Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Clean Energy Clean Bowled

By Ian Lowe

The Abbott government has placed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in a Catch-22 situation.

We seem to be in a parallel universe where science is being replaced by superstition. While the Australian government is trying to undermine the move toward renewable energy technologies in various ways and pandering to pseudoscience by spending tax dollars on a wind energy commissioner, I was asked by the ABC to defend wi-fi systems against claims they cause health problems!

The government is behaving like a hostage to the coal industry as it openly supports proposed new mines despite criticism even by conservative voices. Financial institutions are openly sceptical about the economic prospects of Adani Mining’s proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, yet the government is determined to expand the Abbott Point coal-loading facility to try to salvage the project. Local farmers and even Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce have described the proposal for a large open-cut coal mine in the black-soil Liverpool Plains area as mad, but Environment Minister Greg Hunt has waved it through, claiming it will have to meet “strict conditions”. Satirical blog The Shovel suggested that Hunt would ensure there would be no “unsightly” wind turbines allowed on the site!

That crack was sparked when the government stepped up its campaign against clean energy. The Prime Minister apologised to radio shock-jock Alan Jones for only cutting the renewable energy target from 41,000 GWh to 33,000 GWh, saying he couldn’t do more with a hostile Senate.

Then he did do more to curb the industry. He pandered to fringe elements in the Senate, including his own backbenchers, by announcing that the government will establish a Wind Energy Commissioner to encourage the public to complain about the alleged health impacts of wind turbines. It is apparently irrelevant that no serious study has found evidence of these effects. It provoked Greens to suggest a Flat Earth Commissioner to inquire “into the roundness or otherwise of the Earth”!

Then the PM announced that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation will be restricted in its core business of funding clean energy projects that provide a reasonable financial return. First, he said that they would not be allowed to fund wind farms on the curious grounds that they are now established technology and don’t need funding – unlike coal mines, which apparently still need public subsidies. Then there was another announcement that the CEFC should not fund small-scale solar energy projects.

We now have a ridiculous situation. The CEFC is required by its statute to fund clean energy and efficiency improvements. It is also required to be prudent with public money and seek a reasonable return on investment. Its web site lists a series of cost-effective investments in wind energy, solar, biogas and efficiency improvements.

Crikey’s political editor, Bernard Keane, described it as “pretty much the only thing still standing in the smoking ruins of Australian climate change policy”. Now the government is instructing it not to fund the projects that are the most cost-effective use of capital.

Trying to find a rational explanation, Keane used the old political axiom: follow the money. In the past 3 years, fossil fuel interests have donated well over $2 million to Coalition parties. Only a cynic would say it has affected government policy. The CEFC declined to comment.

Trees Keep You Younger

Do trees and clean air make people healthy? There is circumstantial evidence they do.

A recent study in the Canadian city of Toronto found that having an average of ten more trees per suburban block had the same health benefits as being 7 years younger or $10,000 per year richer. The study controlled for those other variables that affect health, like age and income.

Analysis of the extent of tree cover in Australian cities by researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney found huge differences. Brent Jacobs of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS found “Hobart has really high tree cover, at about 59%, but there are local government areas in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney where it is down below 20%”.

Jacobs said that there is “very solid evidence that urban trees increase health and well-being,” attributing this to their measurable impacts on air quality and ambient temperature. Natural vegetation also has intangible effects on our mental outlook.

Thus we should encourage urban councils to plant more trees.

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