Emissions GR Policy

Green Junk – In praise of waste

This makes sense… or does it?

This post has two purposes.

First, for those who don’t follow my Twitter feed (hey, why don’t you?), I’d like to highlight some terrific work from Geoff Russell and Ben Heard that has hit the ‘net over the past few weeks. These are all ‘must reads’ – with the first of them going viral in the retweet world!

1. A devastating critique of Jim Green’s anti-science nonsense — who recently shot a ‘junk science’ attack against respected climatologist James Hansen:

Green Nuclear Junk: In their determination to attack nuclear power and those who support it, anti-nuclear activism has walked away from the scientific process. As a result, nearly the entire community of environmental organisations in Australia is currently standing behind figures that are completely mathematically incorrect. Will they correct these blatant errors and open their publications to expert external review? Or is correct maths and good science optional when you wear the colour green?

2. One million solar roofs no reason for celebration: 1M solar rooftop doesn’t even scratch the surface of the emissions generated by a few Queensland cowboys in a single year, let alone take a serious bite out of fossil fuels.

3. Solar miracles and the nuclear reaction: Given the speed of a nuclear rollout compared to that of renewables, it needs to be considered as part of a shift to cleaner energy sources.

Second, I’d like to present a little philosophical message from Geoff Russell on waste. This recapitulates some arguments made forcefully by Tom Blees in Prescription for the Planet.

In praise of waste

The title of this piece will hopefully arouse curiosity, but I have to confess it’s not quite what I believe. My parents lived through the depression so I was bought up to be frugal. We weren’t poor by any means, but my mother didn’t go to a restaurant until she was in her mid forties. For my parents, particularly during my younger years, waste was anathema, a serious moral issue. Attempting to leave any part of a meal uneaten would be responded to with industrial grade suggestions to think about poor people going to bed hungry who’d be glad of the food we children were attempting to throw out. Those attitudes struck root and are so clearly sensible on many levels that it was a personal shock to suddenly realise that when they are applied to energy, they are worse than wrong; they are dangerous.

What can possibly be wrong with promoting energy efficiency?

The Spanish generate 5.8 tonnes of CO2 per person your year (t-CO2/person/yr) while the Swedes produce almost 20 percent less at 5.07 t-CO2/person/yr. So can the Spanish turn off more lights, watch less TV, drive less, eat more raw food, use smaller more efficient fridges, cars, computers and so on to save 20 percent and get themselves down to the Swedish level?

Quite possibly. But it’s an incredibly brainless way to reduce emissions. Partly because it won’t ever get them low enough to be sustainable, but more importantly because it may impede the deep and meaningful changes that will.

It’s not difficult to see this when you consider that the Swedes use more than twice the electricity per person of the Spanish. In fact, at 15,000 kWh/person/yr, the Swedes use more electricity than almost anybody, even more than couch potato Australians and Americans, but they have far lower CO2 emissions.

Why? Because the Swedes generate smart clean electricity for about 20-30 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (g-CO2/kWh). They are lucky enough to get about half of it from hydro schemes and smart enough to have built plenty of nuclear reactors during the 70s and 80s. Their nuclear build speed makes the German renewable revolution look positively glacial. The German energy system produces about 1,000 kilowatt hours per year per person more from wind and solar now than it did 11 years ago. The Swedes added 7,000 kilowatt hours per person per year to their nuclear electricity output between 1975 and 1986.

Who gives a damn how much electricity you use when it’s clean?

Nobody should give a damn. What’s even more important is that if you have bucket loads of clean electricity you can use it to decarbonise plenty of other activities. You can charge electric vehicles. You can make hydrogen for fuel cells. You can run desalination plants. You can make aluminium and replace heavy steel anythings with lightweight alloys.

In Australia we have had over a decade of energy saving exhortations as successive Governments, backed by environmental groups of all persuasions, pushed the energy efficiency mantra. We had the Climate Clever campaign and who can forget the Government black balloon advertising “You have the Power. Save Energy”? Here the number one suggestion was to install ceiling insulation followed by switching off that second fridge. The messages were clear. First, climate change mitigation will be a doddle, just turn stuff off and be a bit more careful and everything will be fine. Second, it’s your fault you are generating so much CO2. Both messages are wrong. There are areas of personal behaviour that will need to change to prevent total climate destabilisation, like eating little if any animal food (meat and milk), but using less electricity isn’t one of them. We can all have air conditioning and central heating. The only way in which it’s our fault is that we keep electing Governments who don’t understand either the scope or the urgency of the problem.

Australians emit around 17 tonnes of CO2 per person (tCO2/cap/yr) compared to the 5 tonnes of the Swedes. We also have a huge non-CO2 emission output. Will any amount of energy efficiency close that gap? And we don’t just need to close the gap. We and the Swedes need to get down to about one tonne per person per year, according to the Copenhagen Diagnosis documents. To even suggest that efficiencies can play a significant roll is daft. We have had energy efficiency stickers on white goods along with a constant stream of improved efficiencies in all of our household and industrial processes for a couple of decades. I used to use a 120 Watt computer screen, now I use a 40 watt screen, I used to use a computer with a 400 watt power supply, now I use one with a 30 watt power supply. Has any of these kinds of huge efficiency gains slashed our total or per capita emissions?


On the contrary, our electricity is dirtier (meaning more CO2 per kilowatt hour) and for most of the period since the Kyoto benchmark years of 1990, our electricity use, and per capita carbon dioxide emissions have gone up. The recent downward blip, the global financial crisis of 2008, is just that, a blip.

So it’s time we stopped wasting time with brain dead energy saving mantras and got on with the real task of building a clean energy infrastructure so we can use far, far more electricity.


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By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

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