Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Great Leap Backwards

By Ian Lowe

Queensland’s new government has reduced support for solar energy and resolved to ban the teaching of climate science in schools.

Queensland, where I live most of the time, elected a Liberal–National Party government a few months ago. It seems to be doing a Great Leap Backwards.

The most bizarre sign was a resolution at the governing party’s recent state conference to ban the teaching of climate science in schools, reminding me of an equally ridiculous directive in the 1980s to teach “creation science”. At that time, most teachers ignored the government’s approval of pseudoscience – although it didn’t have the sort of support some elements of the Murdoch press are now giving to fringe groups still trying to discredit climate science. With some industry groups funding the distribution of glossy, misleading material to schools, there is a real risk of superstition prevailing over rigorous science.

The new Premier has cut government funding for large solar energy projects and closed down the agencies providing information about renewable energy and efficiency gains. The government also terminated the funding of the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), which provides legal aid to community groups fighting inappropriate developments, ironically in the same week that it announced it would spend much more than the EDO’s total budget supporting the High Court challenge to the Minerals Resource Rent Tax. The MRRT applies to iron ore and coal miners only and doesn’t cut in until annual profits exceed $6 billion.

The new government has also reduced the feed-in tariff for solar panels from 44 ¢/kWh to 8 ¢/kWh. That is a particularly strange decision, since solar panels are most effective on hot summer afternoons, when there is now a system peak as a result of the aggressive promotion of air conditioning. So those who persist in installing solar panels in future will effectively be subsidising the electricity retailers, who would otherwise be purchasing much more expensive peak power.

Ironically, the announcement triggered a stampede to sign up for solar electricity. An insider told me that applications for about 150 MW of panels were lodged in the 10 days between the government statement and the date named for the change in payments. By my calculation, that means about 100,000 consumers were galvanised into action by the policy change. I’m sure the government did not intend to stimulate renewables, but it did demonstrate the benefit of a strong price signal.

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Separate studies in Australia and New Zealand have shown that safety is a serious issue for cyclists in cities. The South Australian Motor Accident Commission (MAC) found that the increasing popularity of cycling has led to increasing numbers of casualties. In 2011, 560 cyclists were injured in SA and three killed. The number injured was up about 20% on the figure for 2007.

The MAC said that most of the accidents were caused by drivers of motorised vehicles either side-swiping cyclists or turning across their path. Motoring organisation the RAA called on governments to separate cyclists from heavier vehicles, arguing that painted lines on the roadway are not enough of a barrier to give protection.

Similar findings came from a study by the University of Canterbury into the factors that inhibit people from cycling to work. As the NZ Transport Agency reported, the most significant factors were safety and the related issue of the type of infrastructure provided. The clear preference was for a comprehensive network of dedicated cycle paths, but even “well-delineated cycle lanes” was seen as an improvement on the usual situation of sharing standard road space with cars, buses and trucks.

Those surveyed were also clear on the need for motorists as well as cyclists to be more aware of safety issues. I can understand that; every time I am in a city I see drivers talking on mobile phones or even texting rather than paying attention to other road users.

The research was sparked by the observation that nearly half of all work commutes in NZ are less than 10 km and therefore suitable for cycling. But one interesting finding was that some people were reluctant to cycle precisely because of the short distance involved. They thought it was not worth the effort of changing clothes, showering and storing their cycling gear for a short commute, which also would not do much to help their physical fitness.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.