As the author of this article I would like to disclose something up front in order to give you some perspective about where I might stand on the scale of environmental awareness: I work for oil, gas and mining companies, not as one of their numerous environmental people but as a project manager, working on infrastructure construction. OK, now that I have that off my chest we can get into the reasons that led me to feel so strongly about an issue that I wanted to share it with people who care about the environment and its wildlife.
I recently attended the 2016 APPEA (Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association) Convention – yes, I can hear the tsking already – and was pleasantly surprised to attend several presentations where the recently signed Paris Agreement, the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in late 2016, was highlighted and discussed at length. There were two particular elements of the Agreement that grabbed my attention, and they are somewhat linked.
The first, which is essentially the main objective of the Agreement, is that 196 nations of the world, including Australia, are aiming to curb global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius – however will ‘pursue efforts’ to lower that to be below 1.5 degrees – relative to pre-industialisation temperatures. The finite amount of greenhouse gases we have agreed to be limited to in order to achieve this is represented by the global carbon budget. How long it will take us to use up that budget is open to much debate – some experts in the field say 40 years while others say as little as 10.
And the second issue that got me thinking is that, further to this, we have agreed to reduce our anthropogenic (originating from human activity) greenhouse gas emissions to zero during the second half of the 21st century (this century!). This basically means that every car, power station, manufacturing facility and any other man-made object which currently burns a fossil fuel will need to change the way it operates within the time it takes us to burn up that carbon budget – possibly within 10 years.
It is this alarming idea that I would really like to focus on: the burning of fossil fuels and how we are going to meet these objectives. Note my use of the word ‘we’; yes, I have come to the realization that it needs to be driven at an individual level; we can’t continue to blame underperforming governments and faceless corporations. Many of you are probably well aware of this, but remember I represent the environmentally unenlightened. Until recently, I was largely unaware of how we as humans use the energy which contributes to our carbon emissions and what I, for one, can do about it. But, no more…
On a global level, traditionally – pre the 1990 Kyoto Agreement – industrialised countries like the United States of America, Britain and Australia have emitted the large majority of anthropogenic emissions. More recently, shares of developing country emissions surpassed those of industrialised countries and have kept rising very rapidly. Unsurprisingly, China is the largest emitter of carbon emissions in the world, followed by the United States of America (Table 1a). In recent statistics Australia is outside the top 10 emitters; however, when you start looking at our emissions per capita Australia pops up to being the world’s highest (Table 1b).
Zooming in on Australia, transportation and electricity generation are our two largest areas of consumption, as shown in Table 1c. In these two areas we are seeing exciting technologies emerge: Toyota introduced its hybrid Prius several years ago and Tesla has now produced a groundbreaking set of vehicles powered wholly by electricity. Further to this, Tesla has developed the Powerwall ™, a battery capable of connecting to a residential solar generation system in order to store renewable energy and use it when the solar panels are not producing (i.e. at night). In a perfect-world, at the end of each day, we would all re-charge our electronic cars using the sun’s energy from earlier that day. Alas, this kind of setup is beyond most of our budgets with the Tesla model S running in the high 100K’s, but the technology has to begin somewhere and development follows, usually making it accessible for the ‘rest of us’.
When it comes to electricity supply, we are also seeing the introduction of various renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, wave, geothermal, hydro, etc. These technologies are all excellent generators of electricity and are efficient whilst performing, however they are not currently capable of providing anywhere close to 100 percent reliability. Solar generation will only work on sunny days and won’t work at night-time, wind sometimes just isn’t there, hydro requires unique landmass and rainfall, and the other technologies have their limitations as well. Furthermore a lot of these sources still require substantial costly research and development in the hardware used to harness and transform their energy, inhibiting rapid uptake.
The reality is that human activity demands the most electricity at the start of the day (5am – 8am) and at the end of the day (6pm – 9pm) which is when these renewables are not performing at their utmost. It’s the peaks in demand which make us humans difficult customers for utility providers. They could switch off various suburbs on a roster system, similar to methods used in developing countries like Cuba, Kazakhstan and areas of India, but how do you think Australians would react to that?
What the utilities currently do is inject these renewable energy sources into the grid to support their customers ‘base load’ and switch fossil fuel generating power plants on and off to support peak demands as required. This provides us with electricity whenever our hearts desire it. Renewables are currently contributing 14.6 percent of our energy needs, with projections forecasting this to grow 20 percent each year. And yes, we could probably generate all of Australia’s energy requirements by installing solar farms and wind farms and developing other renewable options and developing ‘battery farms’ to resolve our peaking demand issues but the problem with that perfect-world scenario is that it would drive my $250-per-quarter electricity bill up to more like $2500, making it unaffordable. We want reliable yet affordable and sustainable electricity. Is that really possible?
Unfortunately, at this point in time, renewable technologies are not the overall answer, though they will definitely form part of the equation. For some time yet, we will need to burn fossil fuel to generate energy in order to retain affordability and reliability. But, we also need to choose the lowest emission fossil fuel source that we can, whether that be gas or even uranium fired nuclear reactors (yes, I know I just used the ‘n’ word and put most of you offside, if I hadn’t already). This will at least slow down our spending of the ‘carbon budget’. But it still produces carbon. What to do about that carbon?
On the bright side, Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technologies designed to capture, process and store carbon, are also emerging, with over 60 CCS projects being undertaken worldwide, six of them here in Australia. And large organisations are investing heavily in this technology: GE, Aker Solutions and the Western Australian government to name a few. The process is fascinating. I urge you to Google it and ‘watch this space’ as the know-how catches up with intention. If we could just figure out how to attach it to our car exhaust pipes…
Finally – and the point of my sharing this journey to enlightenment – I would like to empower others to do something positive for carbon emissions. With Teslas and major solar installations currently off the table for most of us, what we can do is educate ourselves. There is an enormous amount of excellent information out there – find it and share it – talk to your friends and family about what you learn. And, as I’ve learnt, we can all take action, right now.
Here are some things we can do immediately to affect change:
- Leave the car at home and walk, ride or take public transport instead (sorry to begin with a no-brainer)
- Use electricity responsibly (another no-brainer, but I’m learning): use a laptop instead of a desktop computer; change light bulbs to energy savers; open the window instead of switching on the air conditioner
- Purchase products from companies which invest in reducing their carbon footprint: look at the company’s webpage, read their environmental policies and Google who the most environmentally friendly companies are
- Buy locally grown food (it reduces transportation requirements)
- Invest in a solar system: start small with an expandable system and slowly upgrade or purchase on an interest-free arrangement and pay it off over a period of time
- If you can’t go solar, review your current energy provider and align your purchase with your ideals. Which electricity company is investing in renewables, which oil company is advancing oil-alternatives? A quick review of their websites will provide enough information to better inform your purchasing decision
- Stay abreast of emerging technologies: register with websites or Google Alerts to be kept up-to-date.
The last – and somewhat cheeky – thing I would like to urge is a dial-back of the ‘smug hypocrite’, one who openly and wholeheartedly bemoans the development of gas while eating a sausage sizzle fired on a BBQ using a gas bottle purchased from the local BP, then goes home and switches on their air-conditioner and television both powered from a gas or coal fired power station. I agree that we cannot and must not accept the raping and pillaging of our beautiful planet’s natural resources but the way to come at this is not from the most extreme angle.
I urge you to join me in arming yourself with as much science and information as possible and do as much as you currently can to affect a positive change in our carbon footprint. We need mass force behind the Paris Agreement, which requires people to get on board. Help us all to cooperatively and cohesively improve the health of the world which we live in and will leave to our children and their children.
Oh, and to ensure that you continue to hear from this once-cynical environmental-newbie, please provide all positive feedback to Wildlife Queensland. Send any constructive criticism straight to me and we can have it out.