Monday, July 25, 2011


Four articles below

Tony Abbott says cabinet paper reveals Julia Gillard once backed Coalition's climate policy

JULIA Gillard faces new pressure over her climate change convictions as Tony Abbott seized on a report revealing she previously pushed for a bipartisan approach that didn't involve a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.

Mr Abbott today questioned what Ms Gillard stood for, saying her post-election carbon tax plan had been dictated by the Greens. “What that shows is that the Prime Minister's attacks on our policy aren't genuine,” Mr Abbott told ABC radio today. “It demonstrates that the policy that the government is currently adopting is Bob Brown's policy. Not Julia Gillard's policy.”

The Australian Financial Review reports that Ms Gillard, as deputy prime minister, had encouraged the Rudd government's “kitchen cabinet” to shelve plans for a carbon price in favour of other alternatives. The revelation is extremely damaging for Ms Gillard, who with Treasurer Wayne Swan urged Kevin Rudd to dump his emissions trading scheme.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister today said the government did not comment on cabinet processes, but did not refute the story.

Mr Abbott said it now appeared Ms Gillard had backed the Coalition's direct action policy.

“No-one can take her seriously,” he said. “The nearest we get to `real Julia' when it comes to climate change policy is the note that she gave to the inner cabinet just before she became prime minister herself where she said what the government should do is embrace the kind of policy the Coalition's got.”

The fallback position advocated in Ms Gillard's paper was rejected by the Rudd inner-sanctum.

Opting instead to defer any further attempt to legislate an emissions trading scheme until after the next election, Mr Rudd and his ministers thought Ms Gillard's proposal would hand Mr Abbott a political advantage.

In a paper titled “The bipartisan solution” , Ms Gillard reportedly urged senior colleagues to set aside contentious aspects of the government's climate change policy for so long as Mr Abbott remained opposition leader.

She reportedly lobbied for a new policy to achieve Australia's five per cent emissions reduction target by 2020 without pricing carbon, submitting the proposal for consideration to the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet.


Labor all tied up in red and green tape

There was a moment last week, as the Prime Minister was out among the people selling her breathtaking political gamble, when a woman asked Julia Gillard what other countries were doing about reducing carbon emissions. The Prime Minister rattled off various overseas reforms. China, she said, was leading the world in building wind turbines.

Gillard delivered this with the robotic sing-song she uses when she is trying to sell something. It does her no good.

Even by the low expectations of TV soundbites, her answer was an assault on honesty. The public has worked this out. The cartoon version of current politics is that the federal Labor government has sunk to an abysmal 26 per cent primary vote in opinion polls because of the unpopularity of its carbon tax. It is much deeper than that.

If this were a single-issue malaise for the government, a mere broken promise, Gillard could have worked her way out of trouble as everyone got used to a new tax regime after July 1 next year. She still may if her government survives that long. But her problem is more intrinsic and has been building for some time.

Let's go back to the Chinese wind turbines. Yes, China is building more wind turbines than anyone else and intends to dominate the technology, and many other new energy technologies. China has become the world's leading developer of thorium technology, touted as the next generation of nuclear power and infinitely cleaner.

Problem: China is also building coal-fired power plants on a massive scale, more than 30 a year, a program that dwarfs Australia's entire energy sector. So talking about wind turbines in China when coal, gas and nuclear power are the main game is narrowly true but broadly nonsense.

The Prime Minister and her government have a trust problem. Even a program as low-tech as providing roof insulation turned into a costly, dysfunctional blowout in the hands of this government.

Every signature reform the Rudd-Gillard governments have undertaken, from managing asylum seekers to building school halls to the National Broadband Network have seen wildly inflated costs.

Now comes the most grandiose scheme of all. Most people cannot grasp the detail of the proposed carbon tax scheme, but they can grasp the certainty that their power bills will increase by twice the rate of inflation, and sense the scale, cost and complexity of what has been proposed, and the track record of the people proposing it.

The prevailing lack of confidence goes deeper than political sentiment. It is reflected in poor consumer confidence figures and flat retail sales.

This decline is more than structural or cyclical. It is social, and reflected in the small business sector, the engine room of job-creation, which is stressed.

The carbon tax will simply add another layer of cost to business and consumers. The money being pumped in from the mining boom is masking a sluggishness elsewhere in much of the economy.

Gillard's carbon tax gamble will ensure the economy is bound in green tape, in addition to existing red tape, while making almost no impact on the global environment. The workforce of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency has already grown tenfold in the past three years. It now employs more than 1000 public servants.

This is just the start. The proposed carbon tax regime requires the creation of a Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a Clean Energy Regulator, an Australian Renewable Energy Agency and a Climate Change Authority. These agencies will have billions to spend. Funding will go to new programs including the Energy Efficiency Information Grants, the Clean Technology Food and Foundries Investment Program, the Clean Technology Focus and the Clean Energy Skills Package.

These bureaucracies will be charged with transforming the energy sector. Their great challenge will be to reconcile the cost chasm. Productivity Commission figures show the cost of electricity generation last year broke down this way: coal power $79 per megawatt hour; gas $97; wind, $1502; solar $4004.

Last month the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal announced electricity prices for residential and small business customers in NSW would increase by an average 17.3 per cent from July 1, or more than three times the rate of inflation.

One cause of the higher cost of electricity is government tinkering with costly alternative energy schemes. Other costs have been imposed by greater regulatory burdens, requiring expensive surplus capacity to prevent blackouts.

These higher costs flow through the rest of the economy, to basic needs. In January this column warned: ''You can expect sticker shock at some point this year, or next, when paying for the weekly food shopping. We've had oil shocks. Prepare for food shocks.''

At the time, the global Food Price Index, formulated by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation, was 215. Since then it has risen to 234, a 9 per cent increase in six months, and 39 per cent higher than June last year.

Ten years ago, the index stood at 92. It has risen 250 per cent in a decade. The world's food supply is under a stress that is growing, not diminishing.

Add to this the high and unstable cost of oil, rising energy prices, and the uncertainty flow-on from massive and unsustainable debt in western Europe, the US and Japan. Then wrap it all up in green tape. It adds up to Labor's brand of big government sliding into structural trouble.


Greenie versus Greenie

FOR most of architect Robert Marshall's working life he has prided himself on doing his bit for the environment by designing and building mudbrick homes. Sometimes humble and sometimes sprawling, the dwellings have served their owners well over many years.

The handmade mudbrick -- natural subsoil mixed with straw and water, and dried by the sun -- symbolises Earth's sustainability, green values and a low carbon footprint. From hippies putting up bush huts, to the well-off building impressive mansions, most agree on the insulation quality and energy efficiency of mudbrick.

"It's a beautiful way to live and nowadays everyone has to be thinking about the environment," says Julie McKellar, who will move into her new mudbrick home in December.

But her architect, Marshall, whose creations had previously achieved compliance with Australian building codes, and many others in the earth building industry, are now at their wits' end. Some are on the verge of admitting defeat to federal and state bureaucracies, which do not recognise the environmental value of the mudbrick.

Over the past eight years the rollout of increasingly stringent and mandatory energy-efficiency ratings for new homes has made it significantly harder for "muddies", some of Australia's most passionate environmentalists, to get building approval.

But since the adoption two months ago of the even tougher six-star rating, designed to limit carbon emissions by reducing the amount of heating and cooling required by homes, the earth building industry says it may be doomed. Marshall said the McKellar home could not be built under the new six-star regime. New rammed-earth houses are similarly affected.

Builder Stephen Dobson, of the Earth Building Association, told The Australian that the previous ratings made compliance difficult but that the new six-star rating was "decimating the industry".

"The star ratings have been a disaster for earth building and it is getting worse," he said. "Earth builders say now that the regulations make it too hard. The energy ratings are biased and based on models that do not assume real life -- they don't reflect the actual behaviour of people in these homes. As a result, the earth building industry is in serious decline."

The difficulty is ironic. According to independent studies, "muddies", and those who build with rammed earth, are often people with "eco-centric attitudes, values and behaviours". They use less power and have correspondingly lower carbon footprints.

While mudbricks have been a sustainable building material for thousands of years, they cannot readily satisfy energy-efficiency standards. Part of the problem is that the solid mudbrick wall, which is 25cm thick, does not rely on additional insulation, so it scores poorly when measured by official energy rating tools.

By contrast, the ratings tools give the green light to most new houses built with modern materials which have a much higher carbon footprint, having required large amounts of energy during manufacture.

"It is utterly frustrating because we know how environmentally friendly mudbrick homes are," Marshall said. "The carbon issue does not make sense -- making a mudbrick requires very little energy, unlike the manufacture of conventional building materials like a kiln-fired house brick, which require a huge amount of energy.

"In my view the bureaucrats have this all back-to-front. Their energy ratings do not consider the lifestyles and attitudes of mudbrick people, who are low-carbon emitters. Most mudbrick people are very concerned about the environment. They are as gobsmacked as we are that with the new six-star rating it is almost impossible to build their home unless we make significant design changes."

Sigmund Jurgensen, who lives in a mudbrick home built in the 1930s by his father, a founder of the iconic artists' community of Montsalvat, near Eltham, in Melbourne, described the situation as "absurd".

"We know that quite often the people who choose to live in mudbrick homes are much more anxious and aware of the environmental problems the world faces than people living in conventional homes in the cities," Jurgensen said. "I think it goes with the territory -- you want to build a mudbrick home because you care. I'm always concerned when the bureaucrats want easy and simple answers to difficult questions.

"To say that mudbricks do not achieve proper energy ratings is nonsense. What about the tiny amount of energy used to build mudbrick homes compared with the energy used in making house bricks and other materials?"

The Australian has previously revealed evidence of major flaws in the energy ratings system. The Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Australia, scientists and builders have raised concerns that the system is fundamentally flawed, potentially wasting billions of dollars to achieve compliance with no evidence of carbon reduction. The Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, which has publicly rejected much of the criticism, acknowledged to industry figures earlier this year that the system might need an overhaul.

The department is now commissioning a study to determine if its star ratings have ever been effective in reducing energy use. Its tender document states that the key objective of the study "will be a report that ascertains the actual benefits and costs resulting from the introduction" of the star energy-efficiency ratings. Intrinsic to the operation of star ratings as a measure of a house's performance is a belief that human factors -- primarily, how people use their heating and cooling -- can be standardised.

Terry Williamson, a thermal energy expert at the University of Adelaide, says the federal government's star ratings do not work while driving up the costs of more than 100,000 new houses a year.

"People who live in mudbrick houses use a lot less energy because they are more enviro-centric, but the building regulation looks at the physics of the building material, not the behaviours of the occupants," Williamson said. "The policy reflects a narrow concern about reaching objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and it means the mudbrick house, which is environmentally friendly, will be all but impossible to build."

Eltham resident Jenni Mitchell and her husband, Mervyn Hannon, believe it is ridiculous that their 26-year-old north-facing mudbrick house would not be compliant if built today.

"The notion that mudbricks are not good enough in terms of energy efficiency is a farce; it is bureaucracy gone mad," she said.

Richard Provan, who makes mudbricks near Kinglake in Victoria, hopes Australia's peak scientific body, the CSIRO, will retest mudbricks for their thermal qualities in a bid to achieve a higher rating. His business has "dwindled to the point of extinction" as a result of the regulations. "All the trades associated with it are being hurt because the interest is not there any more. Mudbricks are a good insulating product with a very small carbon footprint."


Play board games to prevent global warming??

AUSTRALIANS are being urged to play board games and snuggle up under a rug with a pet or their families to help cut power bills. On its LivingGreener website, the federal government urges switching off the TV and heater and finding old-fashioned ways of keeping snug and occupied.

"There are heaps of ways to have fun 'unplugged' - go retro and break out the board games or visit your local library and share the heating and computers with your community," the site says.

"To reduce the energy you use while watching TV, take another tip from grandma and share the warmth. Snuggle up under a rug, snuggle with your family or cuddle your favourite pet. You could avoid the TV and snuggle up in bed with a good book (or with someone who's read one lately)."

A spokesman for the Climate Change Minister, Greg Combet, defended the advice, saying many households were seeking tips on how to save energy. "Improving energy efficiency is a way households can help lower carbon pollution while saving money," he said.

However, the opposition climate change spokesman, Greg Hunt, branded the government's advice farcical.


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