmental taxes, they quickly shifted to greener fuels and cars and began recycling with fervor. Automakers like Mercedes found ways to make powerful cars with an emissions rating as low as tinier Nissans. With less trash, landfills closed. And as fossil fuels became more costly, renewable energy sources became more competitive, allowing Ireland’s wind power industry to thrive.

Even more significantly, revenue from environmental taxes has played a crucial role in helping Ireland reduce a daunting deficit by several billion euros each year.

The three-year-old carbon tax has raised nearly one billion euros ($1.3 billion) over all, including 400 million euros in 2012. That provided the Irish government with 25 percent of the 1.6 billion euros in new tax revenue it needed to narrow its budget gap this year and avert a rise in income tax rates.

Although first proposed by the Green Party, the environmental taxes enjoy the support of all major political parties “because it puts a lot of money on the table,” said Frank Convery, an economist at University College Dublin. The bailout plan for 2013 requires Ireland to embrace a mix of new tax revenues and spending cuts.

Not everyone is happy. The prices of basic commodities like gasoline and heating oil have risen 5 to 10 percent. This is particularly hard on the poor, although the government has provided subsidies for low-income families to better insulate homes, for example. And industries complain that the higher prices have made it harder for them to compete outside Ireland.

“Prices just keep going up, and a lot of people think it’s a scam,” said Imelda Lyons, 45, as she filled her car at a gas station here. “You call it a carbon tax, but what good is being done with it to help the environment?”

The carbon tax is levied on fossil fuels when they enter the country and is then passed on to consumers at the point of purchase. The automobile sales tax, which ranges from 14 to 36 percent of a car’s market price depending on its emissions, is simply folded into the sticker price.

That sent manufacturers racing to reduce emissions. Automakers like Mercedes and Volvo began making cars with high-efficiency diesel engines that shut off rather than idle when they stop, for example. “For manufacturers it’s all, ‘How low you can get?’ ” said Donal Duggan, a brand manager at an MSL showroom near central Dublin.

Other emissions taxes on cars, including the annual car registration fee, or road tax, are billed directly to customers, potentially adding thousands to annual operating costs. Ninety percent of new car sales last year were in the two lowest-emission tiers.

The taxes on garbage had an immediate impact. In Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County in southeastern Dublin, each home’s “black bin” for garbage headed to the landfill is weighed at pickup to calculate quarterly charges. Green bins for recyclables are emptied free of charge.

“There was a big furor initially, but now everything I throw out, I think, ‘How could I recycle this?’ ” said Tara Brown, a mother of three.

How much of a crisis does Australia have to experience before we have a government that has the guts to introduce a real and effective carbon tax?

I can’t say it any better than this:

I have copied this from Paul Chefurka’s post at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia’s blog.  I hope Paul and the PRI don’t mind.

Enough!

Society — by Paul Chefurka December 20, 2012

Whenever I contemplate the spectacular mischief that we humans have wreaked on our world, I am compelled to ask how this could have possibly happened. The despoilment of our planet seems to be the exact opposite of how I would expect a thinking, feeling, caring creature to treat their home. What could have driven us to this, and what perverse qualities could have allowed us to ignore the consequences of our actions for so very long?

At first blush, our problems seem decidedly physical. Dangerous gases drift in the air; acidity rises slowly in the ocean as the fish disappear from its depths; garbage and detritus of all kinds fouls the land where lush forests and grasslands once ruled. All these disturbances point back to human actions.

The proximate causes of this planet-wide distress include economics, politics, and personal and corporate greed – all facilitated by a technological cleverness that rests on a bed of dispassionate science.

I have spent over 50 years of my life trying in vain to understand our environmental problems as purely physical problems. When I viewed them in those terms, the fact that such problems even existed in a rational, scientific culture seemed nonsensical. However, when I recently began to understand them as consequences of a rupture in the human spirit they finally began to make sense to me. Yes, they are compounded by political and economic forces, but in my view even politics and economics are simply consequences of the same qualities of the human psyche.

Since the dawn of consciousness, human societies have been driven by a complex web of factors with their roots embedded deep in our evolved human nature. Power relationships and hierarchies, kinship and xenophobia, selfishness and altruism, competition and cooperation, curiosity and apathy, and countless other polarities mingle together to form the infinite variety of human dynamics.

Underneath it all, though, lurks our self-awareness. Human self-awareness is the root of our sense of separation from the natural world, and from each other for that matter. It’s the crowning paradox of the human condition – at once both our greatest glory and our fatal flaw. It is behind the dualism – the perceptual split into subject and object – that gave us science. It’s the source of our ability to see others as “different yet the same”, giving us the power to act altruistically. It’s also behind the sense of self and other that has allowed us to assume dominion over all we survey, whether animal, vegetable, mineral or human. Our sense of separation is the rupture of the human spirit that has allowed our current predicament to develop.

If this is the case, then no physical, political or economic remediation will heal the wound. The solution to our predicament is not – cannot be – material, political, economic, or simply philosophical. If a “solution” exists at all, it’s orthogonal to all those domains. Only by healing our belief in our separateness will we be able to finally and fully restore our balance with Nature.

When I began to view the situation like this, I was finally able to see that there are in fact solutions, where none had previously been visible. These new solutions don’t attack the predicament directly as a series of material, political, economic or technological problems. Instead, they seek to effect change from the center, by encouraging people to mature into an inter-connected adulthood and assume personal responsibility for their actions.

This approach follows Gandhi’s dictum, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.

The mischievous idea of science and technology as a post-modern “religion of salvation” with Ray Kurzweil’s transhuman singularity playing the role of the Rapture and an economist making a cameo appearance as the Devil (think infinite growth on a finite planet…) resonates very strongly with me.

But to be a little more precise, it’s not exactly science that has failed us. We have been undone by a toxic stew of classical economics, technological cleverness, love of progress, an attitude of Manifest Destiny and an unwillingness to accept any limits on our growth.

Technology lets us use scientific discoveries to satisfy human desires of all kinds. When we harness scientific knowledge to human ends, the outcomes we choose to implement are based on our wishes. If our wish is dominion over nature, we will use scientific principles to invent technology like mining machinery, continental energy grids, factory farming and the automobile.

Of course, each of those inventions is presented within our cultural narrative as an obvious, irrefutable boon. One of the points of having a cultural narrative is to put a positive spin on human activity. The spin is always in line with the narrative – or more precisely, in line with the wishes of those who create and sustain the narrative. The fact that these inventions, the technological expressions of science, have a subtext of dominion over nature is carefully camouflaged, and the idea that this might possibly be a bad idea is thoroughly discouraged.

None of this would have been so damaging if people didn’t have such a natural ability to delude themselves into believing that whatever they wish for hard enough is possible. It’s kind of like clapping for Tinkerbell. “The future is always going to be better than the past,” and “My kids will have better jobs, bigger houses and faster cars than I did,” are examples of such magical thinking at its finest.

Those two kinds of wishing – the wish to improve the human condition and the wish to see the human milieu keep growing forever – are not inherently different. I see them more as two points on a continuum. On one end is simple desire; on the other end is unreasonable desire. They are distinguished less by any intrinsic difference than by the attitude and realism of the one doing the wishing.

It can be very difficult to tell when the reasonable morphs into the unreasonable.”I wish to own a small piece of land” becomes “I wish to own an entire island” which inflates into “I wish to claim a continent for my King” and eventually becomes “I wish to rule the world.” The underlying desire is the same; it’s just the scale and reasonableness of the wish that changes.

Whether or not a wish is realistic or deluded depends very much on the one doing the wishing. There are people who wish for our (and by extension, their own) material wealth to continue growing forever. There is no shortage of economists who will tell them that such a strange thing is possible. Are the dreamers deluded? Are the economists deluded? What laws of nature would need to be violated for such a delusion to become reality? How is the worship of the Charging Bull of Wall Street materially different from worshiping the Golden Calf of the Bible, when both imply a violation of the laws of nature?

The world changes only when enough people have made a choice to change themselves. At what point will we each say, “Enough!” and choose a different path? Is anything keeping you from making that choice right now?

As you finish reading this article I invite you to say it quietly to yourself.

Enough!

If you listen closely with your heart, you may be able to hear the life that shares our planet say,

Thank you.

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I definitely can’t day it any better, and I could not agree more.

Summer skies

The skies here have been pretty spectacular in the last few weeks.

First it was wild westerly winds – quite unseasonal, we usually get our fill of westerlies in the depths of winter in mid-August.  These resulted in some lovely streaky cloud patterns, most of which I missed because I was busy with other things.

skies P1040673_crop webskies P1040675_web

More recently it has been thunderstorms, which are becoming increasingly common as summer progresses.  The other day we had three thunderstorms “spawn” within 30km of us, leading to some spectacular skies.

skies_P1040743_web

This storm delivered marble-sized hail, but thankfully not so much of it that any of the trees or plants in the garden were damaged, and gave us 25mm of very welcome rain.

Our electricity consumption

I just did a couple of calculations of our electricity consumption.

For the first calculation I used the total number of days our system has been running (1,695) and the total energy consumption (4,765 kWh) to get 2.81 kWh/day.  But we have been away for some of that time (say three months), so I subtracted 90 days = 2.96 kWh/day.

Even then, there has been only one person here for some of that time, maybe around 5-6 months, so 2.96 is an under-estimate of our average energy usage.  More relevant is the fact that until around late 2010 we were living in what is now the office, so fewer lights, no load from the fridge for most of that time because we used a gas fridge, and for much of the time, no washing machine. When we did get a washing machine, quite late in our shed-living days, it was a very old one that was about to be dumped by the neighbour of a friend, so had very high energy consumption.

We don’t keep a note of our meter readings (though we should), so it isn’t possible to track changes in electricity use over time. But I do have meter readings for today and two weeks ago, so can do the sums for that period – it comes out at a surprising 4.57 kWh/day.

Why surprising? Well, almost all our lights are 5W LED downlights, and they are set up in “banks” or as individual work bench lights so that their usage can be minimised. (Though they are rated at 5W, an energy meter on a bank of five in the office shows that their average power usage is 6W per LED).  This is probably mostly a result of losses in the 50W transformers that we use (each of which has a maximum of 10 LEDs connected to it).  Even with no lights turned on, each transformer uses 4.4W continuously, probably through hysteresis in the iron core, so for the four transformers that are constantly on we are using (losing) just over half a kWh per day.

Another reason for the higher than expected power use is that this is summer, and we have been having heat waves off and on for weeks, so the fridge has probably been running much more than usual.  It is a Vestfrost with separate compressors (and separate doors) for the fridge and freezer components, so is pretty economical.  When we bought it, it was way ahead of even the most economical of the commonly available brands.  However now there are quite a few models with similar storage space that are, on paper at least, are equal or better.   It’s set up in front of the pantry, so there is plenty of space behind it, and the gap between the top of the fridge and the ceiling is 2-3 metres, so there is plenty of vertical air circulation.

Our 1.98kW solar array on the roof of the "office"

Our 1.98kW solar array on the roof of the “office”

We aren’t too worried about this level of energy use on our part, because we are on off-grid solar.  All of our power comes directly from solar panels during most of sunny days, and from a large battery bank during the night or cloudy parts of the day.  The battery bank consists of 24 two-volt 650 amp hour gel batteries.

Our solar PV system has a design load of 5.4 kWh/day – based on our estimated usage at the time of 3.95 kWh/day.  Since most of the power we use comes directly from the solar panels (fridge, washing machine, tools and computers are operating mostly during the day when the solar panels are producing much more then we use at any one time), our current 4.57 kWh daily usage represents a much smaller load on the batteries and leaves us plenty of leeway within our design load.

We manage our batteries so that they don’t go below 80% capacity, and even with this conservative management approach we need to turn on the generator to recharge the battery bank fewer than three times per year on average.  With gel batteries and this low level of draw-down we expect to get 15 years or more out of our batteries.

Though I say that we aren’t too worried about our level of electricity consumption, we do try to minimise our use, just because it feels right – and because one of our objectives in living where and how we do is to demonstrate a range of approaches to sustainable living.  I’ll deal with other ways in which we strive for sustainability in other posts.

In the meantime we can get some satisfaction from the fact that our level of electricity consumption is nowhere near the average 13.9 kWh/day of two-person households in our postcode area.

Solar Feed-in Tariffs – how essential was it to get rid of them?

Australian governments at Federal and State level had a collective rush of blood to the head over the last two years and dropped solar PV feed-in tariffs to levels that are only a fraction of what they were two years ago.

No doubt this was largely inspired by a combination of pressure from power companies, surgent neo-liberal philosophy reinforced by a drive to achieve budget surpluses, and panic in the face of the rapid increase in domestic solar PV installations – yikes!! the policy is working – not something that the current Federal government is used to seeing.

The level of installed domestic solar PV in Australia increased dramatically in 2010-2012.  The graph below shows the change up to 2011, and it continued at the same rate into 2012.

Take up of solar PV in Australia.  Circles show total installed capacity, rectangles show new capacity installed in the given year. [Data from DataMarket (http://data.is/naKtrl), image by Mike Sandiford. Figure in this blog from link to: http://theconversation.edu.au/whos-afraid-of-solar-pv-8987%5D

Yes, people did continue to install grid-connected solar power, but not at the levels they would have done with the incentive of higher feed-in tariffs.

Does this matter?  Well, yes, very much so, given that the rate at which the world has been generating greenhouse gases means that we have to totally phase out the use of fossil fuels over the next two decades if we are to have any chance of avoiding 6 degC of global warming by the end of the century.(#)

An investment in higher solar power feed-in tariffs for few years now would have very significantly reduced the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation now and into the future, and would have bought time to find alternatives so that we could replace existing fossil fuel generating plants with non-fossil fuel generation.

Japan, a country which has been in more or less permanent recession for 20 years and which, as a result of very significant ongoing tsunami reconstruction expenses, has every reason to cut other budget programs would seem an unlikely country to introduce or maintain high solar feed-in tariffs.

A member of the Alternative Technology Association‘s Brisbane group reported on their discussion group today that large Sharp solar panels (made in Japan) have been becoming increasingly difficult to source in Australia.  Here’s what he said:

Sharp 167W 24V poly panels have been almost impossible to get all year.  185W 16V mono panels have been easier but not available from usual channels for the last 6 months or so.
Sharp is no longer importing their made in Japan panels into Australia because they are instead servicing the world leading Japanese feed in tariff of over 50c/kWh L. [sorry can’t give you a link, you have to be a member to access the discussion group]

In fact, the Japanese government has, for a long time, been seeking to expand solar power by enacting subsidies and a feed-in tariff. In December 2008, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced a goal of 70% of new homes having solar power installed, and would be spending $145 million in the first quarter of 2009 to encourage home solar power.

The Japanese government enacted a feed-in tariff on November, 2009 that requires utilities to purchase excess solar power sent to the grid by homes and businesses and pay twice the standard electricity rate for that power. In that year, Japan had the third largest solar capacity in the world (behind Germany and Spain), with most of it grid connected

On June 18, 2012, despite being in the top five globally for installed PV, a new feed-in tariff was approved, of 42 Yen/kWh, about 0.406 Euro/kWh or USD 0.534/kWh. The tariff covers the first ten years of excess generation for systems less than 10 kW, and generation for twenty years for systems over 10 kW. It became effective July 1, 2012. (Source: Solar Power in Japan – Wikipedia)

But here in the Lucky Country, raking in the taxes and royalties from a mining boom, the government thinks we can’t afford higher feed-in tariffs, even to protect our grandchildren from globally destructive chaos.

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# There are a lot of recent sources to back this up, but you could start with:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-zeller-jr/climate-change-math-politicians_b_2147001.html and www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/09/fossil-fuel-infrastructure-climate-change [see particularly the paragraph beginning: The new research adds to that finding…]