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Monday, January 31, 2011

Overweight and Planetary Overload - two sides of one coin

When we talk about the unsustainable nature of the current global economy, the over-consumption and the waste, the 7 billion people and rising, I think many people have been struck by a simple comparison.

People are constantly destroying their own health, in defiance of well known health warnings and doctor's advice, by over-eating, eating the wrong things and so on. Many of us wolf down burgers, and some smoke and many drink and so on too.

What we are doing to the planet as collective humanity is little different to what we do to ourselves. Nor are problems of recognising the evidence much different.

Like eco-systems, our bodies can be amazing resilient to abuse for a long time until the final straw is loaded. Then multi-systemic breakdown switches in and nothing can stave off ultimate collapse.

This thought bubble is going somewhere.

An eminent former Australian Health Minister Dr Neal Blewett has just finished a report on food labelling in Australia. You can see the whole report or summaries here:

Just throwing this out there, but this report is pretty sensible about health issues while largely ignoring the environment, with the exception being new technologies such as GM, irradiation and possibly ones in the pipeline like nanotechnology.

So how do we apply its thinking, risk hierarchy approach, front of label and front of counter (for fast food outlets) solutions to environmental sustainability more explicitly? Lots to mull over. Thoughts?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Permanent Natural Disaster Fund idea is taking root ... now let's see some political courage

Sometimes a journalist can get ahead of the news, which is what's been happening to your correspondent as the Queensland and wider Australian floods crisis unfolded this month.

My antenna are up again today because one and most likely two cyclones are bearing down on Queensland and the prospect of more flooding in the already sodden state is very real.

The position I first put about three weeks ago (see January 10th post below), before the Brisbane flood crisis even began, is that more and more destructive extreme weather events are the new normal in a climate change world. Therefore, I argued, Australia needs to make the likely impacts part of mainstream economic planning including creating a 'natural disaster levy' to support a permanent fund.

Fast forward to now and the Australian Government has promised a short-term levy to fund part of the flood recovery, mainly in Queensland, but ironically also is shaving climate action programs to save more dollars to help out. Some of these programs are really just further subsidising of the fossil fuel industry, like carbon capture and storage research, and may well be expendable; others like the solar hot water rebate are important to engaging people in solutions and should be saved.

The minority Gillard Labor Government is now copping it from every direction:

  • The Opposition wants no levy - it calls it a tax anyhow - and thinks Australia should be cutting more programs like water buy-backs (short-term thinking based on a wet year after 10 of drought)
  • Key Independents want a proper, lasting Natural Disaster Fund
  • The Greens, also wielding significant minority political influence, want climate programs protected and business - especially big polluters - to pay for any levy rather than the public
  • The hopeless NSW Labor Government, facing its own wipe-out at the polls in March, is bleating on about western Sydney folk not being able to afford the levy and wanting them exempted
  • Progressive social change group Get Up is running a lightning campaign calling for a Climate Disaster Fund paid for by stripping all subsidies away from the fossil fuel sectors (

All of this reflects the dysfunction of Australia and most of the world on climate change. The science is clear, we are living out the predicted rising chaos form weather-related extreme events, and yet our political leaders continue on a business as usual approach that is seeing our fossil fuel sector grow dramatically.

So what needs to happen now?

It's really this simple, albeit politically terrifying:
1. We have to put the polluter pays screws on the most polluting sectors to generate $ for climate action
2. Some of that money will have to go to a Natural Disaster Fund because more and more expensive disasters are inevitable and we need to budget for them, not just pass the hat around when they hit
3. A big slab of $ also needs to go to accelerating a clean energy future, driving renewable generation, distributed generation and energy efficiency as part of a 'smart and clean grid' future
4. Australia needs to chart a real transition plan to achieve a low-carbon, sustainable economic future much faster than anyone in power seems to be contemplating (there are lots of good ideas around for how to achieve this, so let's have a powerful expert Commission of Inquiry to get real answers)

This year 2011 is the year for action. The disasters are happening, a price on carbon is on the national agenda, and a Natural Disaster Fund is a political horse-trading headache the minority Gillard Government cannot avoid.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Token levy is no financial levee for fraught climate future

UPDATE: Below is piece run by @ABCEnvironment drawing on my earlier posts about the Queensland floods and need for a national disaster fund in Australia (you can see it on ABC Environment at

The PM's new flood levy shows thinking which is short-term, cowardly and doesn't understand climate change.
IN THE MIDST of this month's ruinous and deadly floods in Queensland and other states too, I posed the question: If weather-related disasters are the new normal, how do we pay for rescue, recovery and rebuilding?
The question flows from the scientifically well-established proposition that more people and more property will be exposed to more severe natural disasters more frequently under the main climate change scenarios - and actual experience is bearing this out here in Australia.
Whether it's the recent floods, Victoria's terrible bushfires nearly two years ago, or the long drought just passed, the facts reflect the best science. The impact of nearly one degree Celcius of warming over the past century - with more to come - means that higher average temperatures can make already dangerous weather-related events even more extreme.
Yesterday, Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard came up with superficially the same answer to the 'how do we pay' question that I did - a natural disaster levy!
Unfortunately, PM Gillard's levy version is short term, politically cautious if not cowardly, and one-off trivial in the context of the forces at work in a climate change world. In fact, the Gillard Government's response has morphed into an economic adjustment strategy, more than a disaster recovery one per se, using the $1.8 billion in levy proceeds plus spending cuts to help dampen excessive growth in the economy, perhaps easing pressure for more politically unpalatable Reserve Bank interest rate rises.
My levy prescription, by contrast, is long term, politically confrontational and aimed right at the heart of the threat posed by human-induced global warming. Australia needs to get serious about planning for climate change adaptation, precisely because along with most of the world we are proving to be hopeless at timely mitigation.
A natural disaster levy should now be part of prudent national budgeting. Such disasters are economic mainstream, not 'oh, shit happens'. We can't rely on a cocktail of sporadic insurance cover, post-crisis charity (inspiring as it is to see people give their money and sweat to help others) and ad hoc and politically expedient levies to pay for them.
Up front, I hasten to add, I don't mind paying my five dollars or so a week for a year if it helps Queensland to recover faster. A Queenslander by birth, I take a certain perverse state of origin pride in my home state's capacity for spectacular weather-related disasters.
Nor do I particularly mind the Government's planned spending cuts, even though they fall mainly on climate change and environmental programs. By reports, the programs to be scrapped or deferred include the cash for clunkers scheme, the Green Car Innovation Fund, carbon capture flagship programs, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, the Green Start program, and the Solar Hot Water Rebate scheme.
Most of these programs represent fiddling at the green fringe at best, and at worst they further prop up the already overly subsidised coal industry, carbon polluter numero uno. If they fade away while the Government delivers a credible price on carbon by 2012, and hopefully a robust national energy efficiency scheme as well, then I reckon the trade off is fine.
Of course, while PM Gillard has a levy plan, now it all comes down to political numbers in a fragile minority government scenario. Already it's becoming clear that the Abbott Opposition will oppose pretty much anything the government proposes, the Greens will want business and especially big polluters to pay rather than the public, and the Independents - led on this topic by the eminently sensible Tony Windsor - will seek a longer term solution along the lines of a permanent national disaster fund.
So how can the government's levy plan rise above the inadequate, even tokenistic offering put up yesterday?
1. Make the burden of weather-related disasters falling on Australians through fire, floods, drought and more part of the official narrative in support of climate action. Even if this represents human-caused climate change influences overlaid on natural weather cycles, for example hotter average weather conditions on top of a normal drought cycle, the end result is more devastation. The same goes for more violent or rain-filled storms on top of a classic wet season. All of this gets much worse if cyclone or bushfire wind speeds increase, as is expected to be the case, making already lethal events even worse. Nobody should be shielded from this likelihood, least of all because climate change has become part of the nation's culture wars in recent years.
2. Elevate these disasters to be overtly part of the national economic discussion, rather than putting them in the 'shit happens' category, or believing that a blend of insurance, government aid and corporate and community charity will always pay the way.
3. Establish a national natural disaster cost index, including a segment specifically for weather-related events, so we can plan for the cost and compare outcomes year on year. Droughts, cyclones, bushfires, hail, floods and drought all go into the mix, as do rogue cold snaps, and away from the weather don't rule out earthquakes, tsunamis and the like.
4. Recognise that as a developed nation, Australia will always want to respond and recover from these natural disasters in a timely, compassionate and economically effective way. So that will mean a big budget because the days in which we could rely on volunteers to deal with every disaster will soon be behind us, if they aren't already, and even training and equipping volunteers doesn't come cheap.
5. Make the big question of where the money should come from integral to the climate action agenda, including the question of a price on carbon and the calculations of how high it should be and what it should pay for.
One source for the money seems obvious. With the mining industry having fought off a 'super profits' tax so viciously, and now having second thoughts about a more modest rent tax; with the fossil fuel sector having so effectively undermined a price on carbon, at least until now; with commodity prices still so high; with their own vital infrastructure and value chains so vulnerable to extreme weather events - isn't the answer clear? How about the miners and drillers pay! If not all, then a hefty share, and while they are sure to howl all over again, they can claim for support from the multi-billion dollar fund when disasters strike them too.
It's ironic that the PM's levy will be collected in connection with the Medicare levy. No one would suggest that health funding should be done on an ad hoc basis, when and if a new disease or rash of injuries arises. Disasters are now a regular part of the economy. Their type and seriousness varies, but then the stockmarket fluctuates, interest rates rise and fall, and unemployment can be extremely bad or wonderfully benign or anywhere in between.
If we want to regularise the reality of the climate change threat with Australians, or people anywhere, we need to move disasters from being bad stuff that just happens to some unfortunates to be part of the economic mainstream. That's how we get everyone engaged, isn't it?
Murray Hogarth is a sustainability commentator and adviser who tweets as @The_Wattwatcher and blogs

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mall Dreaming - Shopping Centres for a Sustainable Future

What are we going to do with giant shopping centres and their sprawling car parks?

From an Australian perspective, and down here we have some whopper malls with mega space rental rates for retailers, the future of shopping is currently a hot topic.

One reason is the rise of internet shopping, with Aussies spending their hard-earned high-value dollars on buying goods from overseas, saving on the 10% Goods and Services Tax (GST) into the bargain.

Billionaire retail barons are spitting mad about it. But there are limits to the retail categories which can be sold effectively online, and governments are unlikely to pass new laws to stop consumers picking up a few good deals over the internet.

Besides, I reckon there are bigger issues for the future of all that valuable mall infrastructure. So what might the future hold?

Here's my top-of-mind transformation for our big shopping centres:
1. Car park space will be far too valuable to use it all for parking
2. As efficient community hubs, shopping centres will have their own 'catchment areas' and will run transport systems to bring in the customers and deliver them home with their purchases and happy memories (experiences will be at least as big a part of the transaction base as physical stuff)
3. Modest parking areas with recharging facilities can be maintained for customers coming in from further afield in their EVs, although they may need to book in well ahead
4. Shopping centre roofs will need to include major solar PV and solar furnace arrays, and park garden retreats for shoppers, while lower levels that were once car parking will become urban market gardens with renewable powered growing lights, water captured on site and waste recycled into fertiliser
5. Centre-grown produce will be sold on-site along with home-grown produce coming in from customers' gardens and local community production
6. The shopping centre will be a local area energy services centre as well, offering community members energy supply and management packages, energy saving training and support and much more
7. Efficient centralised services including laundry and food preparation also will be based in the shopping centre hub, along with multi-purpose government service offices

There's no doubt many more ideas for this transformation of the mall. What are you thinking?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Energy efficiency can be good and even very good, but is it 'sustainable'?

We're going to be hearing a lot more about the difference between good things to do like being more energy efficient and actually being 'green' or 'sustainable'.

The environment movement may be heartened to see more businesses offering more environmentally preferable products. Because we all want a sustainable economy, right?

But green watchdogs know deep down that the real struggle has just begun. The problem is that being a bit greener off a low base of bad-old business-as-usual performance is not going to get the planet and people out of environmental crisis, rather just postponing the inevitable.

A well-established case in point is the catalytic converters that made vehicles less air-polluting and helped to ease the shocking smog problems of two and three decades ago in major developed world cities.

Yet in many cases pollution is rising to dangerous levels again in places like my home city of Sydney as many more vehicles travel many more kilometres, with the compounding factor of higher temperatures due to global warming.

Business, as we know, works best with nice simple concepts.

So if using energy wastefully is bad and brown, then surely using it more efficiently is good and green?

Well, only to a point! If gains in energy efficiency in a key sector - let's take data centres as an example - are accompanied by massive expansion in the number of data centres powered by electricity generated with fossil fuels, we can still end up with a more negative environmental footprint.

The bar for making the jump to sustainability has to be set much higher, and that's a warning environmental champions will make more and more loudly as fears of corporate greenwashing become a core watchdog focus.

To follow the data centres example, to have pretensions to be be delivering real progress towards sustainability their industry will need to deliver on at least three main fronts:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Renewable energy
  • Replacing the work of more environmentally damaging processes
Of course serious businesses with real sustainability aspirations already appreciate this. Unfortunately, however, there are always many who remain ignorant, or get carried away with their own PR and delusions of corporate social responsibility, or even mislead deliberately.

There also are many in business and government who are simply not being honest and realistic about the scale of the challenge to move to a low-carbon, sustainable economy, nor about the speed with which we have to make that journey.

The new big thing of electric vehicles comes to mind. Their potential is alluring, especially for a nation like Australia which is running out of domestic oil for traditional liquid transport fuels. But if rapid uptake means Australia has to burn more coal to accommodate EVs, do we really gain?

Again, in this example, we'll need efficiency, renewable energy options and replacement of less preferable alternatives to round out the 'sustainability case'. We'll also need a lot more and faster investment in a genuinely 'smart grid'.

Don't get me wrong. We want energy efficiency whatever. To my way of seeing it, no business or country for that matter can claim to be serious about pursuing sustainability if it isn't maximising its energy efficiency. 

Yet the reverse is not necessarily true at all. Being very energy efficient of itself is no guarantee of being sustainable. How, I'm wondering, do we make this challenge resonate beyond the ranks of the sustainability literate?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Have the smart meter champions been too smart by half?

It’s always dangerous to play the public as suckers.

Around the world the evidence is mounting that the champions of smart meters have been doing just that, and now they are paying the price. Right when they need the people on their side!

Take Australia. Until several days ago, Victoria was the only state in Australia committed to a full smart meter roll-out, after what seems like nearly a decade of ongoing agonising, and suddenly that’s under renewed doubt too.

All it has taken is a change of government, with the arrival of a new Coalition Energy Minister who made political capital in Opposition bagging the then Brumby Labor Government’s smart metering execution.

The core allegation is that ‘consumer benefits have been overstated’ (*see further information on this and links below). It’s an allegation oft-repeated in Australia, North America, the UK and I imagine outside of the English-speaking world as well.

Here are some thoughts – 10 of them, in fact:
  1. We are going to end up with ‘smart meters’, sooner or later, whatever. In the digital age, I don’t think we’ll be staying with ‘dumb’ old-style electro-magnetic meters that have to be read manually.
  2. But a lot has changed in both current technology and future vision terms since we first started talking about the (now not-so) new wonder, smart meters. And is a heavily-regulated mass rollout of smart meters at mass consumer expense still the answer?
  3. Well, not actually. The main game is now the smart grid and even more ambitiously the ‘intergrid’ and the ‘internet of things’ – billions of appliances of all kinds bound together in a technology network (shades of The Terminator and SkyNet?). In this scenario, smart meters are a good workhorse in the scheme of things but not the cutting edge.
  4. It seems the original plan for smart meters in Australia, and elsewhere, was to perpetuate the utility models of the 19th and 20th centuries with some 21st century tweaks, like time-of-use charging, remote meter reading and that little ripper, remote service connection and disconnection.
  5. At first the consumer wasn’t really in the picture. The behind-the-scenes plan was for a dedicated broadband network to carry all of the energy data and any other communications back and forth between the utilities (supply) and the homes and businesses (demand). At what cost in Australia, no one was quite sure, but figures like $11B have been bandied around.
  6. Strangely, everyone inside the smart meter tent was largely ignoring the rising existence of the internet on the consumer side of the equation. Oh no, they had too much data to handle, although it’s more reasonable to think they simply wanted to control the data and the control functions if new-fangled ‘energy services’ and ‘demand management’ ever really caught on!
  7. But now the $40B-plus National Broadband Network is on its way in Australia, massive capacity for data management has moved into the ‘cloud’, new consumer-side technologies are emerging and the old-school smart meter plan is unraveling at pace.
  8. At the same time energy efficiency has finally become fashionable, fuelled by rising electricity prices and carbon reduction imperatives. So traditional utility models now will be challenged in ways not dissimilar to how traditional media, especially newspapers, is being confronted by social media and new communications.
  9. In all of this the new mantra of late 2010 and 2011 is that engaging the consumer is everything. That will mean sharing the data and control functions in real (and real time) and useful ways with the consumers who want that level of engagement, and providing effective energy services for those who want benefits with minimum personal effort. System benefits will flow if the consumer is successfully engaged en masse.
  10. The ‘smart’ meter will be a useful player on a very big stage. Yet Australian smart meter champions have already invested much time to achieve relatively little. So we should assume the smart meter die-hards will struggle to come to terms with how both communications and energy technologies are transforming around them, perhaps leaving them behind?   

The journey that began with smart meters was like trying to get to the upper atmosphere and test the beginning of sub-space. The far more expansive smart grid journey, powered by internet protocols, is more akin to using the moon as a jump off point for inter-stellar travel.

Love the view, who’s looking forward to the trip?

*On January 4th, just days into 2011, Melbourne’s popular Herald Sun newspaper reported that the new Coalition State Government, in its first two months in office, may ‘suspend the installation of electricity smart meters while it reviews the embattled major project’.

It continued that: ‘Energy Minister Michael O'Brien will this month seek details on the cost and legal implications of delaying the rollout ahead of an audit of the $2 billion system. A full review of potential improvements and whether it is worth dumping the scheme for an alternative will be commissioned amid concerns that consumer benefits have been overstated (my emphasis). Every household and small business is paying to replace old meters with the digital technology, even before their installation.’

From Opposition, last year, the now Minister O’Brien had quoted an Auditor-General’s report in November 2009 as identifying cost-benefit analysis that found ‘the business case for AMI (smart meters) in Victoria is likely to be negative’ … with rollout costs blowing out from $800 million to at best $1.6 billion and potentially up to $2.25 billion.

Monday, January 10, 2011

If weather-related disasters are the new normal, how do we pay for rescue, recovery and rebuilding? A natural disaster levy?

I posted yesterday on the killer floods in the Australian state of Queensland, which have worsened in the 24 hours since. Nearly every news item I am hearing is talking about new flood levels threatening the records, and this afternoon came news of a wall of water hitting the mid-sized regional city of Toowoomba, west of Brisbane.

The formula I'm focusing on is the scientifically well-established proposition that more people and more property will be exposed to more severe natural disasters more frequently under the main climate change scenarios - and actual experience is bearing this out.

Even if this represents human-caused climate change influences overlaid on natural weather cycles, for example hotter average weather conditions on top of a normal drought cycle, the end result is more devastation. The same goes for more violent or rain-filled storms on top of a classic wet season. All of this gets much worse if cyclone or bushfire wind speeds increase, as is expected to be the case, making already lethal events even worse.

Climate change overlaid on Australia's long-established weather patterns of 'droughts and flooding rains' will mean more extreme weather-related disasters which in time will unambiguously become climate-related disasters as well. For example, rising sea levels combined with more intense floods will mean more inundation, and cyclonic storm surges will penetrate deeper onshore if the winds driving them are more powerful.

Nobody should be shielded from this likelihood, least of all because climate change has become part of the nation's culture wars in recent years.

I've been well mentored in business, I believe, not to raise problems unless you want to profer solutions as well. So here goes.

We need to make disasters part of the overt national economic discussion, rather than putting them in the 'shit happens' category, or believing that a blend of insurance, government aid and corporate and community charity will always pay the way.

1. Let's have a national natural disaster cost index, including a segment specifically for weather-related events, so we can plan for the cost and compare outcomes year on year. Droughts, cyclones, bushfires, hail, floods and drought all go into the mix, as do rogue cold snaps, and away from the weather don't rule out earthquakes, tsunamis, land slides and the like.

2. As a developed nation, Australia will want to respond and recover from these natural disasters in a timely, compassionate and economically effective way. So that will mean a big budget because the days in which we could rely on volunteers to deal with every disaster will soon be behind us, if they aren't already, and even training and equipping volunteers doesn't come cheap.

3. So where does the money come from, because we all know government coffers are not exactly overflowing with spare cash at the moment. Well, the source is obvious. With the mining industry having fought off a 'super profits' tax so viciously, and now having second thoughts about a more modest rent tax; with the fossil fuel sector having so effectively underminded a price on carbon, at least until now; with commodity prices still so high; with their own vital infrastructure and value chains so vulnerable to extreme weather events - isn't the answer clear? How about the miners and drillers pay!

4. Thus, while time is taken to develop an effective price on carbon through either an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax, let's move straight away on a carbon-pollution related natural disaster levy on the mining, minerals processing and fossil fuel industries that sit behind much of the human-induced global warming that is driving adverse climate impacts. Sure they will howl, but they can claim for support from the multi-billion dollar fund when disasters strike them too.

This is not all in jest, or a try-on, although I recognise that economists will have all sorts of reasons why managing the risk of catastrophic losses should be left to the private enterprise experts - the insurance industry. Unfortunately, at the point where underwriting disasters ceases to be capable of being profitable, the insurance industry won't be there to do its job.

I reckon kick off at $10 a tonne of CO2 whether it goes into the atmosphere from Australia or overseas, because the effect on disasters in Australia will be the same. If that's not enough to keep up with the cost of disasters, then bump it up in $5 a tonne increments year on year. If that's still failing to keep up, then the point will be well made.

Disasters are now a regular part of the economy. Their type and seriousness vary, but then the stockmarket fluctuates, interest rates rise and fall, and unemployment can be extremely bad or wonderfully benign or anywhere in between.

If we want to regularise the reality of the climate change threat with Australians, or people anywhere, we need to move disasters from being bad stuff that just happens to some unfortunates to be part of the economic mainstream. That's how we get everyone engaged, isn't it?

Australia’s summer deluge is a Christmas parable for our climate-troubled times

Massive floods besetting the north-eastern Australian state of Queensland over the long, languid Christmas-New Year holiday season of a summer Down Under are a parable for our climate troubled times.

The morality story here is all about how we’ll live in a world too full of people when climatic stability – never something to be taken for granted given natural variability over years and decades – is threatening to break down badly this century.

You'll find great up-to-date coverage of these floods by Australia's national broadcaster the ABC at

It is understandable that all the attention now is focused on the misery of flood victims, and getting them safeguarded or rescued, aided by governments and supported by community charity. This blog post, however, anticipates the difficult, mature post-flood conversation that Queenslanders, Australians and the world need to have.

If more and more people and property are exposed to more and more extreme weather events - in a world where average temperatures are hotter, sea levels are rising and disaster recovery times are being reduced – there will be very serious implications. What should responsible governments be doing? How might businesses respond? When will the pressures of catastrophic destruction becoming more common start to tear communities, even whole nations apart?

Recent dinner guests, even hardened journalists, have accused me of being uncharitable to the flood victims. My Christmas seasonally-inappropriate argument is that if people build their homes and commercial premises on river floodplains or low-lying coastal zones or in bushfire-prone areas, or if they choose to farm on the driest inhabited continent on the planet with a long history of weather extremes, then they will experience disasters like floods, fires, storm surges and drought.

This is not a risk. It is a certainty waiting for a ‘when’. Insurance companies know this, which is why flood insurance for example normally is either not available or is ruinously expensive for properties in known flood zones. Modern developed economies rely hugely on the availability of insurance to spread the risk of catastrophic loss. Without it, banks won’t lend, people won’t invest and economic growth as we know it stalls or never starts.

I don’t make these arguments lightly or from ignorance of the ‘reality’ in which the affected people live. While I’ve been living in Sydney for over two decades, my roots are in ground zero for the Queensland floods. My childhood memories of a cattle property west of Bundaberg are of the brutal 1967 drought, when grasslands became bare dirt and we tried to save stock by feeding them sawdust and cane trash sprayed with molasses; of the wet 1970s when we seemed to spend more time flooded-in than dry for a whole decade; and of swollen rivers rolling huge dead tree trunks end-over-end like they were kindling wood. 

If climate change means more extreme weather events – and on this both the scientific modeling and observable evidence are clear, with previously 1-in-100-year flood and storm and fire events becoming more common – then logic says insurance will either be unavailable or unaffordable. That is an unpalatable (and inconvenient) truth.

If insurance isn’t available, then people and businesses either bear the weight of catastrophic loss themselves, or they get bailed out by government aid and community charity. And there’s no guarantee that the disaster, whatever it is, won’t repeat itself; because while lightning may not strike twice, floods for example can and do - as some stricken Queensland communities are learning right now.

At some point too many disasters mean whole areas become uninhabitable, at least in the context of a modern developed economy, because with the best will in the world there has to be an end to individual resilience, government aid and community charity. This is the pointy end of the parable in the Queensland floods. We might be able to save a house or even a whole street or suburb from flooding with sandbags, but we can’t sandbag our entire civilisation.

On recent days and weeks, the visually impressive Queensland floods have been seen around the world, on the news and via social media. Scientists are being ultra correct in not blaming climate change per se for this spectacular version of what we’ve always known as the ‘wet season’, even if the monsoons had gone AWOL for a couple of decades.

Now that Spanish-named girl La Niña has brought them back. Gidday chica bonita, we like you more than that sinister drought-bearing El Niño bloke.

These floods are a potent reminder of what science has been telling us for well over a decade now, that inexorable global warming almost certainly caused by human activities will lead to more extreme weather events.

For Australia, mere business as usual means a steady menu of droughts, floods, bushfires, cyclones and hail storms, although we’re generally spared northern hemisphere specials like blizzards and tornadoes. We don’t muck around with weather-related disasters down here! Along with the world’s deadliest snakes and creepy crawlies galore, when the weather goes bad things often get extremely nasty.    

As poet Dorothea Mackellar wrote so evocatively, Australia is a land of ‘droughts and flooding rains’ filled with ‘beauty and terror’. For the past decade we’ve had the drought, a severe one for nature and farmers alike, and now the heavens have opened up to deliver the remedy. There’s terror in the floods, but beauty in the amazing greening of Mackellar’s much-loved ‘wide brown land’, the filling of its streams and lakes and inland sea, and the resurgence of animal life and farm prosperity that comes after the deluge.

We humans, however, live more in the agony of the moment than the benefit for the longer term (I know, I just couldn’t work ecstasy in to the line). With the latest floods, nature’s capacity for violence is on show. People are suffering everything from minor inconvenience - capsicum prices are tipped to double or worse - to devastating financial and emotional loss, and already the conservative political lobby is trumpeting the need to fight back against the elements: dam more rivers, build more bridges and tame this terrible environment.

Also on show is the wonderful generosity of spirit of Australians as they, like many peoples around the world, rally together in times of hardship for their fellow citizens and donate to the flood appeals popping up like the green shoots after the rains. Some months ago it was the Pakistan floods, although Australians were not always so charitable there. Less than two years ago it was bushfire appeals after the terrible blazes that killed hundreds of people.

Appeals and government payouts are great. The media love them. But how sustainable are they if the disasters at home and abroad keep on getting worse and more frequent? At what point do we move to the centre of the political policy debates with our questions about when we should act decisively on climate change, how much we should be prepared to spend, and what the cost will be if we fail to act?

Australians won’t suffer alone in a world where dangerous climate change becomes irreversible through our own inaction. But it will suffer terribly.  

Sigh (read long sigh) … my holidays are over and I have to go back to work this morning. In Aussie media terms, this is still ‘the silly season’, and a good old rapid-action extreme weather event is a godsend. The deluge is something to fill up the news bulletins and newspapers, and blogs too, especially when the cricket is going against Australia and the beach conditions are less than sun-filled days of surfing and tanning.

Is it really too much to hope that we could start to ask and try to answer the big questions for our nation and the world?

As I get close to finishing this post the midnight news on my Australian Broadcasting Corporation local news channel leads with a story of Queensland bracing itself for more flooding, with new heavy rains in the heavily-populated south-east of the state, including the capital city of Brisbane. I was at boarding school in Brisbane the last time it flooded badly in 1974 and got to miss a whole week at the start of term. My sister’s flat in the suburb of Auchenflower was inundated and my wife’s family home in riverside Fairfield was destroyed with all of their belongings.

I don’t think building more dams will fix the real problems we face in 2011 and beyond, and I’m damn sure that more coal mines and coal-fired power stations aren’t the solution. When these floods recede, as they always do, I hope we’ll have the real conversation.   

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

- Extract from My Country by Dorothea Mackellar

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Epic greenwash or corporate-led salvation? Contrasting Vale and Dupont ad splurges in latest National Geographic

The latest National Geographic hit my mail box today. The central theme of this issue is ‘Population 7 Billion: How Your World Will Change’.

Great magazine, as millions of readers agree, and as ever the infographics are terrific. To my mind a brief scan provides magnificently convincing evidence that the world as we know it is in deep trouble:
·        Too many people;
·        Too many species being lost;
·        Too little idea of what we are losing as we destroy the greatest reservoirs of biodiversity, tropical forests and coral reefs.

It’s all laid out in visually-pleasing detail by Nat Geo.

What struck me as the most interesting content of this edition of this great publishing institution, however, were the two major advertising components.

·        Exhibit A is a 12-page insert headed ‘Biodiversity: The web of life that supports us all’, sponsored and branded in large part by the Brasil-based international mining giant Vale;

·        Exhibit B is a 3-page inside front cover fold-out advertisement sponsored by Dupont, the life sciences company now in its 3rd century of existence having started as a gunpowder manufacturer in America in 1802.

It is not unreasonable to ask if the venerable Nat Geo has lost its marbles in its commercial decision to embrace these sponsors? But that’s not my path of inquiry, or at least not entirely.

The Vale advertorial ends with this line: Vale. There is no future without mining. And there can be no mining without caring about the future.’

That’s as vacuous as it is inaccurate. There could well be a future without mining, and reducing or even eliminating mining may be critical to unlocking the sustainable future we need. Sure mining won’t end tomorrow, but it could end. For example, with enough renewable energy we wouldn’t need to mine thermal coal and drill for oil. And with less consumption, recycling could carry us through for many commodities we currently still mine.

Dupont is a company I am more familiar with, having consulted to them with Ecos Corporation a decade ago. It is a genuine ‘built to last’ company that has transformed itself repeatedly over 200-plus years through gunpowder, armaments, chemicals, synthetic materials, crop technologies and much more.

Its ad welcomes readers to the ‘Global Collaboratory’ (apparently you can see more at and carries the inclusive main headline ‘There are almost 7 billion reasons why we should work together’; going on to say:
  • Together, we can feed the world;
  • Together, we can decrease dependence in fossil fuels;
  • Together, we can protect what matters most (a reference to human safety).

Now, these are big claims too. But unlike those of Vale, they are backed by specific mainstream products and services that Dupont has developed or co-developed in the decade or so that it has made sustainability core to its business platform in its 3rd century.

Whenever I see giant corporations with huge environmental footprints and vast legacy problems advertising their sustainability commitments in glossy magazines I think … well, I think Shell, and that fails to fill me with confidence.

But in my final analysis I am far happier to accept a science company like Dupont that has survived so long by finding new solutions for new centuries over a relative upstart dirt shifter like Vale.

Vale’s advertorial trumpeted its three core pillars to qualify for such prominence in Nat Geo, albeit paid for. They were:
  • Being a sustainable operator;
  • Acting as a catalyst for local development;
  • Being a global agent for sustainability.
They are fine sentiments, and Vale obviously does some good stuff in its field, yet in my humble opinion it’s more feel-good corporate social responsibility than transformative sustainability.

Dupont by comparison – though far from perfect - is in the game to find solutions that could change the world and give it a profitable place in its 3rd century and beyond. I’d love to see Nat Geo’s own analysis before it went ahead with carrying the Vale insert and the Dupont fold-out. What’s the bet there was significant internal debate?

I’m keen to know how other Nat Geo readers respond to the January 2011 edition of the magazine, and what they make of these oh-so prominent advertising sponsors? Love to hear from Nat Geo and the companies too! 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Key sustainability trends for 2011 …with reflections on 2010, the year that was

A statement of the obvious: 2011 is going to be a big year for climate change, the environment and sustainability. In many ways it can be a pivotal year, at the start of a decade where the world has to act decisively. Of course, the burning question is still the same: Will it?

Last January I published my tips on 10 key sustainability trends for the 2010 year under the banner of my consulting business the 3rd degree. This year, as The Wattwatcher, this sustainability trends review both reflects on what happened in 2010 and offers updated installments for 2011. My views on these trends are weighted towards an Australian perspective while offering a more global view where relevant.

My introduction last year began: ‘Global recession and the CPRS* and Copenhagen failures were serious setbacks for sustainability, leaving many players discouraged and frustrated. Yet the pressure on governments and businesses to act on climate will keep rising.’ On reflection, I was both right and wrong. The pressure to act is rising in terms of the scientific justification, observable negative impacts, and also the business case for early action. But political will has been sapped by economic recovery priorities and a conservative ideological backlash, the latter most apparent in the US and also Australia.

For 2011, I am more optimistic that we will see stronger evidence of the world moving towards an era of more sustainable consumption and less damaging exploitation of natural resources. This will include a heightened, though still inadequate focus on preserving biodiversity and greater recognition of the eco-system services that underpin the global economy and human civilisation.
  • At a macro level, the UN climate summits of 2011 and 2012, plus the potent symbolism of Rio+20 in 2012, will provide crucial forums to engage leaders across government, business and the community sectors
  • At a micro level, the transformative agendas of individual cities, corporations and even individuals will build understanding of both the need for change and the ways in which it can be delivered while enhancing the economy and improving quality of life.   

(*For non-Australian followers the CPRS was the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the Australian Government’s 2009 plan for a cap-and-trade scheme, which fell over badly in extraordinary political circumstances in 2009-10.)

The trends - in no particular order - are:

Carbon Strategy
Carbon strategy is going shorter and longer. With the CPRS and Copenhagen summit opportunities in apparent disarray, pressure will build for both short-term interim solutions and bigger and bolder long-term strategies.
International cap-and-trade is still the elegant longer-term tool we need to engineer an orderly transition to a low-carbon global economy. But it now seems clear we will need to demonstrate how messy and/or ineffective the main shorter-term alternatives are before we adopt cap-and-trade properly. Vested interests in fossil fuels had temporary wins, and continuing uncertainty over the post-Kyoto period is undermining political will to act and also investment decision-making.
The US EPA push to regulate carbon emissions and renewed Australian interest in an interim carbon tax are good indicators of how short-term pressure points will be targeted to force due consideration of realistic, long-term solutions (i.e. cap-and-trade). Encouraging strategies to deliver low carbon cities and companies are emerging.
There will be further growth in scale and diversity of civil society organisations committed to building a broad base of consumer and citizen awareness and action on climate change.
New Activism

(now including social media)
Polluters will pay. It’s the carbon version of the ‘Sea Shepherd effect’ i.e. where failure to stop Japan killing whales in the Antarctic each summer has spawned more radical protesting than that of Greenpeace.
This trend tip was on the right track, but I didn’t see how powerful social media would become in magnifying activist power and community outrage e.g. the huge pressure BP faced over the Gulf oil spill disaster & Greenpeace v Nestle over palm oil in KitKats. Twitter, Facebook and You Tube are important new tools of choice for activism in the 2010s.
By combining traditional protests and stunts with more use of social media campaigning, activist groups can bypass the mainstream media and outflank traditional corporate spin-doctoring. Activists will gain more skills in 2011 in using social networks for their communications and also for ‘crowd-sourcing’ of funds. However, it is a crowded battlefield and business also is learning how to operate better in a networked world.
Policy Fatigue & Investor Alarm
The energy has been sucked out of the would-be carbon trading and services sector again, leaving business plans smashed, early movers hurting and investors cautious or retreating all over again.
Now any hope of an early US federal cap-and-trade scheme has faded, and with Europe so financially embattled, the rout of the carbon trading wannabe sector is a serious setback for early movers. But there are still some ‘real jobs’ in actually saving energy and waste, and clean tech and clean energy investment survived the global recession in good shape v. old alternatives.
With the pain of ‘false starts’ on the much anticipated shift to a global carbon market worth many billions or even trillions of dollars a year so fresh, the focus will be away from trading and will concentrate on saving energy, generating clean energy, the smart grid and waste and water technologies. This is a healthy trend to deliver real solutions rather than speculation. It will be very hard to finance any more traditional coal-fired power stations in the developed world at least.
CSR Under Pressure
Rising disenchantment over perceived corporate spin and backsliding will drive an ‘acid test’ approach to business claims and initiatives, and real results will be crucial rather than soft social responsibility
The year brought an upward spike in scrutiny on corporate ‘social responsibility’ claims, especially with the dramatic events surrounding one-time CSR darling BP.
From 2011 onwards we will see more focus on differentiating between corporations that ‘do CSR’ (like many big banks and mining companies) and those that make sustainability solutions core to their business models (GE, Dupont and Unilever are some that spring to mind).
Elections & Politicking
With elections in South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Australia-wide and NSW over the next year and a bit, the usual political horse-trading over green preferences will be back in business. It’s a scenario where the green vote can be golden at the critical margins!
What a mixed bag! In Australia doing power-sharing deals with Greens and/or socially progressive Independents saved the Federal Labor Government and at least one state counterpart. Close to home, there are early hopes that an incoming conservative Coalition Government in NSW, Australia’s largest state, will be stronger on sustainability than its federal equivalent. In the UK the Tory Party, encouragingly green in its own right, has to govern in coalition with Liberal Democrats. But in the US the Republicans romped back in mid-term elections and the Tea Party is on the loose.
On a parochial note, there is no plausible scenario for Green preferences to save the Labor Government in my now home state of NSW in the March 2011 poll. More broadly, I am concerned that fear-mongering over the huge changes required to achieve a sustainable future will strengthen reactionary conservatism in the short term, and this will be apparent in 2011. We will have to wait a while longer for green/sustainable to be the political mainstream. I expect a growing discussion about a new Centre Left force in Australian politics as Labor seeks to rediscover itself in the 21st C to deliver socially and environmentally progressive policies in tandem with sound economic management.    
Behaviour Focus
Consumers Do Rule? There’s a rising focus on consumer behaviour change among governments, businesses and community organisations
The proliferation of ‘green’, ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ labels came on to the radar strongly over the past year, with mixed results for engaging consumers. Greenwashing is putting good offerings in peril. Failure to engage the consumer in key areas such as rolling out smart meters for the smart grid provoked community backlash (see more below).
Expect concerted efforts at regional, national and international levels to bring some order to the sustainability labels arena in 2011. This will be a growing challenge for major retailers and brand owners. There will be more pressure on energy utilities to become energy service providers and more investment in engaging consumers in the ‘smart and clean’ grid of the future (see more below). User pays road charging will get more attention and has to be ‘sold’ to consumers.
Technology Steps Up
The Grid is meeting Internet Protocols. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is gaining momentum for demand-side energy use and management solutions
Although still poorly understood by the consuming public, the smart grid made real progress in 2010 and will accelerate in spite of community concern about cost, privacy and other issues surrounding smart meters. At an elite level, 2010 brought greater understanding that the smart grid has a lot more to it than rolling out smart meters. This includes meeting the need for more flexible energy demand to match more variable supply e.g. from wind, solar etc & the integration challenge for electric vehicles.
Fast-rising energy prices, the advent of electric vehicles and the need to integrate clean energy generation into the system are key drivers for smart grid investment in 2011 and beyond. There will be a lot more work done on making the economic and environmental cases to both business and domestic consumers. There will be greater linking of renewable and distributed energy, energy efficiency and new transport alternatives as key pillars for carbon reduction.
Energy Costs Stay in Play
Even without a price on carbon, energy prices have been going up rapidly and this is likely to continue,  boosting the case for the neglected motherhood solution of energy efficiency
In 2010, the cost of electricity bills became the hot topic for water cooler and BBQ conversations, certainly in Australia. Energy efficiency gained the attention of a prime ministerial task force and became a Ministry in Australia. Energy saving is a major focus in many major economies including the US and China. A doubling or tripling of electricity prices by 2020 is now expected in Australia.
For 2011 in Australia, the scene is set for more confusion. Creating a robust national energy efficiency scheme is held back whenever carbon trading is ‘on the table’ - and it is again! This is partly because of a lack of political and bureaucratic headspace to address both together. More positively, however, the fact that electricity prices are starting to get noticed like petrol (gasoline) prices means that politicians are feeling pressure to act. Watch!
Science to Rebound
Climate scientists are warning that 2010 may well set new temperature records in Australia and globally, with the likelihood that the latest bounce-back by climate deniers will fade under the weight of heat and science.
Even though a La Nina year, 2010 has been one of the hottest years on record, with plenty of severe weather-related natural disasters. The ferocious attack of the climate skeptics late in 2009 and early 2010 has subsided, and their claims and attacks have since fallen flat i.e. the eventual outcome of the ‘Climategate’ scandal.
For 2011, there are signs that scientists around the world are getting better positioned to present and argue the case for climate action now. The next COP in South Africa in December 2011 and Rio+20 in 2012 provide the major set piece opportunities to sweep aside denial and doubt. But watch out for people believing ‘the climate has fixed itself’, especially in post-drought Australia.
People like clean energy and governments are supporting it more and more as a popular aspiration for householders and businesses.
Wherever governments offered householders and businesses rebates and other incentives (e.g. feed-in tariffs) to take up solar installations and energy audits, they were rapidly swamped by eager applicants. People do love clean energy! On the negative side, 2010 was politically disastrous for national schemes in Australia to encourage greener and more efficient homes while stimulating the overall economy. Home insulation, home energy audits and green loans all had big problems.  
For 2011, there will be a build-up of pressure on governments to move from short-term ‘band-aid’ incentives for clean energy solutions to sustained action that will deliver long-term progress on distributed energy and renewable solutions. Government programs of the past few years have created a boom-bust cycle for business in areas like energy efficiency and renewable energy, and some (if not most) have failed politically as well. The policy focus has to shift to more sustainable sustainability!

If you’ve made it this far you’ll know my sustainability trends for 2011 are an amalgam of personal experience, observations and beliefs, leavened with a bit of hope. How do you feel about 2011 and the years beyond? And do you think we can exert positive influence on the future we’ll get by promoting informed discussion of what it can and needs to be?