Where to now?

Where to now?

Bjorn again

Bjorn Lomborg seems to irritate the hell out of many environmentalists. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

Well they may have lost out on their fair share of the GST, but my friends at the University of Western Australia (UWA) are A$4 million better off thanks to a one-off Federal government grant by the Minister for Education Christoper “the fixer” Pyne. The grant is to establish a new “Australia Consensus Centre” at UWA.

The consensus among most of my peers is that this was a bad idea. Why? Well first off, the new Centre is a partnership between the Copenhagen Consensus Center and the University of Western Australia. It thus features the Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg, author of the controversial books The Sceptical Environmentalist and Cool It, both of which argue that climate change is not our biggest problem and that we should relax about it (or in Bjorn’s terms, “cool it”.

Bjorn gets up the nose of many environmentalists. He takes delight in attacking policies aimed at reducing CO2 (such as subsidies for renewables, electric cars and carbon taxes) and he also argues that climate change is real, but that the immediate effects of it, and rate of it, have been overstated.

Indeed he thinks that we should spend money on things like malaria and HIV prevention programmes because the bang for buck is significantly more than what CO2-reduction will achieve in economic terms.

Despite his views on the impact of global warming being anything but the “consensus”, everything he’s a member of seems to have consensus in the title – with this latest centre being another example. One can’t help but feel that Bjorn loves being controversial. His own Copenhagen Consensus Center had its funding withdrawn a few years ago by the new Danish government and he has been investigated for scientific dishonesty at the insistence of his Danish peers.

Nutter or courageous?

Although UWA proudly declared the formation of the Centre, the university failed to mention the A$4 million of “Federal support” that helped make it possible.

This money was a one-off grant courtesy of education minister, Christopher Pyne, now that he is free of the NCRIS hostage crisis. Pyne sees no difference between his funding of ‘I don’t like carbon taxes’ Lomborg and the Labor government’s funding of The Conversation! Heresy!

Lomborg himself is not your standard “I Google therefore I’m a researcher” blogger. He argues that climate change is both real and a problem, but an economically unwise one to tackle in 2015. Indeed, he has found himself the target of climate change denial websites. So he cops it from both sides.

But is Bjorn condemned because he’s a nutter, or because he dares to question pro-Green strategies?

At this point I must confess that I like Bjorn, not just because I’m a senior academic and he’s a gay vegetarian, but because he’s not like everyone else. He asks some very fundamental questions, like “what is the biggest crisis we’re facing?”. If you can’t ask things like that at a university, then where can you ask them?

Where I think Bjorn might go astray is when he tries (from the position of an economist!) to make sense of the rate of change of polar bear numbers, something he is poorly qualified to do.

Bjorn also has the problem that if he’d done all his research and concluded that climate change was the greatest problem we face, he wouldn’t have had a book to write. So is he an unbiased observer or someone trying to continually prove what he said before was correct in a field where the “assumptions” one has to make are many and varied?

So I am quite comfortable living in a world where the Bjorns are allowed to ask their questions, present data and we all debate them. What I’m more annoyed about, is when anyone questions any green or decarbonising policy they are instantly branded a heretic.

For instance one might assume based upon standard “Labor/Green policies are good and the coalition’s are bad” theorems that Direct Action is a disaster, the Renewable Energy Target scheme is wonderful and that we should all be driving electric cars.

Let’s look at some of these with some calculations.

Direct Action

Last week was a big one for the minister for the environment, Greg Hunt, with the first of his carbon abatement auctions. For a lazy A$660 million the Coalition bought 47 million tons of carbon abatement at an average price of about $14/ton.

I currently sit of the board of the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Low Carbon Living, which was funded by Labor Senator Kim Carr to remove 10 million tons of CO2 at a cost to the tax-payer of A$28 million, or $2.80 per ton. At face value, if the CRC achieves its original objective, it will be five times more efficient than Direct Action! But is this typical?

The Renewable Energy Target

Australia’s other attempt to dampen our carbon footprint is the Renewable Energy Target (RET), which hopes to drive us towards sourcing over 20% of our electricity from renewables by 2020.

Excitingly, I am a participant in this scheme courtesy of my 1.5 kW solar panel “power station” on my roof, purchased in 2009 when the initial subsidy was about $A4,000, and for every kWh I pump into the grid I receive another 67c. Being a complete nerd, I’ve delighted in measuring exactly how many kWh I place into the grid and carefully optimising use of our dishwasher, washing machine etc to maximise the government subsidy.

It turns out that each year I return about 700 kWh into the grid and receive A$470 back from the RET! I also use about 700 kWh of my own power, so in total I’m saving the planet about 1400 kWh per year and the government is paying me A$470 per annum for that.

Now, if I didn’t have my panels we’d be burning more brown coal in the La Trobe valley. And as a rough rule of thumb, if you are using brown coal, 1 kWh of energy produces about 1kg of CO2. So my panels are saving 1.4 tons of CO2 per annum, but the cost to the tax-payer is A$470. So the price is A$470/1.4 or A$335/ton!

If you factor in the original A$4,000 subsidy and you say the panels last 25 years, this adds another A$4,000/(25x1.4) = A$114/ton. So my panels are reducing CO2 emissions over their 25 year lifetime by about 35 tons, but costing the tax-payer A$449/ton. In 2009 the Labor-Green coalition thought this was a good price. This compares extremely unfavourably to Hunt’s 2015 Direct Action plan at just A$14/ton.

Nowadays the feed-in tariff in Victoria is only 6.2c/kWh. My 1.5 kW system would still be saving the same amount of carbon (1.4 tons/year), but would be costing more like A$45/1.4 = $32 per ton, plus the one-off subsidy cost (now about A$1,000/1.5 kW), which makes the cost about A$35/ton. This is still more than twice as costly as Direct Action per kg of carbon not in the atmosphere.

My Tesla

OK, so I don’t have a Tesla. But as an Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor at a university with a sustainability agenda, what better excuse for an insane purchase is there than saving the planet?

The Tesla cars are sexy, but they aren’t necessarily green if they’re ultimately powered by brown coal. AAP Image/Tesla

The Tesla is an incredibly expensive, but uber-cool, all-electric sportscar. Imagine one of these toys parked outside Swinburne’s Advanced Manufacturing Design Centre on open day? Young impressionable undergrads would be seduced by its charm, and our ATAR score for engineering would skyrocket.

But does an electric vehicle in Melbourne really save the planet?

To fully charge a Tesla requires about 100 kWh from the grid. In Melbourne that mostly comes from brown coal. So that is ~100 kg of CO2 per charge! And my Tesla would only go about 350 km before we’d need to recharge it. So per 100 km, I’m emitting about 28 kg of CO2.

How does that compare with my existing hybrid (a Prius)? My Prius almost always achieves 4.7 l/100km. This is just 13 kg of CO2/100 km. So unless I’m going to simultaneously invest in a bunch of solar panels, I’m actually greener sticking with my Prius than buying a Tesla.

That is rather disappointing. The bottom line is that unless you replace your brown coal power plants by nuclear or solar, buying an electric car is worse for the environment than sticking to your hybrid - not a statement you hear a lot from some political corners.

Becoming Bjorn again

So getting back to Bjorn, yes I’m annoyed that the minister didn’t ring Swinburne and want to give us A$4 million for a new research centre. But I’m also of the opinion that it has to be valid to challenge the costs of the various CO2 reduction schemes. And if they are good enough they’ll stand up to evidence-based scrutiny, by Bjorn or anyone else. If we refuse to have our carbon strategies costed and scrutinised, we’re no better than many fundamentalists.