Nuclear, energy, climate

From Chain Reaction #125, November 2015.

Nuclear power's long farewell?

Should Australia become the world's nuclear waste dump − Jim Green

Summing the health effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster − Dr Ian Fairlie

Shenhua Watermark Coal – the fight for the Liverpool Plains continues − Aidan Kempster and Phil Evans

The fantasy of cheap, safe nuclear energy − Mark Diesendorf

The renewable energy revolution

Renewables can do 100%, but when will Australia see it done? − Alastair Leith

Eight things Malcolm Turnbull should do on climate, renewables − Giles Parkinson

Geoengineering: Striking targets or missing the point? − Ben Courtice

Poison or poverty? Glencore's blackmail of Borroloola − Lauren Mellor

Nuclear power's long farewell?

The 'World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015' (WNISR) has been released.1 These annual reports provide a vast amount of useful information about the global nuclear industry and useful summaries of the development of renewable energy. Here are the key findings.

Reactor operation. 31 countries operate nuclear power plants. A total of 391 reactors have a combined installed capacity of 337 gigawatts. The total of 391 reactors excludes the 42 reactors in Japan that have been shut down, only some of which will restart (two restarted in mid-2015). Even including all the Japanese reactors, there are fewer reactors than there were a decade ago.

Industry in decline: The 391 operating reactors are 47 fewer than the 2002 peak of 438, while the total installed capacity peaked in 2010 at 367 GW and has since declined by 8% to 337 GW. Annual nuclear electricity generation reached 2,410 terrawatt-hours (TWh) in 2014 − a 2.2% increase over the previous year, but 9.4% below the historic peak in 2006.

Share in power mix. The nuclear share of the world's power generation remained stable over the past three years, with 10.8% in 2014 after declining steadily from a historic peak of 17.6% in 1996. Nuclear power's share of global commercial primary energy production also remained stable at 4.4%, the lowest level since 1984.

Reactor age. The mean age of the world operating nuclear reactor fleet continues to rise, and by mid-2015 stood at 28.8 years. Over half of the total, or 199 reactors, have operated for more than 30 years, including 54 that have run for over 40 years. One third (33) of the US reactors have operated for more than 40 years.

Lifetime projections. If all currently operating reactors were shut down at the end of a 40-year lifetime, by 2020 the number of reactors would be 19 below the number at the end of 2014. In the following decade to 2030, 188 units (178 GW) would have to be replaced − five times the number of startups achieved over the past decade. (The International Energy Agency predicts a "wave of retirements" − almost 200 reactor shut downs by 2040.)

Construction delays. As in previous years, 14 countries are currently building nuclear power plants. As of July 2015, 62 reactors were under construction. Almost 40% of the projects (24) are in China. All of the reactors under construction in 10 out of 14 countries have experienced delays, mostly year-long. At least three-quarters (47) of all reactors under construction worldwide are delayed. Five reactors have been listed as "under construction" for more than 30 years.

Construction starts. In 2014, construction began on three reactors, one each in Argentina, Belarus, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Construction starts in the world peaked in 1976 at 44. In the 4.5 years from 1 January 2011 and 1 July 2015, first concrete was poured for 26 new plants worldwide − fewer than in a single year in the 1970s.

Construction cancellations. Between 1977 and 2015, a total of 92 (one in eight) of all construction sites were abandoned or suspended in 18 countries in various stages of advancement.

Newcomer program delays. Only two newcomer countries are actually building reactors − Belarus and the UAE.

Generation III Delays. Twenty-nine years after the Chernobyl disaster, none of the next-generation or so-called Generation III+ reactors has entered service, with construction projects in Finland and France many years behind schedule. Of 18 reactors of Generation III+ design (eight Westinghouse AP1000, six Rosatom AES-2006, four AREVA EPR), 16 are delayed by between two and nine years.

Installed capacity. In 2014 almost half (49%) of the added electricity generating capacity was new renewables (excluding large hydro), including 49 GW for new wind power and 46 GW of solar photovoltaics. Since 2000, wind added 355 GW and solar 179 GW − respectively 18 and 9 times more than nuclear with 20 GW.

Electricity generation. Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain − a list that includes three of the world's four largest economies − now all generate more electricity from non-hydro renewables than from nuclear power. These eight countries represent more than three billion people or 45% of the world's population.

There is much more of interest in the WNISR report, including chapters on new reactors types (especially small modular reactors) and the Fukushima disaster.

It's a lot easier to shut a reactor down ...

Steve Kidd, an independent consultant and economist who worked for the World Nuclear Association for 17 years, recently noted in a trade magazine:

"Looking forward, despite the many forecasts that point to sustained growth of nuclear, there will be a substantial number of reactor closures. ... We have learned one thing for certain: it's a lot easier to shut a reactor down than to build a new one. There are alternatives to nuclear for power generation and the competition is getting continuously stiffer.

"Hence well-researched and articulate critiques against the concept of any nuclear growth ... such as the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report, are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The combination of aging operating reactors, delayed construction plans combined with escalating costs of new units and competition from renewable power technologies is becoming a compelling story to any lay reader. ...

"Whether the number of reactor start-ups exceeds the number of closures depends on China. Over the next few years, the number of start-ups (five to six per annum) combined with Japanese reactors returning to service should certainly outweigh the number of closures. But in the 2020s things get more unpredictable for both closures and start-ups. Most people's expectations of Chinese growth in nuclear have been cut back substantially. ... Russia's domestic program has also slowed, while many of the claimed reactor export deals are little more than statements of intent. India remains something of an enigma, but it shows few signs of overcoming general problems in completing major infrastructure projects, including local land rights and volatile public opinion."

"The optimistic view that nuclear will eventually take up the substantial place allocated for it in energy scenarios that mitigate climate change ... holds increasingly little water."

IAEA report

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has produced the 35th edition of its publication, 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050'.2 The IAEA now projects nuclear capacity growth by between 2.4% and 68% from 2014 to 2030 (average annual capacity growth of 0.1−3.3%).

Historically, the IAEA's 'high' estimates have been ridiculous and even its 'low' estimates tend to be too high − in which case the pattern of stagnation that has prevailed for the past two decades will likely prevail for the next two.

To its credit, the IAEA has published data demonstrating its habit of overestimating nuclear power growth.3 For example:

  • In 1985, the IAEA's high estimate was 702 GW capacity in the year 2000, but actual capacity in 2000 was 350 GW (50% of the estimate).
  • In 1990, the IAEA's high estimate was 528 GW capacity in the year 2005, but actual capacity in 2005 was 368 GW (70% of the estimate).

Even the IAEA's 'low' forecasts are too high − by 13% on average. For example:

  • In 1985, the IAEA's 'low' estimate was 502 GW capacity in the year 2000, but actual capacity in 2000 was 350 GW (70% of the estimate).
  • In 1990, the IAEA's 'low' estimate was 450 GW capacity in the year 2005, but actual capacity in 2005 was 368 GW (82% of the estimate).

The IAEA's current 'low' estimate for 2030 (385 GW) is down 29.5% from the pre-Fukushima, 2010 'low' estimate of 546 GW. The high estimate (632 GW) is down 21% from the pre-Fukushima, 2010 high estimate of 803 GW.


1. Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt et al., July 2015, 'World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2015',

2. IAEA, 2015, 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates for the Period up to 2050',

3. IAEA, 2007, Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power: Developments and Projections − 25 Years Past and Future', tables 33 and 34, p.56,

Should Australia become the world's nuclear waste dump

Jim Green

In February, the South Australian Labor Party government established a Royal Commission1 to consider options for an expanded role in the nuclear fuel cycle. Currently, the state has two operating uranium mines (Olympic Dam and Beverley Four Mile) but no other nuclear facilities. As the debate has progressed, it has become clear that the main interest is in the possibility of making billions of dollars by importing spent fuel / high level waste from overseas.

There is a precedent to current discussions. Pangea Resources was an international consortium that was planning a high level waste repository in Australia.2 Pangea set up an office in Australia in the late 1990s but gave up in 2002 in the face of overwhelming public and political opposition.

The existence of Pangea Resources was a closely-guarded secret until a corporate video was leaked to Friends of the Earth. Pangea chief Jim Voss denied meeting with federal government ministers when he had in fact met at least one minister. A Pangea spokesperson said: "We would not like to be lying ... we very much regret getting off on the wrong foot." Ironically, the Association for Regional and International Underground Storage (ARIUS), the successor to Pangea, said in its submission to the Royal Commission that an "essential element of any approach is the open and complete flow of information."3

How much money might be made by taking nuclear waste from other countries? There is no precedent to base an estimate on. There may be countries that would be willing to send nuclear waste to Australia for storage and/or disposal but there are many reasons why countries may choose other options:

  • About ~160 of the world's 194 countries have never operated power reactors and thus have no spent fuel or high level waste from nuclear power programs (although some have small quantities from the operation of research reactors).
  • Some countries are advancing domestic or regional waste disposal plans.
  • Some countries (and companies/utilities) would consider it irresponsible to entrust nuclear waste to a country that has very little or no experience or demonstrated competence − and a proven track record of incompetence (discussed below).
  • Some countries (and companies/utilities) would consider it unethical to send nuclear waste to Australia given the pattern of Aboriginal land rights and heritage protections being sacrificed in order to advance radioactive waste repository projects (discussed below).
  • Some countries are pursuing spent fuel reprocessing programs and would be unlikely candidates to send spent fuel to Australia (although they might pay to rid themselves of the high level waste stream from reprocessing).
  • Some countries would be unwilling to rid themselves of spent fuel as they see it as a military asset (as it contains weapons-useable plutonium).

While proponents make absurd claims about the potential income − including claims that the income would allow the provision of free electricity to all South Australians and the abolition of all state taxes − they have had little to say about the costs. Since the volume of waste would presumably be relatively large (as a commercial venture), the cost of deep underground repository would likely be in the tens of billions of dollars. Plans for a high level waste repository in Japan may be comparable: the estimated cost is ¥3,500 billion4 (A$40.8 billion).

And the waste would need to be monitored and problems addressed for millenia: it takes about 300,000 years for the radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel to fall to that of the original uranium ore.5 The annual cost of monitoring waste might be modest; the cost over millenia would be astronomical.

Many other significant costs would be incurred. ARIUS proposes transport by purpose-built ships; a dedicated sea port; a dedicated rail system; and support and maintenance facilities for ships, rail locomotives, rolling stock and transport packages.3


Professor John Veevers from Macquarie University wrote in Australian Geologist about the serious public health and environmental risks associated with a high-level nuclear waste repository: "Tonnes of enormously dangerous radioactive waste in the northern hemisphere, 20,000 kms from its destined dump in Australia where it must remain intact for at least 10,000 years. These magnitudes − of tonnage, lethality, distance of transport, and time − entail great inherent risk."6

Proponents of Australia becoming the world's waste dump claim that Australia has uniquely suitable geology. However Dr Mike Sandiford from the School of Earth Sciences at University of Melbourne writes: "Australia is relatively stable but not tectonically inert, and appears to be less stable than a number of other continental regions. Some places in Australia are surprisingly geologically active. We occasionally get big earthquakes in Australia (up to about magnitude 7) and the big ones have tended to occur in somewhat unexpected places like Tennant Creek. ... Australia is not the most stable of continental regions, although the levels of earthquake risk are low by global standards. To the extent that past earthquake activity provides a guide to future tectonic activity, Australia would not appear to provide the most tectonically stable environments for long-term waste facilities."7

Australia's track record

There are social as well as technical dimensions to risk assessments. Australia has a history of mismanaging nuclear waste. Nuclear engineer Alan Parkinson states: "The disposal of radioactive waste in Australia is ill-considered and irresponsible. Whether it is short-lived waste from Commonwealth facilities, long-lived plutonium waste from an atomic bomb test site on Aboriginal land, or reactor waste from Lucas Heights. The government applies double standards to suit its own agenda; there is no consistency, and little evidence of logic."8

In the late-1990s, the Australian government carried out a 'clean up' of Maralinga, the site in SA where the British government tested nuclear weapons in the 1950s. The 'clean up' was done on the cheap and many tonnes of plutonium-contaminated debris remain buried in shallow, unlined pits in totally unsuitable geology − a breach of Australian guidelines for the management of long-lived nuclear waste.9

A number of scientists with inside knowledge of the Maralinga project complained about deficiencies:9

  • Alan Parkinson said of the 'clean up': "What was done at Maralinga was a cheap and nasty solution that wouldn't be adopted on white-fellas land."
  • US scientist Dale Timmons said the government's technical report was littered with "gross misinformation".
  • Geoff Williams, an officer with the Commonwealth nuclear regulator ARPANSA, said the 'clean up' was beset by a "host of indiscretions, short-cuts and cover-ups".
  • Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Johnston said there were "very large expenditures and significant hazards resulting from the deficient management of the project by DEST [the Department of Education, Science and Training]."

Barely a decade after the Maralinga 'clean up', a survey revealed that 19 of the 85 contaminated waste pits have been subject to erosion or subsidence.10

Radioactive racism

Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke said Australia could end the disadvantage endured by Aboriginal people by opening up traditional lands as dumping sites for nuclear waste. But there are simpler and safer methods to close the gap. For example, the federal government could reverse planned cuts of $500 million from Aboriginal spending over the next five years.

Attempts to establish a national radioactive waste repository in Australia have involved crude racism. From 1998−2004, the federal government attempted to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in SA. The project came unstuck when the Federal Court ruled that the government had illegally used the Lands Acquisition Act 1989 to seize land for the dump and to annul Aboriginal Native Title rights and interests.9

From 2005−2014, the federal government tried to impose a dump on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory, and the racism was even cruder. The government passed legislation overriding the Aboriginal Heritage Act and the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and allowing the imposition of a radioactive waste dump without any consultation with or consent from Aboriginal people. Muckaty Traditional Owners launched a legal challenge against the nomination of the dump site, and the government abandoned the waste dump proposal during the court case.9

Aboriginal people are deeply concerned about the Royal Commission and in particular renewed proposals for nuclear waste dumps on their land. A meeting held in May in SA released the following statement:

South Australian Traditional Owners say NO!
We oppose plans for uranium mining, nuclear reactors and nuclear waste dumps on our land.
We call on the SA Royal Commission to recommend against any uranium mining and nuclear projects on our lands.
We call on the Australian population to support us in our campaign to prevent dirty and dangerous nuclear projects being imposed on our lands and our lives and future generations.
Endorsed by members from the following groups, present at the Port Augusta meeting: Kokatha, Kokatha-Mirning, Arabunna, Adnyamathanha, Yankunytjatjara-Pitjanjatjara, Antikirinya-Yunkunytjatjara, Kuyani, Aranda, Western Aranda, Dieri, Larrakia, Wiradjuri.







6. J.J. Veevers, 'Disposal of British RADwaste at home and in antipodean Australia',

7. ABC, 'Ask an Expert',

8. Alan Parkinson, 2002, 'Double standards with radioactive waste', Australasian Science,

9. See section 1.9 in joint environment groups' submission to Royal Commission:


Summing the health effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster

Dr Ian Fairlie

New emerging evidence from Fukushima shows that nuclear disasters and their aftermaths kill thousands of people due to necessary evacuations. In future, these deaths from ill-heath and suicides should be included in assessments of the fatalities from nuclear disasters. In sum, the human toll from Fukushima is horrendous: 2,000 Japanese people have died from the evacuations and another 5,000 are expected to die from future cancers.

Deaths from necessary evacuations

Official data from Fukushima show that nearly 2,000 people died from the effects of evacuations necessary to avoid high radiation exposures from the disaster, including suicides.1

The uprooting to unfamiliar areas, cutting of family ties, loss of social support networks, disruption, exhaustion, poor physical conditions and disorientation can and do result in many people, in particular older people, dying.

Increased suicide have occurred among younger and older people following the Fukushima evacuations, but the trends are unclear.2

A Japanese Cabinet Office report stated that, between March 2011 and July 2014, 56 suicides in Fukushima Prefecture were linked to the nuclear accident.3 This should be taken as a minimum, rather than a maximum, figure.

Mental health consequences

It is necessary to include the mental health consequences of radiation exposures and evacuations. For example, Becky Martin has stated her PhD research at Southampton University in the UK shows that "most significant impacts of radiation emergencies are often in our minds".

She adds "... imagine that you've been informed that your land, your water, the air that you have breathed may have been polluted by a deadly and invisible contaminant. Something with the capacity to take away your fertility, or affect your unborn children. Even the most resilient of us would be concerned ... many thousands of radiation emergency survivors have subsequently gone on to develop Post-Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders as a result of their experiences and the uncertainty surrounding their health."4

It is likely that these fears, anxieties, and stresses will act to magnify the effects of evacuations, resulting in even more old people dying or people committing suicide.

The above sections should not be taken as arguments against evacuations: they are an important, life-saving strategy. But, as argued by Becky Martin, "we need to provide greatly improved social support following resettlement and extensive long-term psychological care to all radiation emergency survivors, to improve their health outcomes and preserve their futures".

Untoward pregnancy outcomes

Recently, Dr Alfred Körblein from Nuremburg in Germany noticed a 15% drop (statistically speaking, highly significant) in the numbers of live births in Fukushima Prefecture in December 2011, i.e. nine months after the accident.5 This might point to higher rates of early spontaneous abortions. He also observed a (statistically significant) 20% increase in the infant mortality rate in 2012, relative to the long-term trend in Fukushima Prefecture plus six surrounding prefectures. These are indicative rather than definitive findings and need to be verified by further studies. Unfortunately, such studies are notable by their absence.

Cancer and other late effects from radioactive fallout

Finally, we have to consider the health effects of the radiation exposures from the radioactive fallouts after the four explosions and three meltdowns at Fukushima in March 2011. Large differences of view exist on this issue in Japan. These make it difficult for lay people and journalists to understand what the real situation is.

The Japanese Government, its advisors, and most radiation scientists in Japan (with some honourable exceptions) minimise the risks of radiation. The official widely-observed policy is that small amounts of radiation are harmless: scientifically speaking this is untenable. For example, the Japanese Government is attempting to increase the public limit for radiation in Japan from 1 mSv to 20 mSv per year. Its scientists are trying to force the ICRP to accept this large increase. This is not only unscientific, it is also unconscionable.

Part of the reason for this policy is that radiation scientists in Japan (in the US, as well) appear unable or unwilling to accept the stochastic nature of low-level radiation effects. "Stochastic" means an all-or-nothing response: you either get cancer etc or you don't. As you decrease the dose, the effects become less likely: your chance of cancer declines all the way down to zero dose. The corollary is that tiny doses, even well below background, still carry a small chance of cancer: there is never a safe dose, except zero dose.

But, as stated by Spycher et al6, some scientists "... a priori exclude the possibility that low dose radiation could increase the risk of cancer. They will therefore not accept studies that challenge their foregone conclusion."

One reason why such scientists refuse to accept radiation's stochastic effects (cancers, strokes, cardiovascular system diseases, hereditary effects, etc) is that they only appear after long latency periods − often decades for solid cancers. For the Japanese Government and its radiation advisors, it seems out-of-sight means out-of-mind. This conveniently allows the Japanese Government to ignore radiogenic late effects. But the evidence for them is absolutely rock solid. Ironically, it comes primarily from the world's largest on-going epidemiology study, the Life Span Study of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors by the RERF Foundation which is based in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.7

Negative lottery tickets

The mass of epidemiological evidence from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 clearly indicates that cancer etc increases will very likely also occur at Fukushima, but many Japanese (and US) scientists deny this evidence.

For example, much debate currently exists over the existence and interpretation of increased thyroid cancers, cysts, and nodules in Fukushima Prefecture resulting from the disaster. From the findings after Chernobyl, thyroid cancers are expected to start increasing 4 to 5 years after 2011. It's best to withhold comment until clearer results become available in 2016, but early indications are not reassuring for the Japanese Government. After then, other solid cancers are expected to increase as well, but it will take a while for these to become manifest.

The best way of forecasting the numbers of late effects (i.e. cancers etc) is by estimating the collective dose to Japan from the Fukushima fall out. We do this by envisaging that everyone in Japan exposed to the radioactive fallout from Fukushima has thereby received lottery tickets: but they are negative tickets. That is, if your lottery number comes up, you get cancer. If you live far away from Fukushima Daiichi NPP, you get few tickets and the chance is low: if you live close, you get more tickets and the chance is higher. You can't tell who will be unlucky, but you can estimate the total number by using collective doses.

The 2013 UNSCEAR Report8 has estimated that the collective dose to the Japanese population from Fukushima is 48,000 person-Sieverts (discussed further below).

Unfortunately, pro-nuclear Japanese scientists also criticise the concept of collective dose as it relies on the stochastic nature of radiation's effects and on the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model of radiation's effects which they also refute. But almost all official regulatory bodies throughout the world recognise the stochastic nature of radiation's effects, the LNT, and collective doses.

Summing up Fukushima

About 60 people died immediately during the actual evacuations in Fukushima Prefecture in March 2011. Between 2011 and 2015, an additional 1,867 people (as of March 2015) in Fukushima Prefecture died as a result of the evacuations following the nuclear disaster. These deaths were from ill health and suicides.9 (In addition, 1,603 people were killed directly by the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima Prefecture, and approximately 1,350 tsunami evacuee deaths occurred in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures: in the latter cases, the evacuations were not radiation-related.)

From the UNSCEAR estimate of 48,000 person-Sv, it can be reliably estimated (using a fatal cancer risk factor of 10% per Sv) that about 5,000 fatal cancers will occur in Japan in future from Fukushima's fallout. This estimate from official data agrees with my own personal estimate using a different methodology.10

In sum, the health toll from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is horrendous. At the minimum:

  • Over 160,000 people were evacuated most of them permanently.
  • Many cases of post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders arising from the evacuations.
  • About 12,000 workers exposed to high levels of radiation, some up to 250 mSv
  • An estimated 5,000 fatal cancers from radiation exposures in future.
  • Plus similar (unquantified) numbers of radiogenic strokes, CVS diseases and hereditary diseases.
  • Between 2011 and 2015, about 2,000 deaths from radiation-related evacuations due to ill-health and suicides.
  • An, as yet, unquantified number of thyroid cancers.
  • An increased infant mortality rate in 2012 and a decreased number of live births in December 2011.

Non-health effects include

  • 8% of Japan (30,000 sq km), including parts of Tokyo, contaminated by radioactivity.
  • Economic losses estimated between US$300 and US$500 billion (€260−430 billion).

The Fukushima accident is still not over and its ill-effects will linger for a long time into the future. However we can say now that the nuclear disaster at Fukushima delivered a huge blow to Japan and its people. 2,000 Japanese people have already died from the evacuations and another 5,000 are expected to die from future cancers.

Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment. He has a degree in radiation biology from Bart's Hospital in London and his doctoral studies at Imperial College in London and Princeton University in the US concerned the radiological hazards of nuclear fuel reprocessing. He was formerly a UK government civil servant on radiation risks from nuclear power stations. From 2000 to 2004, he was head of the Secretariat to the UK Government's CERRIE Committee on internal radiation risks.

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Shenhua Watermark Coal – the fight for the Liverpool Plains continues

Aidan Kempster and Phil Evans

The Shenhua Watermark Project near the quiet township of Breeza in the Liverpool Plains of NSW has captured the attention of farmers, environmentalists and traditional owners from across the political spectrum. The plan for the 35 sq km Watermark open-cut coal mine consists of three pits and intends to extract up to 10 million tonnes per year of both coking and thermal coal for export over 30 years.1 Shenhua Watermark, a subsidiary of Shenhua − the largest coal company in the world and a Chinese state-owned entity − has already paid $300 million to the NSW (then ALP) government to secure its exploration licence and looks set to do whatever it takes to see this project come to fruition.

The strong local-led campaign that has emerged, which has seen the Liverpool Plains Youth and Gomeroi Traditional Custodians take a lead role, claims that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place. But more than that, it is the wrong fuel in the wrong time. For decades, coal has dominated the economic and political domains in Australia, but thanks to a strong divestment movement (including Friends of the Earth affiliate Market Forces) and strong on-the-ground opposition and direct action, the power dynamic has changed. And for the first time in Australia for over two centuries, the end of coal is in sight.

With that in mind, the Liverpool Plains is fast gearing up to be the new flashpoint in the fight against coal exports. The movement, which came into maturity in Maules Creek and had a phenomenal win in the courts over the plan to mine the Galilee Basin, is now itching for the fight – to protect land, water and culture.

The land

The Liverpool Plains are one of Australia's food bowls, producing beef, sorghum, barley, wheat, corn and soybeans on land that is rated "the best cropping land in NSW".2 The soil is so rich that many crops can survive a rainless growing season and the life-giving aquifers underneath connect all the way to the Murray-Darling basin. It's no wonder two separate polls both found that 96% of the public are against the mine approval.3,4

Local farmers are angry and worried because the mine will kill their productivity. Tim Duddy of the Caroona Coal Action Group has called the mine "agricultural genocide", adding: "We are not talking about a coexistence model, we are talking about mining coming and farming going and it's as simple as that."5

The Shenhua project will open the door for another proposed massive coal mine – BHP's Caroona project, slated to open up shop right next door. Pollution from coal dust, drawdown of the water table and massive land buys threaten to bring existing agriculture to its knees. Shenhua has downplayed this by claiming there will be no impact on the surrounding agricultural properties outside their project boundary.1 But the evidence contradicts this.

Several cotton producers exist downwind of the mine, and the going local rate for discoloured cotton is $50−$65 − 17% less than market price per bale.6 The idea that these farms would be unaffected by coal dust during the three months of growing, with five blasts a week, is preposterous.

If the farmers, who know the area well, are right, and the mine creates an expanding agricultural dead zone, there is growing fear the Liverpool Plains will become a bigger, uglier version of the Hunter Valley as more mining projects will become easier to approve with less farmers.

The water

There are many allegations that the modelling done by Shenhua in order to obtain approval for the project was based on flawed science and a severe 'knowledge gap' in regards to how the aquifers in the area work. According to the local farmers in the Caroona Coal Action Group, Whitehaven Coal's Werris Creek mine has seen water drawdowns 4000% greater than in the original Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Farmers hold grave fears that the Watermark project will just mean more of the same. They also point to the massive differences between modelling done for the neighbouring Caroona coal project and say that they are very hesitant to trust any modelling that Shenhua puts on the table.

Stated in Shenhua's EIS is a condition not to disturb the black soil floodplains. Shenhua claim to be upholding that statement1, but it's not to be taken at face value. For the purposes of the Watermark approval, former Liberal Minister for Mineral Resources Chris Hartcher endorsed a definition of a floodplain different from the one contained within the NSW Water Act. It is acknowledged in Shenhua's own documents that without this change in definition, the mine would not be able to proceed.1

The culture

The Gomeroi Traditional Custodians, a committee of the local indigenous population fresh from the Maules Creek fight, are also up in arms over the mine. The proposed development site contains scores of highly significant indigenous cultural sites including a set of massive groove stones that were used for sharpening spears and axes. Shenhua has publically stated that they intend to honour and respect the culture and heritage of the Gomeroi and as such would not destroy the site but 'gently relocate' it and then return it 17 years later.1

Gomeroi spokeswoman Dolly Talbot disputes the idea of 'gentle relocation', stating that the grinding grooves site is too large and not strong enough to survive that process: "The truth is that Shenhua wants to carve them up – like a jigsaw puzzle – forever destroying them. The aquifer providing the water which keeps the grinding grooves in their state will also be destroyed and the landscape Shenhua wants to return the grooves pieces to will be forever changed and the meaning and purpose of the area lost."7

Shenhua Watermark have pulled out the standard economic arguments for why the mine should go ahead – local jobs, state revenue – but the numbers just don't add up. The economic benefits of the project are touted by politicians and the miners, but an independent review found the numbers were exaggerated.6 The economic assessment Shenhua relies upon is based on a sale price of $142/tonne for semi-soft coking coal and $99 for thermal coal, which is substantially higher than the current price, about $80 for both.8,9 There is a good chance that, due to the continued decline of the coal market, the mine may never meet its own costs of production, and the state of NSW will not receive anything like the royalties promised.

The groundswell begins

"This isn't over. It hasn't even begun. And, frankly, any government that doesn't see the stupidity of this doesn't deserve to be in government." − radio broadcaster Alan Jones.10

A court case has been launched by the Mooki Landcare Organisation against Shenhua and the NSW Minister for Planning due to improper and inaccurate assessment of the mine's impact on koalas. Mooki Landcare claims Shenhua's Environmental Impact Assessment failed to properly investigate the risk of koala extinction in the area. Shenhua used population estimates of 12,753 animals for the entire Gunnedah Local Government Area, however the Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are only 800-1,300 animals in the area. The case was heard from 31 August to 3 September in the NSW Land and Environment Court. The result is still pending at the time of writing.11

The consistent public outrage over the project, which currently only has conditional federal approval, is causing political shockwaves. Many Greens MPs and unlikely ally Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania) have already travelled to the local area to meet with community, hear their concerns and join resistance to the mine. Lambie took part in a tractor rally organised by the Caroona Coal Action Group and the Liverpool Plains Youth. The real surprise is Barnaby Joyce's vocal opposition to the mine. However, without action Joyce's words ring hollow and seem to be a cynical ploy to sure up slumping Nationals support in rural NSW.

With final approval from the federal government still pending, and the mining lease still to be granted by the NSW government, the fight has only just begun. Hundreds of people will soon converge on the small town of Breeza – city and country united in voice to say 'never again', and to cry out in unison against this disastrous project. This unlikely alliance of traditional owners, greenies and farmers has learnt valuable lessons from Maules Creek and in the battle for the Galilee Basin. Shenhua should expect a formidable fight.

Check out to keep up with the campaign.


1. "Environmental Impact Statement" Shenhua Watermark

2. "Fact check: Is the proposed Shenhua Watermark coal mine located in the middle of Australia's best agricultural land?" ABC, 1 Sep 2015



5. "7:30 Report: Farmers promise legal action and civil disobedience in face of Shenhua coal mine approval," ABC, 13 July 2015

6. Economists at Large, Review of Watermark Coal Project Environmental Impact Statement, Economic Impact Assessment 2013.

7. Gomeroi Traditional Custodians, "Preserving Gomeroi grinding grooves lost in translation," Press Release, January 30, 2015

8. 1 April 2015

9. (accessed 11 October 2015)

10. Jones, A. "The Alan Jones Breakfast Show," 2GB, 15 July 2015


The fantasy of cheap, safe nuclear energy

Mark Diesendorf

Back in the 1970s and 80s, solar and wind energy were expensive and their supporters were criticised by the nuclear industry for dreaming of a renewable energy future. Nowadays the situation is reversed. Several countries are well on their way to their targets of 80-100 per cent renewable electricity while global nuclear energy generation ceased growing nine years ago.

In northern Europe and the USA wind energy is about half the price of nuclear. In South America contracts to deliver electricity from big solar photovoltaic (PV) power stations are being signed at 8 US cents per kilowatt-hour, already less expensive than nuclear, and the price of solar PV is still declining. In many places, including mainland Australia, rooftop solar is much less expensive than retail electricity from the grid.

The current fantasy is that nuclear energy is cheap, safe, CO2-free and necessary, and that South Australia could make a profit storing the world's nuclear wastes. All of these claims by enthusiasts for the nuclear fuel cycle, made in submissions to the current South Australian Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, are poorly based.

In theory, the geologically stable regions of South Australia could provide a location for storing high-level nuclear wastes. But as yet there are no permanent repositories for high-level nuclear wastes operating anywhere in the world. It would be crazy for Australia to attempt build one when the USA has failed.

Apparently recognising this, South Australian Liberal Senator Sean Edwards has proposed an even greater fantasy: that South Australia could earn huge revenue from storing the world's high-level wastes temporarily in dry casks. He claims that the revenue would be sufficient to fund a nuclear power station.

Unfortunately, this scheme fails under basic economics. Why would a nuclear power country pay the additional costs of shipping and storing high-level waste in Australia when it can store its own wastes temporarily in dry casks? Indeed, several nuclear power countries are already doing this.

Senator Edwards' fantasy is that Australia could convert the long-lived component of the nuclear wastes into nuclear fuel in an Integral Fast Reactor. However, this technology is not commercially available. It has only ever existed as a pilot plant in the USA. Proposing that SA buy unproven technology at huge expense is a poor prescription for the economy.

Australia could not convert the contents of the dry casks to nuclear fuel. We would be stuck with managing them while they corrode and release their deadly contents. It's far better to leave the source countries to handle the huge costs and risks of managing their nuclear wastes for 100,000 years or more.

Turning to nuclear power stations, both the Australian Energy Market Operator and our own research group at the University of NSW have shown independently that the National Electricity Market, which includes South Australia, could be operated reliably and affordably on 100 per cent renewable energy. The UNSW research uses only scaled-up commercially available renewable energy technologies. The results of the computer simulations, now spanning eight years of hourly data, are supported by practical experience in South Australia where at times renewable energy provides up to three-quarters of electricity.

Nuclear power is very inflexible in operation, unable to follow the variations in wind and solar PV output. It would be an inadequate partner for a SA electricity supply system that will soon be predominantly renewable. Instead, flexible peak-load plants are required: biofuelled gas turbines, concentrated solar power with thermal storage, and, in appropriate locations, pumped hydro.

Furthermore, under current market rules, wind and solar, with their tiny operating costs, would have priority in supplying base-load demand. Nuclear power would be displaced from operating as base-load power, just as coal is currently being displaced in SA. Then, nuclear energy would have even greater difficulties in repaying its already exorbitant capital costs.

Dr Mark Diesendorf is Associate Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at UNSW. He gave evidence to a hearing of the SA Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission on 14 September and his detailed submission to the Commission is posted at

The renewable energy revolution

Renewables 2015: Global Status Report

The REN21 'Renewables 2015: Global Status Report' details the striking growth of renewables over the past decade.1 Renewable energy provided an estimated 19.1% of global final energy consumption in 2013, and growth in capacity and generation continued to expand in 2014. Heating capacity grew at a steady pace, and the production of biofuels for transport increased.

The most rapid growth, and the largest increase in capacity, occurred in the power sector, led by wind, solar PV, and hydropower. Renewables accounted for approximately 59% of net additions to global power capacity in 2014, with significant growth in all regions of the world.

Global renewable power capacity − excluding hydro − grew eight-fold from 85 gigawatts (GW) in 2004 to 657 GW in 2014. Solar PV capacity has grown at a phenomenal rate, from 2.6 GW in 2004 to 177 GW in 2014. Over the same period wind power capacity increased from 48 GW to 370 GW.

Global renewable power capacity − including hydro − more than doubled from 800 GW in 2004 to 1,712 GW in 2014 (an estimated 27.7% of the world's power generating capacity in 2014).

In 2014, total installed renewable capacity (including hydro) increased by 8.5%, compared to 0.6% for nuclear power. Hydro capacity rose by 3.6% while other renewables collectively grew nearly 18%.

By way of sharp contrast, nuclear power has flatlined for the past two decades. Global nuclear power capacity was 365 GW in 2004 and 376 GW in 2014, and the number of reactors declined from 443 to 439 over that period.2 Renewable capacity (including hydro) of 1,712 GW is 4.6 times greater than nuclear capacity of 376 GW.

But the capacity factor of some renewables (e.g. solar PV and wind) is lower than that of nuclear power, so how do the figures stack up when comparing electricity generation? The REN21 report states that as of the end of 2014, renewables (including hydro) supplied an estimated 22.8% of global electricity (hydro 16.6% and other renewables 6.2%). Nuclear power's share of 10.8%3 is less than half of the electricity generation from renewables − and the gap is widening.

The REN21 report notes that the growth of renewables is being driven by declining costs and that "in many countries renewables are broadly competitive with conventional energy sources." Further, "growth in renewable energy (and energy efficiency improvements) continues to be tempered by subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power, particularly in developing countries."

One final point from the REN21 report warrants mention. The report states: "Despite rising energy use, for the first time in four decades, global carbon emissions associated with energy consumption remained stable in 2014 while the global economy grew; this stabilisation has been attributed to increased penetration of renewable energy and to improvements in energy efficiency."

1. REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century), 2015, 'Renewables 2015: Global Status Report',

2. International Atomic Energy Agency, 'Nuclear Power Capacity Trend',

3. Mycle Schneider, April 2015, World Nuclear Industry Status Report,

International Energy Agency report

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its 'Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report'.1 The report notes that renewable electricity expanded at its fastest rate to date (130 gigawatts − GW) in 2014.

Further, the IEA projects 700 GW of new renewable power capacity from 2015−2020, and that renewables will account for almost two-thirds of new power generation capacity over that period. The renewable share of generation is projected to rise from 22% in 2013 to over 26% in 2020.

The IEA report states that global average costs for onshore wind generation fell by 30% from 2010−2015, and are expected to decline a further 10% by 2020. Utility-scale solar PV fell two-thirds in cost and is expected to decline another 25% by 2020.

The IEA report states that renewables are not a "luxury" that only rich countries can afford. The report states that "the geography of deployment will increasingly shift to emerging economies and developing countries, which will make up two-thirds of the renewable electricity expansion to 2020. China alone will account for nearly 40% of total renewable power capacity growth and requires almost one-third of new investment to 2020."

Another report recently released by the IEA noted that renewable electricity generation has overtaken gas to become the second largest source of electricity worldwide, behind coal.2

Meanwhile, the Energy Watch Group has released a report detailing the IEA's track record of grossly underestimating the growth of renewables.3 For example:

  • in 2010 the IEA projected 180 GW of solar PV capacity by the year 2024 but that figure was reached in January 2015.
  • the IEA's 2002 projection for wind power capacity in the year 2030 was actually reached 20 years earlier, in 2010.
  • the IEA's 2010 projection of renewable energy's share of global electricity generation in 2035 has already been reached ... 20 years earlier!

1. International Energy Agency, Oct 2015, 'Renewable Energy Medium-Term Market Report',

2. IEA, 'Electricity Information 2015',

Free excerpt:

Media release:

3. Matthieu Metayer, Christian Breyer and Hans-Josef Fell, 2015, 'The projections for the future and quality in the past of the World Energy Outlook for solar PV and other renewable energy technologies',

Global renewables jobs boom to 7.7 million

According to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the global renewable energy industry employed 7.7 million people, directly or indirectly, in 2014 – an 18% increase on the 6.5 million jobs reported in 2013. Large hydro directly employed another 1.5 million in 2014. IRENA expects the number to more than double, to around 16 million jobs, by 2030.

"Renewable energy continues to assert itself as a major global employer, generating strong economic and social benefits worldwide," said IRENA Director-General Adnan Amin. "This increase is being driven, in part, by declining renewable energy technology costs, which creates more jobs in installation, operations and maintenance."

According to the IRENA report, solar PV was the largest renewable energy employer in 2014, with 2.5 million jobs worldwide, followed by liquid biofuels (1.8 million), wind (1 million), biomass (822,000), solar heating/cooling (764,000), biogas (381,000), small hydro (209,000), and geothermal (154,000).

China was the world's largest renewable energy employer in 2014, with 3.4 million jobs.

IRENA, 19 May 2015, 'Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review 2015',


Full report:

Renewable energy investment

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global investment in renewables jumped 16% in 2014 to US$310 billion, five times the tally of a decade earlier. Solar investments accounted for almost half the total. China led the way with renewable investments increasing almost one-third to US$89.5 billion, while US investment gained 8% to US$51.8 billion.

Record solar growth

A record amount of solar power was added to the world's grids in 2014, pushing total capacity to 100 times the level it was in the year 2000.1,2 Around 40 gigawatts was installed in 2014, raising the total installed capacity to 178 gigawatts (GW). China (10.6 GW), Japan (9.7 GW) and the US (6.5 GW) were the leaders.

The growth is detailed in SolarPower Europe's Global Market Outlook. Michael Schmela, executive adviser to SolarPower Europe, noted that in 2014 renewables produced more power than nuclear in Europe for the first time in decades. The gap between renewables and nuclear in Europe is certain to grow.

Solar Power Europe, 2015, 'Global Market Outlook for Solar Power: 2015− 2019',

Arthur Neslen, 10 June 2015, 'Record boost in new solar power continues massive industry growth',

Solar Outlook report

Deutsche Bank has released its 2015 Solar Outlook report. Deutsche Bank states: "Unsubsidized rooftop solar electricity costs anywhere between US$0.13 and US$0.23/kWh today, well below retail price of electricity in many markets globally. The economics of solar have improved significantly due to the reduction in solar panel costs, financing costs and balance of system costs. We expect solar system costs to decrease 5-15% annually over the next 3+ years which could result in grid parity within ~50% of the target markets. If global electricity prices were to increase at 3% per year and cost reduction occurred at 5-15% CAGR [compound annual growth rate], solar would achieve grid parity in an additional ~30% of target markets globally. We believe the cumulative incremental total available market for solar is currently around ~140GW/year and could potentially increase to ~260GW/year over the next 5 years as solar achieves grid parity in more markets globally and electric capacity needs increase."

Deutsche Bank, 13 Jan 2015, 'Deutsche Bank's 2015 solar outlook: accelerating investment and cost competitiveness',

Renewable energy costs reaching grid parity

Maturing clean energy technologies, such as onshore wind, solar power and biomass, are reaching grid parity in many parts of the world regardless of whether or not they receive subsidies, a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has revealed.1

IRENA states: "The competitiveness of renewable power generation technologies continued improving in 2013 and 2014, reaching historic levels. Biomass for power, hydropower, geothermal and onshore wind can all provide electricity competitively against fossil fuel-fired power generation. Solar photovoltaic (PV) power has also become increasingly competitive, with its levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) at utility scale falling by half in four years."

IRENA estimates fossil-fuelled power plants produce power at between US$0.07−0.19/kWh when environmental and health costs of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution are taken into account.

IRENA, January 2014, 'Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2014',

Economics of renewables vs. nuclear power

A report commissioned by the Vienna Ombuds-Office for Environmental Protection compares the economics of renewables and nuclear power.4 Five different renewable technologies were analysed: biomass, onshore and offshore wind, small-scale hydropower plants and solar photovoltaics. Calculations were conducted for five different EU Member states (UK, Poland, Germany, France and the Czech Republic) and the EU-28 overall.

The report concludes: "Generating electricity from a variety of renewable sources is more economical than using nuclear power; this is clearly shown by the model-based assessment of future developments up to 2050. Across the EU end consumers can save up to 37% on their electricity costs – in some Member States even up to 74% – when plans to build nuclear power plants are shelved in favour of renewables. In order to achieve these goals it is vital that we act quickly, but with care, to create the infrastructure and regulatory framework this requires, or to adapt that which already exists."

Austrian Institute of Ecology / e-think, Nov 2014, 'Renewable Energies versus Nuclear Power: Comparing Financial Support',

Greenpeace: Energy [R]evolution report

Greenpeace has released the latest edition of its Energy [R]evolution series, first produced in 2005. The 364-page report has been produced by numerous experts and institutions.1

The Energy [R]evolution reports have an impressive track record. Energy consulting firm Meister Consultants Group noted in March 2015: "Over the past 15 years, a number of predictions − by the International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration, and others − have been made about the future of renewable energy growth. Almost every one of these predictions has underestimated the scale of actual growth experienced by the wind and solar markets. Only the most aggressive growth projections, such as Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution scenarios, have been close to accurate."2

The Energy [R]evolution provides mid-term projections but the focus of the report is much more ambitious and much less certain − mapping out a pathway to 100% renewable energy worldwide by 2050.

The report proposes a phase-out of fossil fuels starting with lignite by 2035, followed by coal (2045), then oil and then finally gas (2050). As with fossil fuels, nuclear power is also phased out "as fast as technically and economically possible".

The report details the extraordinary growth of renewables over the past decade, with 783 GW of new renewable power generation capacity installed from 2005 to 2014. However "the overall transition away from fossil and nuclear fuels to renewables is far too slow to combat dangerous climate change." Over the past decade almost as much new coal capacity (750 GW) has been installed as renewables. Hence the need for coordinated plans and political commitment to rapidly replace dirty energy sources with renewables.

Under the Energy [R]evolution scenario, the world would stay within the IPCC's 1,000 gigatonne "carbon budget" − total carbon emissions between 2012 and 2050 would be 744 gigatonnes in the Energy [R]evolution scenario and 667 gigatonnes in an 'Advanced' Energy [R]evolution scenario. The report envisages global emissions peaking at the end of this decade, a return to 1990 levels in 2030, a 60% reduction by 2040 and near-zero emissions in 2050 (excluding some non-energy sectors such as steel production).

The share of electricity generated by renewables doubles from 21% to 42% by 2030 under the Energy [R]evolution scenario, then expands to 72% in 2040 and 100% in 2050. Measures proposed to incorporate fluctuating power sources into reliable electricity systems include smart grids, demand side management, and energy storage.

Renewables meet around 21% of current global energy demand for heating − almost all of it biomass. In the Energy [R]evolution scenarios, energy efficiency measures reduce growing demand for heating by 33% in 2050, with the use of fossil fuels for heating replaced by a portfolio of renewable heating (solar collectors, geothermal, renewable energy-produced hydrogen) and biomass.

Decarbonising transport can largely be achieved by growing and electrifying public transport systems, as well as encouraging the uptake of ever-improving electric vehicles. Aviation and shipping are particularly difficult, but planes and ships could be powered using biofuels, hydrogen and synthetic fuels produced using electricity. Under the Energy [R]evolution scenario, just over half of road transport energy demand is met by electricity by 2050.

1. Greenpeace International, September 2015, 'Energy [R]evolution: A sustainable world energy outlook 2015',

2. Meister Consultants Group, 16 March 2015, Renewable Energy Revolution,

Global Apollo Program

An coalition of prominent people has come together to ask the world's governments to find US$15 billion per annum to invest in scientific research and development dedicated to the goal of making renewable energy cheaper than coal within 10 years.

The coalition includes

  • a former chief executive of oil company BP,
  • BBC documentary maker and naturalist David Attenborough,
  • a former UK minister for energy,
  • one of the world's leading economists on the study of what determines our happiness,
  • a leading climate scientist,
  • the former head of the UK's major business lobby group
  • the chief executive of consumer products company Unilever,
  • former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern
  • and other prominent scientists and economists

The coalition draws its inspiration from President John Kennedy's Apollo Program which targeted putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth within the decade. They note that publicly-funded renewable energy R&D has been "starved" of funding, making up under 2% of the total of publicly funded research and development.

Global renewable energy knowledge hub

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has launched 'REsource' − an online platform that enables users to easily find country-specific data, create customized charts and graphs, and compare countries on metrics like renewable energy use and deployment. It also provides information on renewable energy market statistics, potentials, policies, finance, costs, benefits, innovations, education and other topics.

Renewable energy potential − France, China, India

A report by ADEME, a French government agency under the Ministries of Ecology and Research, shows that a 100% renewable electricity supply by 2050 in France is feasible and would cost hardly any more than a mix of 50% nuclear, 40% renewables, and 10% fossil fuels (primarily gas).1

The 119-page report is the result of 14 months of detailed research, and examines the feasibility and costs of several different models ranging from a 40% reliance on renewables by 2050 up to 100% reliance.

For an all-renewables scenario, the report proposes an ideal electricity mix: 63% from wind, 17% from solar, 13% from hydro and 7% from renewable thermal sources (including geothermal energy).

To match supply and demand (and deal with intermittency), the report proposes demand management (electric cars, for example, charging and discharging), import/export, short-term storage (batteries and compressed air installations, for example), pumped-storage hydro, and power-to-gas-to-power technologies (hydrogen/methane).

The report estimates that the electricity production cost would be 119 euros per megawatt-hour in the all-renewables scenario, compared with a near-identical figure of 117 euros per MWh with a mix of 50% nuclear, 40% renewables, and 10% fossil fuels. The current average cost is 91 euros per MWh.
Damien Siess, ADEME's deputy director for production and sustainable energy, noted that renewable energy sources are currently more expensive than nuclear, but the cost of renewables is falling while the cost of nuclear is increasing, mainly because of the safety standards required for new reactors such as the EPR.

China could get 85% of its electricity and 60% of total energy from renewables by 2050, according to government agencies. A rapid rollout of wind, solar and bioenergy is technologically and economically feasible, a report led by the China National Renewable Energy Centre claims.2 In a "high renewable" scenario, the country's coal use would peak in 2020 and its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.4

India: A detailed report by WWF-India and The Energy and Resources Institute maps out how India could generate as much as 90% of total primary energy from renewables by 2050.3 The study develops and evaluates a potential growth path involving large deployment of renewables − especially solar, wind and hydro − for electricity generation, with second-generation and algal biofuels meeting the additional demands of the transport sector. It argues that aggressive efficiency improvements also have large potential and could bring in savings of the order of 59% by 2050.

1. Full report (in French):

L'Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtrise de l'Energie (ADEME), 2015, 'Vers un mix électrique 100% renouvelable en 2050',

English language summary:

Terje Osmundsen, 20 April 2015,

2. Report: 'China high renewables 2050 roadmap − summary',

Article: Megan Darby, 22 April 2015, 'China's electricity could go 85% renewable by 2050 – study',

3. WWF India and The Energy and Resources Institute, 2013, 'The Energy Report − India 100% Renewable Energy by 2050',

Summary: Emma Fitzpatrick, 17 Jan 2014, 'Even India could reach nearly 100% renewables by 2051',

Twin Pillars: Energy efficiency and renewables

A June 2015 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) compares an 'INDC' scenario, based on 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions' nominated by (some) countries in advance of the UN climate conference in December 2015, with a more ambitious 'Bridge Scenario'.1 Energy efficiency does much of the heavy lifting in reducing energy-related greenhouse emissions in the Bridge Scenario compared to the INDC scenario. Energy efficiency accounts for 49% of the reduction by 2030, renewables 17%, upstream methane reductions 15%, fossil-fuel subsidy reform 10%, and reducing inefficient coal 9%.

The IEA report's comments on renewables are worth noting. In the Bridge Scenario, 60% of new power capacity between 2015 and 2030 comes from renewables (23% wind, 17% solar PV, 14% hydro, 6% other renewables) compared to just 6% for nuclear, with fossil fuels accounting for the remaining 34%. In the Bridge Scenario, nuclear accounts for 13% of global power capacity in 2030, almost three times lower than renewables' share of 37% (hydro 18%, wind 9%, solar PV, 4%, bioenergy 4%, geothermal 1%, and concentrated solar power 1%).

In the scenario presented in the International Energy Agency's 'World Energy Outlook 2014', which envisages modest efforts to reduce emissions, oil demand in 2040 would be 22% higher without the cumulative impact of energy efficiency measures, gas demand 17% higher and coal demand 15% higher.2 The report states: "Beyond cutting energy use, energy efficiency lowers energy bills, improves trade balances and cuts CO2 emissions. Improved energy efficiency compared with today reduces oil and gas import bills for the five largest energy-importing regions by almost $1 trillion in 2040."

The REN21 report3 notes that renewables and energy efficiency are twin pillars of a sustainable energy future − enabling applications that otherwise might not be technically or economically practical and rendering the outcome greater than the sum of the parts. The report provides examples of the synergies:

  • Synergies for greater system benefits. Efficient building systems and designs, combined with on-site renewable energy generation, reduce end-use energy demand, electrical grid congestion and losses, and the monetary and energy expenditures associated with fuel transportation.
  • Synergies for greater renewable energy share in the energy mix. Improving end-use efficiency and increasing use of on-site renewables reduce primary energy demand. With lower end-use energy requirements, the opportunity increases for renewable energy sources of low energy density to meet full energy-service needs. Targets to increase the share of renewables in total energy consumption can be achieved through both increasing the amount of renewable energy and reducing total energy consumption.
  • Synergies for greater investment in renewables and efficiency. Improvements in end-use energy efficiency reduce the cost of delivering end-use services by renewable energy, and the money saved through efficiency can help finance additional efficiency improvements and/or deployment of renewable energy technologies. These synergies exist across numerous sectors, from buildings and electrical services to transportation and industry.

A 2011 study by University of Cambridge academics concluded that a whopping 73% of global energy use could be saved by practically achievable energy efficiency and conservation measures.4 Julian Allwood, one of the authors of the study, said: "We think it's pretty unlikely that we'll find a good response to the threat of global warming on the supply side alone. But if we can make a serious reduction in our demand for energy, then all the options look more realistic."5

1. International Energy Agency, June 2015, 'World Energy Outlook Special Report 2015: Energy and Climate Change',

2. International Energy Agency, 'World Energy Outlook 2014',

3. REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century), 2015, 'Renewables 2015: Global Status Report',

4. Jonathan M. Cullen, Julian M. Allwood, and Edward H. Borgstein, Jan 2011, 'Reducing Energy Demand: What Are the Practical Limits?', Environmental Science and Technology, 45 (4), pp 1711–1718,

5. Helen Knight, 26 Jan 2011, 'Efficiency could cut world energy use over 70 per cent',

Renewables can do 100%, but when will Australia see it done?

Alastair Leith

In 2009, Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) asked this: if the critical decade starts now, what kind of technology investment would it take to power our entire economy with 100% RE by 2020?1 Other researchers have studied the 100% RE question for Australia's National Energy Market − the electricity generation and network grid excluding WA and NT (Australian Energy Market Operator for 2030/502, UNSW for 20303). All three major studies have found 100% RE for grid in Australia is feasible and that it's affordable − BZE in fact went beyond just the electricity grid to model for renewable supply to all other energy uses including transport, space heating and industrial processes.

Compelling cost curves (the rate at which any technology becomes less or more expensive over time) for wind, solar and storage make the inevitability of 100% RE seem a given to any enthusiast. But if the past three years in the Australian RE industries have shown anything, it's that this inevitability doesn't extend to a meaningful timeline for saving what's left of our safe climate.4

Many people are aware of the collapse of large scale renewable investment in Australia over the past few years − an 88% decline in investment in 2014 alone causing Australia to free-fall from 11th to 39th place in the world of large scale RE in a single year.

One of the reasons is that stationary energy, the power provided on the grid, is not something consumers have direct purchasing power over. Large generators and networks are owned by powerful fossil-economy aligned interests (sometimes states themselves) who've acted in concert with Coalition governments at both levels and cross-bench Senators to thwart and undermine the RE industry. So the technology adoption curve for large scale RE is very different to what we've seen with, PCs, mobile devices, HDTVs or (until 2011) rooftop solar.

This is not just due to government attacks on the large scale RE sector. It's also been the big three power retailers themselves launching a capital strike against RE projects by withholding on new Power Purchasing Agreements (PPA). PPAs are the piece of paper that make wind farms bankable in this country. These contracts underpin most of the RE projects launched in this country by locking down a fixed capacity and/or purchase price for power over the 20 years a project needs to provide a financial return.

Solar PV growth rates

Australia has the highest level of rooftop solar per capita in the world, yet that promising beginning is largely on the back of high growth peaking around 2010. Nationally, growth has plateaued into linear growth for the past four years. Yet internationally the growth rate is exponential and continues at the rate of a doubling in PV deployment every two years; as it has done for three decades. The attendant learning curve says that for each doubling there is a 20% drop in module price. The cost improvements drive more deployment, the exponential growth in deployment spurs greater innovation. Much the same as with high-volume consumer tech-goods like PCs, mobile devices and HDTVs.

Australia-wide the number of solar PV installations has been falling, and the number of jobs in the industry has been falling. Each state has seen a different surge and decline pattern, suggesting state government energy and feed-in tariff policies significantly impact the installation numbers.

Is a case for RE boosterism credible?

Unlikely suspects are claiming they're on board with consumer-driven RE disruption. Politicians are dropping the fallacious renewables can't do baseload power meme and cloaking themselves with some it's inevitable rhetoric − Greg Hunt talking about grid defection5, Mike Nahan talking about his expectation that rooftop solar capacity will meet the bulk of demand in Perth in daylight hours6, and Victorian Liberal MP and shadow Spokesperson for Renewables David Southwick talking up the "renewables revolution"7.

But are such MPs being disingenuous when the deployment data, and more importantly their own policies and tariff changes (not to mention fossil fuel subsidies) are so obviously not driving the country towards mass RE deployment and negative greenhouse gas emissions?

I've mentioned the disastrous government policy and white-anting effects and the motivated resistance to rooftop PV and large scale renewables within our energy markets. The irony is, consistent with being a past director of the most organised and influential climate denial organisation in Australia (the Institute of Public Affairs), while Mike Nahan was WA's Energy Minister he eschewed wind power and large scale solar and continued the expansion of platinum-plated fossil-fuel energy networks that he now says as Treasurer the state can no longer afford to subsidise.8 Much as we all look forward to noting the removal of fossil fuel subsidies in WA, his new 82 megawatts (MW) diesel peaking plant at Merredin receives $15m a year in capacity payments without dispatching energy to the grid, ever.9

With Solar Citizens and others championing rooftop solar's growth you'd be forgiven for thinking that solar PV in Australia has never seen it so good. Certainly if growth in solar PV was matching the three decade long global trend of a doubling in deployed capacity each two years then, yes, we could smash very ambitious RE targets like 100% RE before 2025 in every state of Australia. Ray Kurzweil − a futurist with something most futurists lack: an impressive track record − points to the fact that solar modules are on track to be delivering virtually free energy by 2036, and with another six doublings (~12 years) we will be meeting the world's current energy demands with PV capacity.10

Similar to wind farm growth, solar PV is not going to be adopted rapidly to saturation point where our entire economy is powered directly from renewables without reforms in government policy and tariffs that set positive incentives for an orderly but rapid transition. There's too many vested interests in mining and in the three big energy retailers who are protecting the status quo.

If we look at the solar installation data from the past decade what is evident is that solar is not going to meet anything like maximum demand on current trends — however virtuous the solar PV learning curves. And however much of a rhetorical about-face from WA Treasurer Nahan, on current trends his prediction falls way outside the bounds of current trends. Indeed if we are to (generously) apply the national linear trend of the past four years to growth in WA's rooftop solar it would take until 2032 to meet 2014's yearly maximum demand peak of 3,702 MW11 with nameplate capacity of PV. But given the peak was 5:30-6:00pm you'd be needing to turn those panels west facing and you'd need still more of them. Safer to say it could be 2050 before a late afternoon peak was met without very significant levels of distributed storage. Global trend-matching exponential growth in rooftop PV would see a much healthier 7,112 MW deployed by 2023.

Victoria, currently considering 2020 and 2025 targets for it's reintroduced VRET, saw a 8,067 MW maximum for peak demand in 2014. Similarly to WA, linear growth on national average would see 7,969 MW of PV deployed by 2055, while two-year doublings would see 4,900 MW PV then 26,121 MW deployed by 2020 and 2025 respectively.

When the potential is there for massive growth in solar power, when it's happening all over the world, when it was happening in Australia up to 2010 but has backed off since, it's regressive in the extreme for governments to withdraw policies supporting exponential solar PV growth until we have met around 80% daily maximum demand from RE sources. With that kind of support 100% RE will be assured in a time frame that actually might make a difference for life-on-Earth as we know it.

There's a moral imperative and urgency that says we all must do as much as we can to save what's left of a safe climate. In a democracy, our governments in particular don't get a pass on ensuring we deploy RE as soon as policies measures can deliver it. The invisible hand of our energy market is hindering the rapid deployment of solar and wind power. If it's not government's job to fix this failing, then whose?





4. Our climate is already less hospitable and major tipping points have been crossed, both known ones, like the irretrievable Western Ice shelf of Antarctica and unknown tipping points that we can't be certain of due to the lag between atmospheric heating and slow climatic processes, and ultimately their effects in terms of a theoretical equilibrium.



7. RenewEconomy recently reported: "At Melbourne's recent AllEnergy Conference, David Southwick, the first Shadow Renewable Energy Minister at any level of government, declared "The renewables revolution starts here in Victoria". This is a considerable shift from an Opposition that just 12 months ago presided over the world's worst anti-wind laws in government."



10. Ray Kurzweil isn't suggesting inconsistencies with the second law of thermodynamics just that it will become so trivially cheap to manufacture modules and the volume will have become so enormous it will power the entire world if we want it to.

11. Peak demand for 2013-14 was 3,702 MW, which occurred in the 5:30−6:00pm trading interval on 20 January 2014. According to SWIS:

Eight things Malcolm Turnbull should do on climate, renewables

Giles Parkinson

Malcolm Turnbull's dramatic replacement of Tony Abbott as prime minister of Australia has raised hopes of a change in direction for the Coalition government, particularly on climate change and renewable energy, and thereby the shape of its economic future.

Turnbull promised an end to "policy by slogans", and a new move to bring the Australian population along with the idea of an exciting future, first of all by explaining what that future might be, and respecting their intelligence. But is this all just style and no substance?

Some are hopeful. Paul Gilding, author and corporate advisor, describes a collective sigh of relief for those arguing for progressive climate and renewable energy policies. Gilding said: "We will never get on track as a country on this issue without genuine bipartisan support – and because of the way Rudd and Abbott made this a Left/Right issue, only the Liberal Party shifting can deliver the change we need. "That's why Turnbull's arrival as PM is a game changer for Australia's approach, but the impact will be medium to long term rather than sudden policy shifts. While Abbott had to say he supported action on climate policy, everyone knew he was faking it because the politics demanded he do so. Turnbull actually supports climate action and has long understood the economic implications of the transition required."

Others are not so sure. John Hewson, the former Liberal leader and now champion of fossil fuel divestment campaigns, said Turnbull may well have sold out. "I think it's all for Malcolm to do right now," Hewson said on ABC TV's Q&A program. "The rumour is he's sold out on climate change, which I personally think is the largest policy challenge – moral challenge, economic, political and social challenge – of this century."

So what will Turnbull do? Over the next few days, weeks, months, we will find out. But here are eight things he could do right now:

Stop the slogans

This should be the easy part. No more "axe the tax", no more "climate change is crap", no more "wind farms are offensive", no more "coal is good for humanity." Oh, and don't replace the slogans with 120-word ones.

Get excited about new technology:

This shouldn't be too hard, either. Just before the first leadership crisis in February, Turnbull was in California having a test drive of a Tesla Model S, the up-market electric super-car. He raved about the experience: "Tesla has gone from employing 500 people to 11,000 in five years. A reminder of how innovation drives jobs," he noted on his blog. "Batteries have the potential to revolutionise the energy market, reducing peaking power requirements, optimising grid utilisation of renewables and in some cases enabling consumers to go off the grid altogether. The excitement of technology in the Bay Area is exhilarating ... but not quite as palpable as the jolt you feel when you hit the accelerator!"

Perhaps he should require all party members to test drive a Tesla. He could just as equally share that enthusiasm, and dump the party's poisonous rhetoric, about other technologies such as battery storage and renewables. And he should not funnel government funds to daft projects like the rail link for the Galilee Basin coal mines. Even Barnaby Joyce understands that.

Get moving on climate change:

There was a telling moment in Turnbull's first press conference when the newly designated PM was about to answer a question on emissions reduction targets. Deputy Julie Bishop quickly noted that Australia's targets were set and would not change. It was a reminder to Turnbull that whatever his own views on climate change, he had to take the party with him.

It is clear that Turnbull has cut a deal with the Far Right rump of the party not to reintroduce an ETS – the very policy mechanism that caused his downfall in 2009. But Turnbull's own views are very clear. As he said in 2010: "Climate change is real, it is affecting us now, and yet, right now we have every resources available to us to deal with climate change, except for one, and that is leadership. We cannot cost-effectively achieve a substantial cut in emissions without putting a price on carbon."

Turnbull has the opportunity to provide that leadership. It will take time to introduce a carbon price, but it will most likely come through a baseline and credit scheme, a sort of emissions reduction fund and safeguards mechanism with bite, and amendments to the current proposal.

Sweep out the dead wood:

Turnbull may be constrained by promises made to the Right Wing, but he can change the rhetoric and the mood, and the vision, by sweeping away the inner cabal that fashioned Abbott's policy making. This includes the likes of climate deniers such as Maurice Newman, Dick Warburton, David Murray and Tony Shepherd, and shake the Cabinet from the grim grasp of the Institute of Public Affairs and its policy wish-list. The right wing commentariat – including Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt voiced their anger. They will be sniping at every turn.

That generational change is also needed elsewhere, particularly in the energy industry where many of the incumbent utilities, and policy and pricing regulators – from the industry minister Ian Macfarlane down – are from the "old school" of energy management, and don't seem to get the concept of decentralised generation, and the exciting technologies that Turnbull has alluded to, including EVs (such as his affection for Tesla), solar, and battery storage, and the smart software that will pull these technologies together.

Remove the threat to dismantle CEFC, ARENA and the CCA:

If only Bernie Fraser had hung around for another week. The chairman of the Climate Change Authority (CCA) resigned the week before Abbott's replacement by Turnbull, apparently frustrated by his inability to get his voice heard, even by environment minister Greg Hunt. Yet the CCA should play a critical role in advising on climate change policies.

Ditto the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Both have committed to playing a large role in the imminent roll-out of utility-scale solar, yet have been hamstrung in their broader goals by funding cuts in the case of ARENA, and restricted mandates in the case of the CEFC (Abbott's instruction not to invest in wind farms or rooftop solar).

Both agencies have been operating with the threat of closure looming behind them. With a positive mandate, both can play a critical role in the bringing in and lowering the cost of the technologies that Turnbull is so excited about.

Express support for renewable energy, and boost the target:

Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and others in the Coalition made it very clear, they don't like renewable energy, and they hated wind energy. That has caused the investment drought to continue, despite the reduced 33,000 GWh target that was supposed to provide certainty, and turned large investors like Meridian Energy to greener shores. Turnbull should be able to turn that antipathy on a dime, simply by expressing support for new technologies.

Turnbull has been an enthusiastic supporter of renewable energy. Way back in 2010, he even attended the launch of Beyond Zero Emissions' Zero Carbon plan for 2020, along with Bob Carr and the Greens' Scott Ludlam. Turnbull was particularly supportive of solar thermal with storage.

"As you know the great challenge with renewable sources of energy; solar and wind in particular, is that they are intermittent," he told the event. "So what do we do when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. How do we store that power.

"There is the ability with concentrated solar thermal power stations to use the sun's energy to superheat a substance, in this case molten salt, that will hold its heat for long enough to be able to continue to generate steam and hence energy after the sun has stopped shining or during or day after day of rain. So there is a real opportunity there, with that technology, to generate baseload power from solar energy – something of a holy grail."

Given that experience, maybe Turnbull should pitch for 100 per cent renewables? It is probably too much to expect Turnbull to lift the current renewable energy target in the short term, but that is exactly what he needs to do. The industry needs a long term policy, and Turnbull will be under pressure to match Labor's 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, which even big investment banks say is readily achievable. Rooftop solar needs ongoing regulatory support as well, and it fits Turnbull's rhetoric about a new economic future.

Impose emission standards on coal generators, and efficiency standards on cars

Whatever his support for the current policy, Turnbull cannot duck the fact that Australia's industrial emissions are growing, and particularly in the energy sector. Short of a carbon price, Turnbull could follow the lead of the US and China and impose strict emissions limits for coal-fired generators, impose energy efficiency targets for vehicles, and reintroduce the efficiency standards for new homes. Designing an exit strategy for coal generators is one of the most urgent issues.

Find a new environment minister, or tell Greg Hunt to stop saying silly things:

Greg Hunt likes to tell people how hard it was to push a progressive line in an Abbott government. Many people wondered how hard he tried. Hunt came up with some of the Abbott government's worst whoppers on climate change, coal, and renewable energy. Turnbull cannot afford to have such rhetoric repeated under his leadership, so if Hunt stays in that office the former Australian universities debating captain will have to be given another topic to argue: Decisive climate change is good for the economy and will not bankrupt Australia.

Reprinted from RenewEconomy, 15 Sept 2015, sign up for a free daily newsletter at:

Geoengineering: Striking targets or missing the point?

Ben Courtice

This is a response to Phil Sutton's latest paper, 'Striking Targets', published by BreakThrough (in Melbourne, not the controversial US think tank of the same name). The paper is posted at!papers/cxeo

I take issue with the central proposition of the paper, that:

"Key climate/earth system parameters that need to be restored to safe levels are:

  • ocean heat content
  • global surface temperature
  • ocean acidity
  • sea level"

How feasible is that list? Are there mechanisms that can reduce ocean heat, for example? Water has a high specific heat capacity, meaning it can absorb a lot of heat energy yet only gain temperature slowly. The reverse is true: it takes a relatively large amount of heat loss before it cools appreciably. (This is due to its molecular structure, the same reason CO2 can hold a relatively high amount of heat in the atmosphere).

The climate science that I've seen over the years on this topic suggests that ocean temperature rise is basically irreversible on human lifetimes. If we stop adding greenhouse gases and stop adding heat to the atmosphere, it may gradually cool back to where it was, but over centuries. In the meantime, warmer oceans means warmer climate and there's not much can be done to change it. Warmer oceans and climate also drive sea level rise.

I haven't seen research on how fast ocean acidification may be reversed, but I suspect it's similar if not slower.

I'm very happy to hear of research which contradicts me on either of these points, of course. But in the meantime, there is only one crucial parameter that we know for sure we can control: the excess greenhouse gases being added to the atmosphere every day, month and year.

You could add that we can also stop destroying the biodiversity that gives ecosystems some stability and/or adaptability in the face of climate change. Indeed, biodiversity loss is a close second to climate change on the scale of major ecological threats to human civilisation. We will have to work to reverse this, too.

Backcasting vs wishful thinking

Phil Sutton's paper goes on to use the methodology of "backcasting": if we aim to protect people and species, what actions do we need to take to get there? The goal set – 'restoring a safe climate' – leads to the conclusion that we must actively remove CO2 and heat. But as I pointed out above, it may not be feasible to remove heat. Removing CO2 is also a big task, although limited progress may be feasible via revegetation.

A nasty complication is that ending fossil fuel use will end the emissions of sulphate aerosols that partially cool the earth by reflecting some sunlight ("global dimming"). They only last in the atmosphere very briefly, unlike CO2, so we will probably get a sudden jump in warming if we stop emitting sulphates from our coal power stations and other sources.

"Solar radiation management" is Phil's proposal for active cooling, and this geoengineering concept is hypothetically possible by deliberately putting more sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere – perhaps into the stratosphere, where they will last for a bit longer.

But such geoengineering techniques are hypothetical and fraught with problems. There is no way to trial them, other than at scale with the Earth as a laboratory. Geoengineering is often promoted like "clean coal", an excuse for not cutting emissions. In reality, its various hypothetical methods are untested and not known to work safely or even at all in many cases. They are, however, expected to cause climatic chaos (yes, more) especially for tropical areas dependent on monsoon rainfall. Where a large part of the world's population lives.

The notion that clumsily meddling further with the climate systems is a good idea is silly in any case. There are too many unknowns. It may make a neat sounding policy proposal to square the circle of "restoring a safe climate", but in reality it's a dangerous distraction.

Working backwards from an impossible goal

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) also started from a backcasting approach in designing the groundbreaking Zero Carbon Australia 100% renewable energy plan in 2010: assuming that we needed to reach zero emissions as fast as possible (choosing 10 years as the timeframe), they researched the technology and systems that could achieve that. The thing that BZE had in their favour was that engineering an energy supply system (or energy efficient buildings) is a relatively simple task, and as it turned out available technologies are up to the task. The Earth's climate system is at the far other end of the complexity spectrum.

Carbon draw down is the other dubious concept in the paper. It is unlikely for agriculture and forestry to go beyond zero emissions in the long term, and draw down significant amounts of CO2 from historic fossil fuel combustion. Vegetation regrowth and soil building is unlikely to draw down more CO2 than was released when it was cleared and ploughed previously: once soils hit their natural peak amount of stored carbon, any excess organic matter tends to decompose to CO2 fairly rapidly.

Other mechanisms for carbon draw down are hypothetical, pie-in-the-sky: industrial (artificial) methods for removing CO2 from the air, for example.

Backcasting approaches can be a useful thought exercise for exploring a problem, but not necessarily for solving it. Factoring in complex systems, including politics, makes it like planning a game of chess backward from the checkmate: it's impossible. Equally, it's not a very useful process if the desired outcome turns out to be unachievable. Backcasting from an unachievable aim won't provide meaningful guidance.

Is a "safe climate" a realistic goal?

All this leaves us with the unpleasant fact that greenhouse emissions have (already) done massive damage to the stability of our planet's climate system, and that the only way we know that it may return to a more stable balance is by natural processes that take a lot of time: centuries, in most cases.

The first challenge, logically, is to stop doing damage. We have to move to zero emissions. "Beyond zero" is only hypothetical. In fact, BZE adopted the approach of only advocating technology that is proven and commercially available. By that practical measure, artificial carbon draw down and solar radiation management are not worth advocating.

So this unfortunate backcasting exercise leads us to a lot of dubious, hypothetical, and possibly dangerous technology, that we should not be spending our time advocating when there are practical things we can do.

I think the "restore a safe climate" proposition should be abandoned. If it becomes apparent in future that it is a realistic proposition, then we could revisit the discussion. Right now, though, we need to admit the fact that our coal-burning capitalist economy has done apparently irreversible damage. We need to firstly stop it, and secondly, deal with the consequences to prevent suffering and (as much as possible) see that ecosystems are protected and/or allowed to adapt to a changed climate. That's a big job. It's a people power solution, not a technocratic solution enacted from on high.

For Pacific nations or Bangladeshi farmers faced with sinking beneath the waves, threatened by a future of dispossession and living as refugees, and for all the other people who will suffer in various ways: this doesn't mean we have to write them off as though we're saying "too bad, it's too late for you lot" from our comfortable first-world situation. We have to fight with them to save their lands by artificial means if possible, or to rehouse and resettle. But first and foremost to stop the deepening of climatic instability by our ongoing fossil fuel use.

In support of this, it would be good if we could meet one important challenge that Sutton's paper sets. I'm not sure the world will, but certainly it would be good to advocate for it and explore what it would take.

The challenge is this:

"To prevent severe climate and ocean acidification impacts expected by 2030, net global greenhouse gas emissions should reach zero ..."

But it seems a fantasy to think we can make the remainder of this sentence happen safely:

"... and temperatures start to fall before then."

It's certainly true we need to take the fight against climate change to a new level. I agree with the paper's sharp insight from its introduction:

"Over those last 27 years, while all the research, activism and negotiation has been going on, the climate has actually become dangerous. So, the key goal now must be to provide, at the 11th hour, real protection for the vulnerable people, species and ecosystems of the world.

"The principal struggle must shift, from the clash between no action and some action, to the crucial struggle between those who want to constrain reform to levels that are not too disruptive and those who want action that will provide highly effective and timely protection."

But exploring geoengineering and "safe climate restoration" really doesn't provide the answers that we need to resolve that struggle. It sets impossible targets, obscuring the achievable targets that we urgently need to fight for. It's a recipe for missing the point, not striking the target.

Poison or poverty? Glencore's blackmail of Borroloola

Lauren Mellor

Panic has set in for the global resource sector with a sharp commodities slump bringing some of the world's biggest mining companies to the brink of financial collapse.

In Australia, Glencore, one of the world's largest and fastest growing diversified commodity traders, has been hit hardest of all. And the Northern Territory government's failure to insist the Glencore operate in compliance with financial and environmental laws may mean Australian taxpayers and those mining communities on the frontlines of the company's extraction will be left counting the costs of a resource boom gone bust.

When it floated four years ago Glencore was valued at US$60 billion. But its capitalisation now stands at around US$16 billion. It's a disastrous position for a miner carrying debts in excess of US$50 billion, with markets predicting a default sometime in the next few years.

Given that the company employs thousands of people and has prospective mine rehabilitation costs running into the billions, Glencore's situation should be a matter of concern for every Australian taxpayer, and in particular the state governments charged with regulating its mining and trading activity. Companies like Glencore have been allowed, and even abetted, by governments eager to share in the short term profits, who turn a blind eye to the mounting long-term costs of environmental contamination and clean up.

McArthur River Mine, an unfolding environmental disaster

Glencore's McArthur River lead and zinc mine is located in the bed of the McArthur River in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory. From its earliest days McArthur River Mine has been the beneficiary of extraordinary government largesse, granted at the expense of the region's Gurdanji, Garawa, Yanyuwa and Mara people. The remote pastoral and fishing community of Borroloola is home to the four clan groups, situated just 50 km downstream of the mine.

With NT government support, the lands on which the mine operates were exempted from the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, preventing the site's Aboriginal custodians from making a legal bid from its return.

In 2007 corporate lobbying efforts to turn the mine from an underground to open pit operation succeeded against good science, community opposition and a successful Supreme Court challenge by local clan groups. The expansion required the diversion of a 5.5 km stretch of the McArthur River, which saw local opposition flare up into active antagonism including site blockades and protests.

Despite this, the NT government proceeded with approval for the controversial expansion by overturning the Supreme Court decision in a midnight sitting of parliament, quelling protests with police intervention and retrospectively applying laws to prevent further legal challenges to its operation.

In 2013 the Northern Territory government again ignored advice from its own regulatory departments warning of the high probability of mine-site flooding in the wet season. Glencore's  Phase 3 expansion plan, which would more than double its mineable reserves from 53 million tonnes (Mt) to 115 Mt, and extend the life of the mine from 2027 to 2036, was approved.

But before work could get underway McArthur River Mine hit the headlines again in 2014 when a sulphur dioxide smoke plume emanating from the mine's massive waste rock dump became public after rock began spontaneously combusting at the site. The toxic fires burned for over eight months, with smoke plumes visible more than 30 km downwind of the site. The government attempted to play down the scale of the problem, with NT Mines Minister Dave Tollner assuring the public that Glencore had advised it was doing all it could to extinguish the fires, by covering the reactive rock with a thin layer of clay capping, and operations at the site would continue as normal.

Fast forward a year and further evidence has emerged of McArthur River Mine's deep structural, environmental and economic problems. A government appointed Independent Monitor confirmed heavy metal contamination linked to the mine's ore body has been found in tributaries of the McArthur River, downstream of the mine's leaking tailings dam, and residents have been warned off eating fish due to lead levels found to exceed safe standards. Hundreds of cattle with access to poisoned waterways within the mineral lease were culled due to concerns over lead contamination.

The Independent Monitor warned that the huge volumes of reactive waste rock, exposed to tropical wet season rains and heat, risk becoming sulphuric acid runoff into surrounding waterways, and if left untreated, would have catastrophic consequences for the health of downstream ecosystems.

Freedom of Information documents obtained on behalf of local clan groups in June 2015 showed that the NT Government ignored advice on the mounting environmental liability and public health risks posed by the mine's operations and took no action.

During a recent round of emergency rehabilitation negotiations the NT Chief Minister appeared to be offering Glencore concessions due to the 'structural difficulties' the miner faced, citing the jobs vs environment mantra that had for a decade prior fuelled the mine's unsustainable expansion.

Aboriginal custodians

The site's Aboriginal custodians have been reclaiming responsibility for environmental and cultural management at the site. Gadrian Hoosan, a young Garawa man, has led protest actions to reclaim and occupy sacred sites damaged inside the mineral lease, and to highlight what he sees as NT government complicity in allowing Glencore and other big miners to treat their lands as sacrifice zones for the pursuit of profit.

Hoosan said: "Nearly 100 years ago our old people fought miners with spears for encroaching on our land to open Redbank copper mine. Mining went ahead, and now that river runs dead for 40 km across the NT border and into Queensland. Today the young people who have witnessed that damage are fighting in the same tradition, but today we fight alongside each other − black and white and all clans for our future. We're respecting each other's culture, but the government doesn't, they just try to divide us to get the yes they need for mining to go ahead. The Northern Territory government needs to stop selling our land off from under our feet. Get out and listen to the people living next to and downstream of the mining pits."

Under pressure and faced with mounting threats to disrupt mining activity, an agreement between the NT government and Glencore was reached to increase the rehabilitation bond. But NT laws designed to protect corporates from financial scrutiny allow mining rehabilitation liabilities to be hidden in commercial-in-confidence clauses, meaning taxpayers are exposed to multi-billion dollar debts with no capacity to determine if mining meets the test of a cost/benefit analysis.

As Glencore's crisis unfolds and the company moves to cut costs and shed jobs, for communities like Borroloola, who have born all of the costs and seen little of the benefits of the resource boom, it is vital to ensure that the dispossession caused by mining is not repeated in the coming crash.

Building strategic partnerships with labour unions and environmentalists, local clan groups  are campaigning to guarantee every local job is retained for the urgent task of site clean up, and to bring new opportunities to the community for well-paid, skilled jobs in a clean environment that can redress decades of government neglect in housing and other critical areas.

The McArthur River Mine case highlights the failure of the economic development paradigm in which state and territory governments' insist that remote Indigenous development must be based on natural resource extraction.

Environmental justice campaigns like that fighting for the closure of McArthur River Mine are propelled by a growing recognition that the social conditions of our communities are inextricably tied to the health of the natural environment. Old dynamics of resource extraction and accumulation based on dispossession, where resources are appropriated and privatised alongside the exploitation of local communities, are now being challenged on an unprecedented scale.

Instead of looking for a rescue package for the resource giants, we should be celebrating the limits and embracing the bold new global movement emerging from Indigenous communities like Borroloola to challenge the endless growth logic of the extractives. It's just such a movement that can help us re-learn the true value of uncontaminated water, clean air and resilient communities.

Hoosan concludes: "This government has plans for more mining on our land but they are living in the past, where they think they can make decisions over our land that we don't want. We're not going to be sacrificed. We want a better future. We don't want no more mining on our land."