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.
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.
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:
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."
The relative dearth of scientists in the “Population etc.” group was pointed out before the summit by an article at the Larvatus Prodeo blog:
One thing that did stick out rather strongly in the list was the number of experts on water policy - water scientists and administrators seem to be a dime a dozen, compared to experts in, say, sustainable transport policy or geosequestration. … we haven’t even started to grope towards environmentally sustainable urban transport solutions. And, as previously noted, Australia’s greenhouse policy still amounts to a massive bet on carbon capture and storage; wouldn’t it be kind of useful to have more than a couple of people in a position to know whether it’s a goer or not?
Amazingly, despite the presence of so many water policy “experts”, the summit report included nothing on our dying Murray River.
A transport engineer I cited previously is worth hearing again:
I find the list of attendees frustrating in several respects. There are some very good economists (e.g. Garnaut and Quiggan) and some genuine climate experts (e.g. Pearman) but a lot of political figures … and virtually nobody with a technical background in transport. I'm not saying the world should be run by engineers and scientists but this is a technically complex problem and yet there are virtually NO technical experts on infrastructure in that whole group in my opinion. They seem to assume that the only possible solutions will be economic policies which achieve political support.
The lack of expert opinion at the 2020 Summit has had telling results. Scratch the surface of their “innovative ideas” and we find the past’s mistakes repeated. As the transport engineer now notes:
… the stuff I have seen so far will change nothing as far as transport is concerned. That recommendation about having everyone within 800 metres of public transport is completely pointless. The problem with public transport is not lack of route coverage, but their frequency, reliability and speed. (Much harder to fix.) You can put a bus route within 800 meters of a lot of people if it snakes around enough back streets. But it will be so slow nobody except pensioners and non-car owners will catch it. The ineffectiveness of approaches like that has been known for decades … In south east Queensland they tried to introduce a policy to have 80% of urban areas within 400 metres of public transport services in the mid 1990s. Yet it achieved nothing - public transport mode share continued to fall! In more recent times higher fuel prices and efforts like the Brisbane Busway and the Perth-Mandurah rail line (both offering frequent reliable services) have worked far better. But they cost real $ to implement.
The true tragedy of the 2020 Summit is that it has poisoned the intellectual well for the ideas it did not discuss. The Summit was presented to the Australian public as:
… bring[ing] together some of the best and brightest brains from across the country to tackle the long term challenges confronting Australia’s future -challenges which require long-term responses from the nation beyond the usual three year electoral cycle.
The implication is that if 1,000 of our “best” minds did not identify an issue as important then it is not worthy of future consideration or discussion. How can we now get the public to take seriously our peak oil concerns (let alone act on them) when these have not been rubber-stamped as “valid” by Rudd’s Summit?
In the past fortnight the Russians effectively declared their oil production to be past peak while Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced that the kingdom would conserve some oil reserves for future generations rather than maxing production to make life more affordable for Australian motorists. Oil is now over US$110 per barrel but, for Australia, the future of oil is not important (at least not for the millionaire Rudd family).
Kevin Rudd does not “… want to have to explain to my kids, … that we failed to act, that we avoided the tough decisions, that we failed to prepare Australia for its future challenges” but by ignoring peak oil at the 2020 Summit he reminds me of the UK’s Agriculture Minister John Gummer. In the midst of the mad cow disease crisis in 1990 Gummer sought to allay his nation’s fears about the safety of eating beef by feeding his daughter a hamburger. Today, 18 years later, over 160 people have died from eating British beef. Will Rudd’s children forgive their father’s inaction as their rosy futures disintegrate in the next decade?