While decluttering recently (it’s been that sort of summer), I re-discovered a little booklet put out by the Commonwealth Greenhouse Office in 2000 called Global Warming: cool it. While the Greenhouse Office has long since gone to the bureaucratic graveyard and global warming has morphed into climate change, the booklet is full of wise advice about what to do about greenhouse gas emissions – choosing more energy-efficient appliances, rejecting petrol-guzzling motor vehicles and so on.
Most of us have heeded at least some of this advice, with the exception of the part about fuel-efficient vehicles: there seem to be more big four-wheel drive vehicles on the roads than ever. Now that the obvious efficiencies have been more or less exhausted, there is a strong emphasis on energy generation and, in particular, the replacement of coal-based power with renewables – solar and wind. Thanks to attractive incentives, more of us have solar panels on our roofs and the ACT government has made a strong commitment to renewables.
Overall, Australia’s performance in relation to greenhouse gas emissions has been rather good. Despite a larger population and a bigger economy, total emissions are down by 1.5 per cent as compared with 2000.
Undoubtedly some of the reduction has occurred because energy-intensive manufacturing has gone offshore and the emissions are showing up on someone else’s bill. Nevertheless, while world emissions have continued to climb, we can at least say that Australia has done its bit.
Are we in danger, though, of giving too much priority to renewables? Even if we covered every Australian hillside with wind turbines, and paved large areas of the country with solar panels, it would not make a bit of difference to global climate change. This is not an argument for doing nothing but it is an argument for choosing one’s options carefully.
This is particularly so in the Australian case because, while our contribution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions (in the overall sense) is small, our energy riches and scientific and technological knowhow give us many options for contributing to the solution.
As a uranium-rich nation, surely we might, for example, be doing more to develop and sell nuclear fuels and technologies rather than coal seam gas? As we know, the extraction of coal seam gas is environmentally risky. But nuclear, the one energy source that does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, is considered to be not just risky, but environmentally sinful.
Closer to home, why is a government in which the Greens hold the balance of power about to rip up all the trees in Northbourne Avenue, replacing them with thousands of cubic metres of concrete and unsightly overhead wires, in order to accommodate a tram which will rapidly be superseded by more efficient types of electrically-powered vehicles, such as buses and (eventually) autonomous cars?
Recently, the developers of a new housing estate near Perth proudly proclaimed that the houses will be powered by renewable energy. No doubt this is a sensible idea. But, even if a new housing estate is entirely solar-powered, it is still a housing estate. The habitat destroyed in its construction is gone forever.
Lend Lease, the developers of the massive towers of Barangaroo, in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, tell us they will be aiming for maximum sustainability in the new buildings. All well and good, except that Barangaroo represents a huge over-development of the site. And public housing tenants will be shifted out of their current accommodation in Millers Point so that the properties can be sold off.
It’s not easy being green. While it’s difficult enough conceptualising problems, solutions are even tougher. This is because solutions that will stick, almost always mean finding ways to involve all stakeholders in stable governance structures.
A good example of what may be involved applies to controlling feral horses in national parks. Brumby numbers are high in both the Victorian Alpine Park (where cattle grazing has been substantially reduced since the 1980s) and in Kosciuszko (where cattle grazing was banned from the 1960s), owing to the need to protect the Snowy water catchments from siltation. As brumby numbers have increased, bushwalkers and others report ever-increasing deterioration in many environments. Years back, people living in and around what is now Kosciusko National Park, grazed their animals in the high country. I am sure this activity damaged the vegetation, but probably not nearly as much as feral horses do. Horses are able to roam across much larger areas of the park than cattle can, and managing them is far more difficult, because they have no owners. If feral horses were actually owned by someone, the owners would presumably pay far more attention to the numbers of animals in the park, and to their overall health, than brumby lovers appear to do.
I hasten to add that this is not an argument for re-introducing cattle grazing to Kosciusko National Park. But it is an argument about involving stakeholders in solutions. Could (for example) the cattlemen living adjacent to the Victorian part of the overall alpine park, be enlisted as allies in brumby control if their grazing rights were to be permanently restored? Could brumby lovers be brought on-side through more publicly funded investment into forms of contraception for wild horses? If the current situation is allowed to continue indefinitely, it is only a matter of time before a holidaymaker’s car collides with a brumby on one of the misty alpine roads and someone is killed.
So, how to proceed? Clear-cut environmental policies, while morally satisfying, may not be the best overall course of action. The problems have become (or in the case of climate change already are) more complex than that. Dealing with climate change involves better-balanced energy use. Too much emphasis on renewables is as risky as too little. Where wildlife conservation is concerned, the need for management has never been greater.
Humans, arguably the most feral species of all, have left no part of the earth (or the heavens) untouched. The trick is to find a way of aligning interests so as to get the least-worst outcome. It’s better than none at all.
Dr Jenny Stewart is Honorary Professor of Public Policy at the University of NSW, Canberra.