Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Let’s get over our dam phobia

Bob Brown is ever the opportunist, even if his timing leaves a very bad taste in everyone’s mouths. His recent pronouncement that our coal industry is to blame for the devastation caused by the floods in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania is both absurd and insensitive.

All the experts, whatever their views on climate change, agree that the increased rainfalls are driven by the long-established cycles of La Nina weather events, just as El Nino is associated with drought.

No-one in the Coalition is suggesting that additional dams would have prevented the tragic Queensland floods.

The onset of the floods did, however, prompt a renewed resolve from the Coalition to ignore political correctness and to put dams back on the agenda as part of the national water management debate.

Dams are by no means the answer in every instance, but nor should they be automatically excluded purely because of politics.

If you consider Brisbane’s Wivenhoe Dam, built after the 1974 floods, there is consensus that it reduced the peak flood level of the 2011 disaster by about two metres.

ANU dam expert Jamie Pittock says that a “two metre higher flood level would have been much more damaging in terms of Brisbane directly, but also Ipswich.”

While NSW Dam Safety Committee executive engineer Paul Henreichs says the Brisbane floods would have been much worse than 1974 had the dam not been there.

“Without extra dams we are still going to get bigger floods and therefore I think people will suffer more,” he says.

This is no consolation and means little to the thousands of unfortunate Queenslanders affected by this disaster, but it does highlight the point that strategically placed dams have a vital role to play.

Despite the obvious, dams have not seriously been in the mix for two or three decades, largely due to the opposition and influence of green groups.

This was again highlighted when the Coalition recently announced our intention to develop a dam and water management plan over the next 12 months.

What we saw was a predictable negative, knee-jerk reaction from Bob Brown and Julia Gillard, before our work had even started. The fact the Gillard government is beholden to the Greens is a real problem, with base politics guiding its agenda, not common sense and prudence.

The political correctness which has shaped the water management debate in this country in recent decades was starkly illustrated in Victoria under the Brumby government.

At the peak of the drought, Brumby avoided dams like the plague and instead pursued monumentally expensive and impractical solutions such as the Wonthaggi desalination plant and the North South Pipeline.

Desalination plants also require enormous amounts of power to operate and should be an option of last resort, certainly not first choice.

The floods have reemphasised that Australia doesn’t have a problem with the amount of water we have, but with the management of it.

The Coalition opposed the Traveston Crossing Dam for a variety of reasons which have been well documented, and we absolutely stand by that decision. The Bligh government, to its credit, was at least prepared to seriously canvas the option of a new dam, albeit one of unacceptable design and location.

In the right locations, however, dams are not only effective forms of water storage for general consumption, for food production and for environmental flows, but can also play a part in low-emission power generation and of course flood mitigation.

Other soil conservation measures, including large-scale river levees and more localised landscaping projects also have a proven role in reducing flood flows.

In terms of the Coalition’s work, the consideration of appropriate dams will include looking at all areas of water management, including new technologies and innovations and consulting widely with the scientific and engineering communities, land owners as well land management and environmental groups.

The CSIRO, for example, has done some outstanding work looking at the potential in underground water storage, which could have widespread application.

While naturally occurring underground aquifers can’t hold anywhere near the volume of conventional dams, they are cheaper and can be located closer to the water user.

There is also exciting technology available in the areas of computer-aided river management, irrigation and flood control which we’ll be having a close look at. The Murrumbidgee River project comes to mind.

Utilising this type of technology, in conjunction with dams, enables the more efficient use of water within a system. If you have a stand of red gums that need flooding just once every four years from an environmental perspective, you can do it every four years, preserving water for other purposes.

While Julia Gillard and Bob Brown will no doubt attempt to whip up a scare campaign against our work, we will not be deterred. It is time to put political correctness aside and to overcome our dam phobia.


Earth's climate crisis ain't necessarily so

Christopher Monckton

WHILE the Gillard government's climate-change parliamentary committee plots to wreck Australia's economy with a rigged market to make motoring and electricity unaffordable as soon as the new Greens-infected Senate starts work in July, thoughtful pollies are at last - privately, quietly - beginning to ask the Gershwin question.

What if it ain't necessarily so? Suppose there's no climate crisis?

The Romans used to farm out tax collection to "tax farmers" such as St Matthew. The cap-and-tax boondoggle is a tax-farming scam to impoverish the working man and enrich the new tax farmers: bankers, traders, ministers, officials and media moguls. None of them saints.

Cap-and-tax in Europe has been a wickedly costly fiasco. The rigged market has collapsed twice. Member states cheated by allowing themselves more rights to emit than their actual emissions, so the price of emission rights plummeted. Then the tax farmers simply invented 90 per cent of their carbon trades.

Result: electricity prices have doubled. In the name of preventing global warming, many Britons are dying because they cannot afford to heat their homes.

Cap and tax is as pointless as it is cruel. Australia accounts for 1.5 per cent of global carbon emissions. So if it cut its emissions, the warming forestalled would be infinitesimal.

It's worth explaining exactly why. Suppose the Australian committee's aim is to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2050. Anything more ambitious would shut Australia down, especially while the Greens insist on not letting the country use its own zero-carbon-emitting uranium as fuel.

A 20 per cent cut by 2050 is an average 10 per cent cut from now until then. Carbon dioxide concentration by 2050 probably won't exceed 506 parts per million by volume, from which we deduct today's concentration of 390 ppmv. So humankind might add 116 ppmv from now until then.

The CO2 concentration increase forestalled by 40 years of cap-and-tax in Australia would be 10 per cent of 1.5 per cent of that 116 ppmv, or just 0.174 ppmv. So in 2050 CO2 concentration would be - tell it not in Gath and Ashkelon - 505.826 ppmv, not 506.

Thus what we maths wonks call the proportionate change in CO2 concentration if the committee got its way would be 505.826 divided by 506, or 0.9997. The UN says warming or cooling, in Celsius degrees, is 3.7 to 5.7 times the logarithm of the proportionate change.

It expects only 57 per cent of manmade warming to occur by 2100: the rest would happen slowly and harmlessly across 1000-3000 years.

To be charitable to the committee, let us take the UN's high-end estimate. The warming forestalled by cutting Australia's emissions would be very unlikely to exceed 57 per cent of 5.7 times the logarithm of 0.9997: that is - wait for it - a dizzying one-thousandth of a degree by 2050.

I have set out this calculation to show how certainly it is known that all attempts to cut CO2 emissions will expensively fail. Focused adaptation to any adverse consequences of such warming as may occur would be orders of magnitude more cost-effective. But do we need to cut CO2 at all? Some cold facts:

Satellite datasets show last year was not the warmest on record. It was not the least snow-covered year but the most snow-covered: a largely unreported gain in Antarctic sea ice since 1979 almost matches the widely reported loss of Arctic sea ice.

It was not the worst year for hurricanes, but the best year: the accumulated-cyclone-energy index shows less tropical-cyclone activity worldwide than for 30 years.

The forest fires in Russia and southern Australia, and the floods in Pakistan and eastern Australia, were far from the worst ever. Nor can they be attributed to human influence: the UN's climate panel has warned us against that.

They were caused by naturally occurring weather patterns called blocking highs. And global warming can scarcely be blamed after a decade without any.

Nor did 2010 see the second-highest level of natural catastrophes. Yes, 90 per cent of them were weather-related, but in most years that is true, and was true long before we could have influenced climate.

Nor is sea level rising fast. It has risen at the rate of just 0.3m a century since satellites measured it reliably in 1993, under a quarter of the average rate during the past 11,400 years. The Greens don't believe their own whining about sea level: their Hobart office is just metres from the "dangerously" rising ocean.

Nor do most scientists believe man-made global warming will be catastrophic. Most are not climate scientists and take no view, and only a few climatologists have published on the central question how much warming there will be.

Of these, the researchers using measurement and observation rather than modelling have shown that much of the radiation the models say should be warming the surface is escaping to space as before.

The upper air in the tropics that the models predict should warm at thrice the surface rate is warming only at the same rate; model-predicted surface evaporation in response to warming is a third of the observed rate.

The missing heat energy imagined by the models but not present as warming in the past decade is not lurking in the oceans; and the entire warming of the late 20th century can easily be explained without blaming man.

Just one of these fatal discrepancies between prediction and reality - and each points to very little future warming - would normally be enough to dismiss climate catastrophism.

As the Gershwins rightly concluded, "It ain't nessa, ain't nessa, ain't nessa, ain't nessa, ain't necessarily so."


Nuclear option our safest bet

JULIA Gillard's weakened leadership needs a power surge. No one knows this better than her Minister for Energy and Resources, Martin Ferguson.

Ferguson, an outspoken proponent of nuclear energy, is in Washington this week for talks with US Energy Secretary Steven Chu. A Nobel laureate in physics, Chu supports America's expanding nuclear program, saying it "is going to be an important part of our energy mix."

For Chu and many others, nuclear power is critical to a more sustainable energy and environmental future.

If our Prime Minister is to stay true to her promise and make 2011 the year of "delivery and decision", she needs to take the lead and initiate a comprehensive discussion about nuclear power, which happens to be the only carbon-neutral baseload energy source.

Failure to do so ignores the informed views of a long list of technical experts, environmentalists and many of Gillard's Labor colleagues.

So, why is it time for Australia to have the nuclear debate? And why is it, in the words of former prime minister Bob Hawke, "intellectually unsustainable to rule it out as a possibility"?

The answer is threefold. As a leading source of uranium, Australia has a competitive advantage; as a clean form of energy, nuclear power is better for the environment; and as the only advanced economy not embracing it as the answer, it is time we caught up.

The facts are compelling. Australia is home to 38 per cent of the world's known recoverable reserves of uranium, and we export uranium to more than 10 countries.

As I said in my first speech to parliament last year, Australia is in a curious moral, economic and environmental position where we are prepared to export uranium, but not use it.

Today, 31 countries host 440 nuclear reactors, providing two-thirds of the world's people with electricity. More than 55 new reactors are under construction, nearly half of them in China.

The European Union generates more than 30 per cent of its energy from nuclear power. The US figure is 20 per cent and rising. In each of these countries the decision to go nuclear was a practical one, cutting across the partisan divide.

In Britain, it was Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, not a Tory, who described nuclear power as "a fundamental pre-condition of preparing Britain for a new world".

In the US it is Barack Obama, a Democratic President, not his Republican predecessor, who has committed more than $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for the next generation reactors.

Only in Australia does entrenched ideological opposition prevail. Only in Australia is the Prime Minister looking back down the time tunnel.

But, looking to the future, if Australia is going to be serious about meeting its carbon emission reduction targets, we must contemplate the nuclear option.

It is a message the International Energy Agency's executive director Nobuo Tanaka recently carried to Canberra: "If you don't use nuclear, totally renewable energy is very, very expensive, and also it is fragile in terms of its productivity."

It is a message that has for a long time resonated in Tanaka's native Japan.

With a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by an ambitious 80 per cent by 2050, Japan plans to build 9 new nuclear reactors by 2019 on top of the 55 already in place. For the leadership in Tokyo nuclear power is a proven winner and indispensable to a greener, cleaner future.

While Japan and many of our other regional neighbours including India, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and China have already embraced the nuclear concept, Australia can catch up.

The pre-eminent voice in the Australian debate, Ziggy Switkowski, chairman of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, believes Australia can have its first reactor operating by 2020 and 50 in place by 2050, providing 90 per cent of the nation's energy needs.

Such a move would propel us a long way towards meeting our emissions targets by 2050.

Developments in reactor technology are also occurring so fast that the construction phase is likely to shrink from 60 to 30 months in coming years.

New generation reactors will also be considerably smaller, built underground, and with the potential to be gas cooled, so they would not need to be located close to large sources of water.

Incidentally, Australian companies like Worley Parsons are involved in the construction of new reactors as in Egypt, where they are gaining an international reputation for their project management expertise.

Huge strides are also being made to dramatically reduce the amount of nuclear waste. Fourth generation reactors will burn most of the fuel, with the surviving waste having a half life a fraction of that produced by today's reactors.

Today's reactors are also significantly safer than their predecessors. The explosions at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were decades ago and since then there have been thousands of reactor hours without incident.

A comprehensive and informed debate about a nuclear power industry for Australia is long overdue.

It will require our Prime Minister to overcome the ideological bogies of the past and think of the benefits that will accrue to future generations.

If Gillard started to listen to Hawke and other senior voices on the Labor side, the pathway ahead for Australia would soon become abundantly clear.


Class warriors prepare to ambush private schools

Janet Albrechtsen

SO far it's just shots across the bow in what will be this year's political sleeper issue: the Gonski review into federal funding of schools.

Soon enough we will get a barrage of rapid fire from the teachers unions as they do what they always do when it comes to any talk about funding schools: cast aside inconvenient facts, ignore parental choice and wage a misleading war against private education.

Last Sunday, Fairfax's Sun-Herald joined the side of union leaders, trying to shock parents about fee increases at private schools, giving the last word to the Greens to complain about "ever greater amounts of government money flooding into wealthy private schools".

Flooding is extreme imagery at the moment. And quite deliberate. Submissions to the Gonski review are due by March. After that, the teachers unions' carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the evils of funding private education and the virtues of funding public education will get into full swing.

That's a shame. Funding our schools raises important principles ripe for discussion, recommendation and determination.

As then education minister Julia Gillard said in April last year, when announcing a review of the complicated, hotchpotch approach to funding schools, funding principles "should be based on simplicity, flexibility, stability, equity, value for money, transparency and best practice".

All laudable principles that the review will consider over the course of this year. Alas, Gillard either forgot or deliberately ignored another principle that has long guided funding of schools in Australia. The principle of choice.

To be sure, the threshold issue of choice was settled long ago. Australia has a fine tradition that mixes public and private investment in education. Plenty of parents have followed P.J. O'Rourke's basic observation that when you spend your money on yourself, you spend it much more wisely than when the government spends your money on other people.

The real question, now critical to the Gonski review, is whether we encourage parents to spend their own money on their children's education, whether we merely tolerate it or whether we actively penalise it.

By failing to mention the principle of parental choice to privately educate their children in her discussion paper and draft terms of reference, Gillard seems to fall into the "tolerate choice but don't encourage it" camp.

That, too, is a shame. Logic would suggest that once the state has used taxpayers' money to provide acceptable minimum standards of education to every child, it should then actively encourage parents to lavish as much of their own money on their child's education as they can. But this most basic logic eludes the cheerleaders of public education entirely, most particularly the teachers unions. Many of them actually want to punish parents who spend their own money (over and above their taxes) on their child's education.

That's because unions don't really approve of allowing private choice when it comes to parents spending their money on their child's education. For the time being, their class warfare means they want a funding model that penalises parents who choose to educate their children privately.

And misinformation is at the heart of this campaign. Consider the Australian Education Union's submission to the Gonski review about its terms of reference, in which it demands a "comprehensive, evidence-based analysis of both the state and federal funding mechanisms for non-government schools". On its face, that seems appropriate. The entire funding pie for each sector is relevant to any meaningful review of funding. Except that when unions compare public schools with private schools, they invariably look only at federal funding. And the reason is simple. Although education is a state responsibility and the states and territories provide the largest slice of funding to public schools, the unions don't want you to recall this inconvenient fact.

Instead, critics of private education use misleading figures to suggest government-condoned inequity - the rich taking from the poor in our schools. Take Trevor Cobbold, convener of Save Our Schools, who likes to highlight average total expenditure. In government schools in 2007-08 it was $10,723 a student, compared with $15,147 in independent schools and $10,399 in Catholic schools. It's true that total expenditure in government schools is about $10,500 per student. But now add the relevant facts. State and territory governments provide about 88 per cent of funding to public schools, the federal government provides about 8 per cent and parents the remaining 4 per cent. Almost the reverse funding pie applies to independent schools. State and territory governments provide just 12 per cent of the funding per student, the federal government picks up the tab for 31 per cent and parents, and the school community provides 58 per cent of the funding per student.

In dollar amounts, if you compare state and federal funding to government and non-government schools, as any meaningful review of funding must, students at government schools receive about twice the government funding received by students at non-government schools.

Fair enough. Parents who choose to educate their children privately accept that the bulk of the funding is private: they choose to foot the largest part of the bill to educate their children, with estimated savings to governments of $3.1 billion each year.

Still, teachers unions are committed to first reducing, then obliterating, any public funding to private schools. Their message to parents: if you can pay anything at all towards a private education, you should pay for the lot.

Union leaders may talk about equality of opportunity but their aim is equality of outcome: each Australian student attending the same kind of school, receiving precisely the same kind of cookie-cutter education. Diversity, usually such a fashionable word in the teachers union world, is taboo when it comes to schools and choice. Being an advocate of public education is a fine vocation indeed, except when it means becoming a specialist in dishonest and illogical arguments aimed at bludgeoning the federal government into giving less and less to private schools. No strategem goes unused in their attempt to strangle private education.

Imagine how refreshing it might be to hear an advocate of public education talk about the importance, too, of private schools within our education system. Imagine if this public education advocate recognised the need to encourage - not just tolerate, and certainly not penalise - parents who can afford to privately educate their children, to do just that. Imagine if the Gonski review said just that. And just imagine if the Gillard government agreed.

After all, telling hardworking parents who sacrifice in order to fund their children's education that the more they invest, the more they will be punished by a withdrawal of federal funding is no way to build an education revolution.


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