2011, the year that was: Energy & Environment

Vattenfall

2011 was the year everyone suddenly developed an opinion on the environment, because all of a sudden the environment was out to take their air-conditioner, their TV, their right to a comfortable suburban life, and their trip to Borneo to see the environment. The Great Big New Tax (which David Pannell explained is not actually a tax but a fixed-price emissions trading scheme) took the environment from “that thing out there that Sting used to bang on about” to a threat to our very way of life. It was no wonder people wished the whole climate change thing wasn’t happening (in fact, Ben Newell looked at why people have trouble dealing with the concept).

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But unfortunately, as Karl Braganza so compellingly showed, climate change is happening. This was a year where Michael Raupach revealed emissions are rising faster than ever, Roger Dargaville explained why the chance to stop warming at 2 degrees has slipped away; and Peter Christoff pointed out even a gathering of thousands of bureaucrats (even that!) can’t save us from ourselves. You’d be forgiven for deciding it’s time to give up. But here at The Conversation we’ve bravely soldiered on (thanks to some good advice from Megan Bissing-Olson), providing megatonnes of coverage of climate science and climate policy.

Joost J Bakker IJmuiden

Were you tempted to listen to those seductive voices telling you climate change is actually a Communist plot to destroy the economy and keep scientists in the luxurious lifestyle they’ve become so disgustingly used to? With a lot of help from Stephan Lewandowsky, we brought you a (rather shockingly well-read) series on why climate denial happens and what’s really going on in the climate debate. We also lifted the slightly grotty lid on media coverage of climate change and asked, “climate denial: what’s in it for the journos?” We must have done something right, because these series were picked up by papers in New York and London.

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Of course, it’s not just academics who think climate change is a real thing. Even some politicians have decided it’s time to pay attention to science, and we talked with Will Steffen about how scientists and policy makers work together. Thanks to the unlikely combination of politics and science, 2011 was the year we pulled together a bevy of experts to analyse Australia’s decision to make people pay when they pollute the atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide. Remember when the carbon tax solved the environment problem once and for all? Phew.

It’s easy to forget there is a whole lot more to the environment and to energy than climate change. Climate change has been the big story of the year and probably of at least the last five years. As John Abraham explained, here’s nothing like a coming apocalypse to really focus people’s attention.

dunkr

But meanwhile, thousands of researchers have continued slogging away at their non-climate-change fields, bringing us all kinds of fascinating research and doing their bit to make a difference. This year we’ve looked at whether there are plenty more fish in the sea, why people are driving less, what to do about shark attacks, why India needs nuclear power, how to feed humans and still protect biodiversity, whether the Tassie devil can be saved, how to cram more people into our cities, why state governments are turning against wind power, whether biofuels will ever work, Australia’s love affair with cycling, putting oil rigs to good use, getting energy efficient, if bats will kill us all, the realities of stopping whaling and why buses rule.

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And of course in the world of energy, 2011 has been all coal seam gas all the time, and we’ve brought you the evidence-based opinions of a host of academics, whose CSG work you probably haven’t seen in any other media. As coal seam gas mining took off in Queensland and NSW, trying to stop it brought farmers and environmentalists together. Crusty old blokes who once would have yelled “get a job” at greenie blockaders began D-locking themselves to bulldozers to keep the miners out (and Samanthan Hepburn explained why the law says they may as well give up).

Tina Hunter discussed whether CSG is important enough to let it threaten agricultural land, while Bryce Kelly outlined the risk to water.

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Dennis Cooke said CSG is a low-emissions fuel that would help us get off coal. The debate is still far from over: local research on emissions is just kicking off, but Colin Hunt assures us the climate change benefits look far from certain.

For me, though, the most interesting discovery has been how much people care about the treatment of animals. It may have been a surprise to the producers at Four Corners, too. Of course, live animal exports was the biggest of these stories, but Clive Phillips’ article on how chickens are treated, Siobhan Sullivan’s persuasive argument that racehorses should get a bigger share of Melbourne Cup winnings, and Ian Colditz’s guide to measuring the value of an animal’s life have been among our most-read. And while it wasn’t the section’s most popular story, I thought John Hadley’s look at why animals should have a legal right to the habitat they live in was one of the more thought-provoking stories we’ve run.

Climate change, CSG, live animal exports and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan may have been 2011’s biggest energy and environment news stories according to the media. But the Conversation’s readers have different ideas. Our most popular stories for the year? You guessed it: Ashley Franks’ how-to on making electricity from mud and Mike Archer’s investigation of how vegetarians kill more animals than meat eaters.

On the horizon

I certainly didn’t predict how interested people would be in bacteria’s ability to make power, so the chances of me successfully predicting 2012’s big stories are less than slim.

Jane Rawson

I do know that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is now open for consultation and that submissions will close in April 2012. We’re hoping to make a bit of a splash with a submission of our own.

The carbon price will come into force on 1 July 2012, so we can expect to see the economy collapse by August and a new ice age set in around October. Funding should begin flowing to more renewable energy projects and to carbon farming and biodiversity initiatives, so we’ll be assessing how much difference the cash can make.

Towards the end of the year the climate parties will once more meet in conference (COP18) to come up with a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol. This time around the meeting is in Qatar, though December’s chilly weather might not provide the object lesson offered by the 50°C maxima of Doha’s sweltering summer. And maybe this time we’ll get to report a massive breakthrough.

Until then, enjoy the holidays by turning off your phone and getting out into nature.

jcolman