5. Responding to climate change

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We need to find sustainable solutions to climate change that cater for the needs of people as well as the environment.

Our society is responding to climate change in many ways, including developing carbon trading schemes and offsets, changing to alternative energies and encouraging greater efficiency in our energy usage.

Questions you may want to consider:

  • What can governments, businesses and individuals do to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases?
  • Which proposed solutions have the best sustainable outcomes?
  • Does everything need to be money-driven?
  • Who decides which solutions will be adopted?
  • Who pays the cost?

Carbon trading

Reducing the amount of carbon dioxide produced by human activity is now recognised as a major challenge. One approach is to create a trade in carbon where carbon credits can be bought and sold. Carbon-trading markets are developed that bring buyers and sellers of carbon credits together with standardised rules of trade.

Carbon trading is one of the ways countries can meet their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nations that emit less than their quota will be able to sell emissions credits to nations that exceed their quota. It is also possible for developed countries within the trading scheme to sponsor carbon projects that provide a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in other countries, as a way of generating tradeable carbon credits.

Carbon trading markets can also be developed for businesses to buy and sell carbon credits. Many businesses, such as power companies and manufacturers, may have an interest in buying credits. On the other hand other businesses, such as those involved in managing forests or agricultural land, might sell carbon credits based on the accumulation of carbon in their forest trees or agricultural soils.

Carbon emissions trading has been steadily increasing in recent years. The World Bank has estimated that the size of the carbon market was 11 billion US Dollars in 2005, 30 billion in 2006, and 64 billion in 2007.

The Australian Government is currently developing a national emissions trading scheme. The scheme must:

  • be a cap and trade scheme to be internationally consistent
  • effectively reduce emissions
  • be economically responsible
  • be fair
  • recognise the need to act now.

Carbon offsets

Individuals and businesses can 'buy' greenhouse gas credits from projects that are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They do this to compensate or 'offset' the greenhouse gases they are releasing into the atmosphere as a result of their activities. Examples of carbon offset projects are tree planting, increasing energy efficiency in a business and collecting methane at a rubbish tip.

How can individuals and businesses reduce their impact on climate change? There are things we must do in life that will produce large amounts of greenhouse gases. Carbon offsets have been invented so people and businesses can take responsibility for the greenhouse gases their behaviour and consumption patterns produce.

Carbon offsets can be explained as if it were a type of credit card. When an activity produces greenhouse gases it becomes a debit. To pay off the debit money is given to an organisation that has projects that are reducing greenhouse emissions or capturing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The payment represents an amount of carbon dioxide.

Many individuals are conscious that some of their activities, such as flying to holiday destinations, generate a lot of greenhouse gases. The carbon dioxide emitted from planes is released much higher in the atmosphere than that from industry on the ground, therefore it has a greater greenhouse effect. Individuals may wish to offset their impact. They can do this by paying into one of many projects. Most of these can be found on the internet. The projects do not need to be in the country where the carbon dioxide was emitted. Some businesses, like airlines, will provide carbon offsets as part of their package.

The types of carbon-offset projects that are becoming available are:

  • renewable energy: The money helps renewable energy to be more competitive with fossil fuels. It can help in the development and construction of renewable energy projects.
  • tree planting: Some land management activities and tree planting can capture carbon dioxide. Some not-for-profit groups are able to expand their activities with tree planting using offset contributions. This approach only works where the trees are protected for many years so they soak up a significant amount of carbon dioxide.
  • methane collection: Rubbish tips produce methane gas which is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, than carbon dioxide. The methane that would otherwise enter the atmosphere can be collected and used as a fuel source to generate electricity. When methane (CH4) is burned for energy, carbon dioxide (CO2) is created. However, carbon dioxide has less greenhouse impact that methane, and we can also use the electricity.
  • energy efficiency: There are many ways to reduce the use of energy in private, public and business activities by installing more efficient heating, cooling, lighting and other equipment.

Carbon offset projects need to be analysed to make sure they actually offset carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon offset projects may become part of future carbon trading schemes.

Alternative energy

Most of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Wind, sun, water and nuclear power plants can be used to produce electricity and they don't produce carbon dioxide. Trials are being conducted to trap carbon dioxide from coal power stations and bury them underground. There are many ideas around about generating electricity like drilling underground into very hot rocks to produce steam to run electricity generators. However new ideas take time to develop and solutions are needed now.

Hydroelectricity

Water is held in a dam and the pressure of the water is used to drive electricity generators. Most rivers suitable for power generation have already been dammed. Damming rivers has many impacts on the environment so new dams are not the most sustainable choice.

Solar electricity

Solar panels can use sunlight to make electricity. There are some problems, for example, the panels do nothing at night time. One solution is for the solar energy collected by the solar panels to be stored in a battery system, and the 'stored' energy can be used at night when the sun is not shining. However building and disposing of current battery systems has its own environmental impact. At the moment, it is much cheaper to produce electricity from burning coal than by using solar panels, but as government and private investment shifts away from fossil fuels, solar will become more attractive as a source of energy.

There are many forms of solar electricity generation, including flat-panel photovoltaic cell arrays; parabolic dishes that provide concentrated solar energy onto high-efficiency photovoltaic cells; and concentrator arrays, which can turn water into steam that drives a turbine to generate electricity.

Solar heating

Using water-heating solar panels on homes is a good way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Homeowners will recover the cost of installation after a few years. Good home design using the sun in winter and shading windows in summer will cut the cost of heating and cooling homes.

Wind

The natural force of wind can be harnessed to generate electricity. It takes many wind generators to replace a coal generator. Making electricity from wind is cheaper than using solar electric panels and only a little more expensive than coal. In some rural areas, locals may have issues with their appearance in the landscape.

Nuclear

It would take Australia about 15 years to build a nuclear reactor. Climate change solutions are needed before then. Many people believe that nuclear power has too many other potential problems, such as waste disposal, and Australia should not build them. Without government support, this source of electricity is also expensive.

Carbon sequestration

Carbon sequestration is the capture of carbon dioxide from a coal power station by pumping it underground. This technology is very challenging. A large part of the challenge involves nitrogen, which is 80% of the air, and this needs to be separated before the remaining carbon dioxide can be hidden deep in the Earth. The Australian and Victorian Governments are jointly funding large-scale trials for one of the sequestration methods.

Geothermal

In a few places deep underground, the rocks can be extremely hot. With this concept, a hole is drilled into the hot rock. Water is pumped in and quickly turns into steam. The steam is directed through a different pipe into an electricity generator.

Biofuels

The principle is simple. Take large quantities of plant material, ferment it and remove the alcohol. The alcohol can be mixed with petrol. The US and European communities are moving toward a greater percentage of biofuel in their petrol. From a sustainability viewpoint, this may be a poor decision. It depends on what plants are grown and how they are grown. The USA is using corn to make biofuel and this may result in higher food prices and less food for people to eat. It takes energy to grow the biofuel. It may turn out that rainforests are cut down to grow the plants to make biofuels. Biofuel may also result in higher food prices and food shortages.

The biofuel of the future could be based on growing algae. These are the microscopic plants that grow in water. They can reproduce faster than most plants and do not need fertile agricultural land to grow.

The sky is the limit

There are many other ideas people are developing. It is impossible to say if any of these are of future value. Some areas of technology such as computers and mobile phones have advanced rapidly. Our energy supply systems need to be flexible enough to cope with new sources of energy as they are developed.

So how can you save money?

There is a very strong link between reducing greenhouse gas emissions and saving money. Many of the strategies for reducing greenhouse gases outlined in the scorecard will also reduce energy costs.

Appliances

Consider the energy efficiency of models when buying new appliances: that is, which models use the least amount of energy. Although the most energy-efficient models may be more expensive, in the long run they will save you money because they will usually be cheaper to run.

To help consumers, most major electrical products, such as whitegoods, have an energy star rating. This is in the form of a label stuck onto the displayed product.

To get the most cost-effectiveness from your appliances use them as recommended by the manufacturer. Their recommendations usually lead to efficient and cost-effective usage.

Think first before using an appliance. Is it really necessary? Are there other ways to perform the function that don't require the appliance? Can you think of ways of minimising use of the appliance? For example, it is cheaper to wash one full load of clothes than to wash two smaller loads of clothes. The same idea applies when using the dishwasher, or why not handwash dishes! Always turn off the lights in the house in the rooms you are not using. Turn off power point switches when you are not using appliances. Even if the appliance isn't on, it is using energy because the power point is still allowing energy to flow.

Transport

When buying a new car consider fuel consumption. Cars that are fuel-efficient are cheaper to run and also usually less polluting than other cars.

Keep cars well-maintained and serviced. Small regular costs on maintenance and servicing will help you avoid costly breakdowns. At the same time, well-tuned cars pollute less than poorly tuned cars.

Consider using public transport. Travelling on public transport is usually cheaper than travelling by car. Sometimes this doesn't seem to be the case if you are only counting the cost of fuel. But remember there are a lot of hidden costs in running a car.

Ride a bike or walk to get around and you get your exercise for better health at the same time.

Houses

You can save lots of money on energy bills by following simple energy-efficiency principles around the home.

In cold weather, the aim is to keep the heat inside the house. Putting insulation in the roof and walls is a great start. Keep out draughts by sealing cracks and gaps, fitting dampers to fireplaces and blocking unnecessary vents. If building or renovating a house, put in north windows to catch the winter sun. Instead of turning up your heater, put on an extra layer of clothing and a thick pair of socks, or use an extra blanket when you are in bed.

In hot weather, the aim is to keep the heat outside the house. Again insulation in the roof and walls is an important step. Also cut heat-flow through windows by shading them from hot sun and installing close-fitting blinds or curtains with pelmets. By closing some of the curtains in the day during summer, you can block out some of the heat from the sun, preventing the same type of greenhouse effect that happens with the car.

During summer, it can help to open up windows at night time to cool the house. Use a thermometer inside the house, and another one outside the house, to check how well your house is performing.

Money going up in smoke

Buying a car or new appliances is only the start of the expense. There is the ongoing expense of using them (running costs) and sometimes you will need to pay for them to be serviced or fixed (maintenance costs).

Often the running costs are hidden and not easy to work out. For example, using a computer game or watching television may seem free at the time, but someone has to pay the electricity bill at the end of the month!

The costs of running a car can also be difficult to work out. It all depends on the type of car and the amount of energy used. For example, it is far more expensive to use a four-wheel drive than a small car if they are driven the same distance. But if the small car is driven ten times as far, then it will be more expensive to use than the four-wheel drive.

Any car owner will be only too aware of the costs of regular servicing and repairs. Regular servicing means that the car will operate well with the lowest amount of polluting emissions, and will be less likely to break down – when repairs can be more expensive than the regular servicing. A well-maintained car will also have a greater resale value.

Think about it. We pay for the energy that comes from fossil fuels. Its use in turn generates greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution. Seen this way, it actually costs us money to pollute!

Product obsolescence

Why don't modern appliances and machines last a lifetime?

If you were able to travel back in time to the early years of the last century you would have found a wide range of appliances and machines 'built to last'. Everything from cars to plates and shoes were designed to give maximum service to the consumer.

How things have changed. These days almost everything is disposable and short-term – plastic bottles, razors, plastic bags, even many skyscrapers are built to last only a few decades.

Producing items that have a short life expectancy has been called 'product obsolescence' or 'inbuilt obsolescence'.

Consider three types of product obsolescence:

  • technical obsolescence: The computer industry flourishes on technical obsolescence. Computer hardware rapidly loses its value because new systems are being designed and built at a rapid rate. It is not unusual to hear that a computer item is obsolete before it is even released to the general public! As for software, companies have made an artform out of releasing new upgrades or versions every few years.
  • physical obsolescence: Designing items so they have only a short lifespan is one way of maintaining a market for the products. Standard light globes, batteries and nylon stockings are such items.
  • style obsolescence: Fashion often dictates the life expectancy of items – clothes, hairstyles and hobbies. Even ideas can be determined by fashion.

Product obsolescence may be good for business, but there is a down side – the dramatic growth in waste and rubbish created by our throwaway society.

Where do you stand on this issue? You may want to consider the arguments for and against this way of creating growth in our economy.

Is the cheapest always the best value?

Sometimes the most energy-efficient appliances are also the most expensive to buy. How do you save money in such cases?

To get a true picture of costs, you need to consider not only the cost of buying and installing the appliance (capital costs), but also the cost of running and maintaining it over its lifetime.

We will need to do a few calculations for you to decide.

Let's consider purchasing a new appliance. After a thorough investigation you discover the most energy efficient one costs $800. A similar, but less efficient model costs $750. You also find out from the manufacturer that each year it will cost you $150 to run the efficient model and $160 to run the less efficient model. The appliance is expected to last for ten years. See table on the next page.

Calculating true energy efficiency

Costs Energy-efficient model Less efficient model
purchase cost $800 $750
running cost each year $130 $160
running cost for 10 years $1,500 $1,600
Total cost over 10 years $2,100 $2,350

Notice in the table that it will be more expensive to run the less efficient model each year. Each year you will save $10 with the efficient model. In five years the costs for both models will now equal. This is called the 'payback' period. However, over the ten years the more efficient model will save you $250.

If you really want to save money when buying appliances then you do need to compare both the initial purchase price and the running costs over the lifetime of the different models.