A nation and a world in need of leadership

5 Nov 2007 0 99 VIEWS

<i>By Ian Dunlop</i>

Peak oil may have a greater impact than climate change in the short term.

Peak oil may have a greater impact than climate change in the short term.

Before casting your votes later this month, Australians should reflect long and hard on the real priorities facing the nation. These are not tax cuts, industrial relations, the economy, interest rates or the stockmarket, but the very survival and sustainability of our society and the planet.

Higher than usual temperatures are causing accelerated melting in the Arctic

Higher than usual temperatures are causing accelerated melting in the Arctic

As the global population heads from 6.6 billion today toward 9 billion by 2050, we are already exceeding the ability of the planet to absorb the impact of human activity. The immediate sustainability priorities are water, climate change and the peaking of global oil supply. But our leaders, having supposedly crossed the threshold of accepting that sustainability, in particular climate change, is a serious issue, seem to believe it can be solved by minor tweaking of “business-as-usual”. That is demonstrably not the case; the news is universally bad:

in Australia the drought is worsening, capital city water supplies are deteriorating and the beginning of the bushfire season does not bode well. The latest CSIRO assessment highlights the risk of continuing climatic deterioration. Arctic sea ice is melting more rapidly than even the highest IPCC forecasts. This has serious implications for the warming of northern waters and global climate in general.

Extreme weather events are escalating worldwide, from widespread flooding across Africa, to intense storm activity in the US, Europe, India and China. The oil price heads north of US$90 per barrel, yet peak oil is barely on the agenda in this country, despite the first, grudging, official admissions, from the International Energy Agency and the US National Petroleum Council, that it may soon become a reality.

These trends make it blindingly obvious that we cannot continue conventional economic growth and rampant consumerism without blowing the planet apart.

The Prime Minister hits the nail on the head in claiming, as prime justification for re-election, that the government is a far better manager of the economy than the Opposition. That is indeed what it has been good at: the incremental, short-term improvement of a resource-based market economy, without regard for its long term consequences.

But this is management, not leadership. True leaders think long-term, face up to and honestly articulate the big issues, then pro-actively build a consensus for change, however unpalatable, uncertain and difficult. Management has it’s place, but the world we are now entering demands leadership; leadership of the highest order. There is no evidence that the current government, or the business community with some notable exceptions, has the slightest idea what this means.

We now face nothing less than a global emergency. We must rapidly reduce carbon emissions and encourage alternative energy sources, far faster than either government or opposition are prepared to acknowledge, and begin preparations for a global oil shortage.

This is not an extreme view; the extremists are those in government and business who have been in denial for the last decade, and in the process have frittered away our ability to plan a timely response. Our government, along with the Bush Administration, has done more to subvert serious action on climate change, and to endanger energy security, than anyone else on the planet. They continually re-gurgitate the mantra that technology is the answer. It is undoubtedly critical, particularly the renewable energy technologies which have been deliberately suppressed, but technology alone is not enough, there has to be a major change in our values.

These challenges are daunting but the solutions are available and with sound leadership, we can successfully design a sustainable future. The UNFCCC meeting in Bali in early December is the crunch point. “Aspirational goals” must be banished for the fiction they are, and serious binding commitments made to address climate change. In preparation, an Australian government should take the following immediate steps:

  • Ratify the Kyoto Protocol and propose that the second commitment period be brought forward from 2012 with binding emission reduction targets for all nations. The objective is to limit temperature increase to 2oC which will require global emissions to reduce by at least 60% by 2050.

  • Show international leadership by proposing the adoption of equal per capita carbon allocations globally by a date to be agreed, say 2040. This will provide the circuit-breaker for the developing world to accept binding commitments whilst allowing poverty alleviation to continue.

  • Accept that Australian emissions under this scenario must reduce by;
    50% by 2025
    90% by 2050

  • Accelerate the introduction of a national emissions trading system, incorporating these reductions.
  • Impose a national moratorium on all new coal-fired power stations and new coal export projects until their carbon emissions can be safely sequestered.

  • Set a national mandatory target of 30% electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

  • Implement world best practice energy efficiency and conservation standards.

  • Develop contingency plans to handle the peaking of global oil supply.
  • Australians must demand that all political candidates clearly set out their climate change policy. We need to know the detail now, not take it on trust until after the election; we have been let down too badly already and it cannot happen again.

    The billions of dollars being sprayed around the electorate by both parties on tax cuts and the like will inevitably become non-core promises. Rather than squandering the benefits of the resource boom, all that money, and more, is going to be needed to restructure Australia as a low-carbon economy, as well as to re-build essential infrastructure in health, transport and education. Time to stop fooling ourselves.

    In the event that real leadership does not emerge, we must place these issues outside the political sphere, to be handled independently on a quasi-war footing. It is that serious.

    Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive. He chaired the Australian Coal Association in 1987-88, chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997-2001. He is Deputy Convenor of the Australian Association for the Study of Peak Oil.

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