Zero Carbon by 2030 at Sydney Town Hall

Last night we went to hear Peter Harper, Coordinator of Zero Carbon Britain, speak at the Sydney Town Hall. The topic was ‘Zero Carbon by 2030 – Britain’s dream or reality?’ As the advance publicity put it, Zero Carbon Britain is

a plan offering a positive realistic, policy framework to eliminate emissions from fossil fuels within 20 years. Zero Carbon Britain(ZCB) brought together leading UK thinkers, including policy makers, scientists, academics, industry and NGOs to provide political, economic and technological solutions to the urgent challenges raised by climate science.

Governments and businesses seem paralysed and unable to plan for a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy. ZCB shows what can be done by harnessing the voluntary contribution from experts working outside their institutions. The ZCB report, released in June 2010, provides a fully integrated vision of how Britain can respond to the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and global inequity, with the potential for a low-carbon future to enrich society as a whole.

(Download the PDF here.)

The talk itself was a great mood lifter. First, the setting: it’s hard to be gloomy about the future in the elaborate colonial prettiness of the refurbished Town Hall Foyer. Then the introduction by Robyn Williams, icon of enthusiasm for scientific enquiry: after an obeisance to current ABC pusillanimity with the mantra ‘I’m from the ABC and I have no opinions of my own’, he told us that the Science Show had broadcast three programs on Peter Harper’s base, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, over the years, and generated a lot of interest. The audience was great, producing a supremely lively, smart, on-topic Q & A: as one of my friends said, when an event receives this little much publicity in the mainstream media, the people who know about it are likely to know a lot about the subject.

Peter Harper is a scientist with style. He began and ended with photos of his granddaughter. ‘Why am I doing this?’ he asked at the start. ‘Because of her.’ He went on, ‘I often ask my great-great-great-granddaughter what to do next, and though she hasn’t been born yet, she’s a sharp tongued little hussy and says good things.’ He characterised the ‘leading thinkers’ who had prepared the framework as greenies and geeks, and put his argument for a strategic approach to climate change (as opposed to much frantic activity around short term projects that often turn out to be cul de sacs) with wit, warmth and a lucid slide show.

One of my take-homes is what he called the Canute Principle. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with British lore, he told the story of King Canute ordering the tide not to come in so as to demonstrate to his obsequious courtiers that there are limits to kingly power. The principle: ‘Physical reality trumps political reality.’ That is, there may be any number of political reasons not to act on climate change, or to take short term actions that lead nowhere, but any plan that aims to actually deal with the dangers needs to take account of the physical world. Let me say that again in bold: Physical reality trumps political reality. Isn’t that elegant?

2 responses to “Zero Carbon by 2030 at Sydney Town Hall

  1. This may or may not be the same guy I heard on JJJ talking about Europe’s general confusion with Australia for not adopting any kind of climate-change policy, seeing as we’re almost the largest per-capita polluters in the world.
    I’m increasingly of the opinion that if a carbon tax doesn’t work, then there simply needs to be some other spending of public money to reduce emissions and slow down (‘stop’ is too ambitious just yet) global warming. I think something draconian needs to happen … !

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    • Good comment, Franzy. It seems to be a common observation that whatever the rightwing commentariat and most of our politicians claim to think Australia is a long way from leading the field in cutting emissions or developing economic deterrents. The US may be inactive federally, but the state with the largest economy, California, has an emissions trading scheme.

      The Zero Carbon plan isn’t actually about reducing emissions to zero. Peter Harper talked about Powering Down, meaning reducing the amount of energy we use, mainly by becoming more efficient, less reckless, and Powering Up, meaning increasing the production of energy by non-carbon dependent means. The ability is there for Britain to have nett negative carbon usage by 2030. An Australian group, Beyond Zero Emissions, has recently produced a report demonstrating that Australia could have a zero carbon economy by 2020 – all it needs is the political will. Which I guess is where we come in. They are at http://beyondzeroemissions.org/zero-carbon-australia-2020

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