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Climate change and electric vehicles

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 10 November 2017


I've put the dual citizenship essay on hold, partly because yet another person has decided that he might be at risk. He is only the President of the Senate, but there you are. There may be more, and the issue is getting more important by the day, because of the manner in which the High Court chose to decide the question.

Instead I have my eye on a report presented to the relevant Minister in the ACT about the State of the Environment (in the ACT) in 2015. The Commissioner is Professor Kate Auty, and she formerly held much the same post in Victoria, leaving it a little early because of what she saw as the inaction of the Victorian Government in her area. I went to the report because of a newspaper report suggesting that her important recommendation was the need to set electric vehicle (EV) targets in order to bring emissions down. Since EVs currently run on electricity largely generated by fossil fuels, and will continue to do so for a long, long time, I wondered what the logic here was. Before I could get there I had to wade through the Commissioner's long account of how awful climate change was.

And that got my ire up, because the argument was so circular, and if I may say so, so pathetic. Here is the beginning of Section 2.1 Main findings.

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The evidence for climate change is overwhelming. Levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Spring is arriving earlier, and summers in both hemispheres are hotter. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heatwaves are getting worse, as are extreme storm events. The oceans are acidifying. These environmental changes have impacts on humans – hunger, disease, drought and flooding are likely to worsen, as are the resulting conflicts and refugee crises.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) is already seeing the effects of climate change, and further impacts are predicted.

The Commissioner takes her cue from the IPCC's AR5, but there is no suggestion in what she says that there is anything beneficial in global warming - there's no reference to the greening of the planet, the greatly increased food production, the extension of growing seasons in marginal crop areas, the reduction in food poverty, and so on.

That introductory paragraph is empty of any dates or uncertainties. It is just one assertion after another. Compared to twenty years ago, for example, you would have to say that the evidence of 'climate change' is just underwhelming. The apparent rapid increase in temperature that coincided in the 1980s and 1990s with a rapid increase in CO2 levels has passed into a more or less bumpy small increase in temperature while CO2 goes on climbing as it did. Summers are not as hot as they were in the 1930s. Sea levels are rising as they have done for the past few hundreds of years. The patterns of rainfall seem, at least here in eastern Australia, much as they have been for the past century and a half (that is to say, cyclical). The oceans are not acidifying - that is a misuse of terminology. There may have been a tiny decrease in oceanic alkalinity, but the oceans are a big place: seventy per cent of the planet's surface is water. Hunger and disease are declining. Her summary is almost Biblical in its thunder.

Ah, but we then come to a statement that can be checked: the ACT is already seeing the effects of climate change. Is it really? What are these effects? The Commissioner doesn't say, anywhere, and passes quickly to what might be predicted (which is more disasters of all kinds). So I waited to find out what the effects were. In Section 2.2.3 the Commissioner states that (following the IPCC) four indicators are used: temperature, climate variables, extreme events and greenhouse gas emission levels. Then it appears that we are going to look mostly at what has happened since 1961. When we get to the ACT region all we get is model projections for the future. What is the purpose of stuff like this? Table 2.1 shows that ACT greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2010/11 at 4459.7 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent. They were at 3934.1 kt in 2014/2015. The target for 2020 is 1911 kt. If that is a real target that the Commissioner ought to have said that progress was appalling. In fact, she said that the ACT Government had been a 'leader and a driver' of climate change policy in Australia.

Section 2.3.1 takes us to ACT weather and climate 2011-2015, and there is not much anyone can say about such a short period, so the report goes quickly into dire projections, pages of them. We have to mitigate and adapt. OK. Now hear this:

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We have set targets that are consistent with those that IPCC experts tell us are required to limit change to the critical 2 °C warming and, indeed, are ambitious enough to help tackle warming at the higher end of the range – up to 6 °C. The ACT is therefore beginning the process of transformational change to our economy that the IPCC considers is required to slow climate change.

The 'We' here is the ACT Government. Commissioner Auty doesn't seem to know that the 'critical' two degrees C limit to warming has no scientific foundation, and is a figure apparently dragged from the ether at a conference. The 1.5 degree figure you will also hear about from time to time has a similar derivation.

So what about progress? Well, When compared with 14 Australian and 10 international cities, the ACT's climate change policies and actions are at least on par with, and in some cases leading, other Australian and international cities in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Does it make any difference to anything except a higher cost of living for those living in the ACT?

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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