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Paddling upstream on a hope and a prayer

By Peter Ridd - posted Thursday, 27 March 2008


With present policies Australia has no chance of reducing our C02 emissions by anywhere near 80 per cent by the year 2050. Before I explain why, I should say that I am a greenhouse sceptic taking the view that it is very unlikely that CO2 is having a major effect on changing climate. However, due to the extreme consequences of a potential large rise in temperature, I believe it is prudent to take reasonable and sensible measures to reduce C02 emissions.

Australia has got its head in the sand on two major issues that make the task of meeting our commitments virtually impossible. These are (a) we have a rapidly growing population and (b) we have no technology at hand today to achieve the targets except nuclear power which the government refuses to consider.

Despite all the talk in recent years of an ageing population, Australia’s population is growing rapidly, and at present rates is set to double by the year 2050, the date when we are aiming to reduce our emissions by 50 per cent at the very least.

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Doubling the population means that the per capita CO2 emissions must fall by 75 per cent to have a 50 per cent reduction in net CO2 emission. It is relatively easy to reduce per capita emissions by small amounts by improvements in energy efficiency, but a 75 per cent reduction means massive changes in energy generation methods and modes of transportation.

For Australia to just maintain our present emission levels, we must reduce our per-capita CO2 production by 50 per cent. We have to run just to stay still.

It is remarkable that Australia’s rapid population growth is rarely mentioned in any environmental debate even though it affects virtually every environmental problem we face such as the provision of water, habitat destruction on our city fringes, and the disposal of waste.

Australia’s population growth is driven by high immigration (more than 150,000 a year) combined with a large “natural” increase that has been encouraged by Peter Costello’s baby bonus. The net result is that we grow by about 300,000 people a year. We need to build a city roughly the size of Canberra every year along with the power stations and water supply that goes with such a population increase.

The right wing wants population growth because they believe, mistakenly that it is required for economic growth. The left wing cannot oppose immigration because they are afraid of being accused of racism.

And the Greens pretend that population is not an environmental issue at all! Their silence is inexcusable and shows them to be motivated much more by social issues than by a genuine concern for the environment. With the exception of the Australian Environment Foundation, which encourages debate on all environmental issues, and Sustainable Population Australia, green organisations are as silent on population as their green political representatives in Canberra and the States.

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The second issue that makes emissions reduction much harder is the refusal to contemplate nuclear power. Supposedly the risks of nuclear power outweigh the risks of global warming. However, we are told that we are going to burn the hell of a catastrophic global warming, our sea levels are going to rise, northern Europe will freeze with the collapse of the thermohaline circulation, and Australia will shrivel up like a desiccated prune.

Make no mistake, if we see a 5C temperature rise in the next 100 years as predicted by the IPCC, the warfare and population shifts caused by massive disruption to agriculture could kill 100s of millions of people. We will see conflicts that will make World War II look like a garden party.

Compared to this scenario, why do we worry about another Chernobyl accident? Despite some of the more hysterical claims by anti nuclear opponents, less than 100 people died directly as a result of that accident and it is estimated that only a few thousand might die early due to a very slightly higher risk of cancer. Modern reactors have also proven to be far safer than the 50’s era Soviet-designed Chernobyl reactor, and the problems of waste disposal and proliferation are manageable. The risk of nuclear power is small compared with global warming - if you believe the IPCC projections.

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This article was written in the author's capacity as a member of the Australian Environment Foundation.

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About the Author

Peter Ridd is a Reader in Physics at James Cook University specialising in Marine Physics. He is also a scientific adviser to the Australian Environment Foundation.

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