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The 2020 Summit - will Rudd’s children forgive him?

By Michael Lardelli - posted Wednesday, 23 April 2008


Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit is over. The tone of the affair that outsiders (most of us) could discern was one of cheerful camaraderie and self-congratulatory back-slapping. We are all excited - or we should be! An end to Queen Elizabeth II’s reign over Australia is back on the agenda and we are told that one of the best ideas from the Summit is to allow university students to work off their study debt (called “HECS” in Australia) doing community service like some sort of non-custodial sentence. WOW! Australia’s future looks bright!

What struck me most from the Summit was Kevin Rudd’s concluding comment:

I don't want to wake up one morning in the year 2020 with the regret of not having acted when I had the chance; that's why it's important to plan ahead," Mr Rudd said.

I don't want to have to explain to my kids, and perhaps their kids too, that we failed to act, that we avoided the tough decisions, that we failed to prepare Australia for its future challenges.

We can either take command of the future or we can sit back and allow the future to take command of us.

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This has to be one of the saddest comments that I have heard all year. Not because it was not said with conviction and optimism, but because it reveals extreme levels of either ignorance or deception - and both these qualities are very distressing to find in our nation’s leader.

If Rudd believes that the Summit succeeded in identifying the greatest and most immediate threat to Australia’s future - and provided him with ideas for response - then he is just plain wrong. Distressingly, there are strong hints that the summit topics - and the people who discussed them - were chosen with the aim of avoiding the contentious issues and, in particular, peak oil.

If you bothered to read the initial report from the summit you may have noticed how the word “oil” is never mentioned and “energy” only shows up occasionally and mostly in connection with carbon emissions. The only area of discussion where a vague reference was made to uncertainty on the energy front was in the topic “Australia’s future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world”. Here, under the heading, “A broader conception of security” the participants suggested that Australia:

Establish a high level advisory council comprised of business, academic, and scientific leaders to advise on emerging food, water and energy security challenges. The role of such a body would include advice on responding to security challenges such as pandemics, energy security, transnational crime, people trafficking and climate change.

[and]

Adopt a new approach using smart power to address food, water and energy security issues in collaboration with our neighbours.

The topic where the public most expected discussion of energy security was “Population, sustainability, climate change, water and the future of our cities”. (As I wrote earlier, the previously announced and very relevant topic of “Economic infrastructure, the digital economy and the future of our cities” disappeared - somewhat mysteriously - before the Summit began.)

The most interesting information to come out of the “Population etc.” topic was what they could not agree on:

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The points of contention during the discussion were the respective merits of clean coal versus renewables, population restrictions versus reductions in per capita footprint, the transfer of all Commonwealth funding to public transport (rather than roads), and GM crops.

A substantial number of the group felt strongly that no new coal-fired power stations be built in Australia until carbon capture and sequestration is commercially available, proven, safe and efficient. However, there was no consensus.

The reason there was no consensus on the issue of coal use became blindingly obvious in an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald the day after the Summit ended. In “Fossil Fuel Industry Dominates” we learned that:

The [climate change] sub-group was heavy with representatives of the fossil fuel industry. It had no one who could unequivocably be said to be from the environment movement.

Even the relatively straightforward issue of cutting energy use, now accepted by many governments and businesses, met obstacles.

Australia might need to emit much more carbon in the future, said Peter Coates, the chairman in Australia of the mining giant Xstrata, as climate change fuelled world food shortages and the nation increased production to fill the gap. [Author comment: How can Australia increase food production from current levels in the light of climate change?]

"We may find that energy intensity will increase," Mr Coates said. He called for a "level playing field" for carbon capture and storage technology - an experimental field that already draws large public subsidies.

Anna Rose, from the youth summit climate group, said: "It's outrageous, and I'm really uncomfortable because you can't have a proper discussion about climate change without anyone from the environment movement. I'm being forced to try and represent the climate movement, which I'm not qualified to do. It's really, really disappointing because we were told to come in with an open mind."

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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