The deadline fallacy. What decarbonisation needs to learn from conservation.

How long does it take to deliver a worthwhile change? How, in the face of uncertainty, do we decide to act with structured positivity? I have been pondering this as part of my elation at a wonderful conservation announcement in my home state of South Australia. A coalition of government and conservation bodies will undertake an ambitious rewilding programat Innes National Park, at the southern tip of Yorke Peninsula.

Image credit, The Wildlife Conservancy. This is a woylie.

Image credit, The Wildlife Conservancy. This is a woylie.

Dubbed a ‘great southern ark’, this is a tangible response to the extinction crisisunfolding around us. This coalition identified the potential to progressively fence off a 170,000 ha area of the peninsula, working from the southern tip, to exclude the introduced predators and grazers that wreck such havoc on native Australian ecosystems. The staggered, scientifically structured return of furry ecosystem engineers offers a tantalising vision - flourishing Australian habitat in an area that was once devastated by agriculture, poorly-managed mining, and predation. 

 It's a stunningly good plan. As fiercely pro-conservation, Bright New World congratulates all those involved! [1]This ought become a template for further conservation programs across the Australian mainland.

 It is a ‘bold, risky’ proposition, according to Head of Living Ecosystems from WWF, Darren Grover. No one can be sure exactly how this long-term vision will play out. Ten years in the planning, an anticipated 20 years in the execution, then upkeep and maintenance…forever. It is thanks to their vision that I might one day visit with grandchildren of my own and tell the story - a brave, smart idea to act today for a brighter future, even in the face of the unknown. 

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This brings me to the philosophical arguments about how we should tackle climate change, and the effort, by some, to impose arbitrary limits on our options.

 I recently wrote, (in poorly disguised irritation), about the intervention of Climate Council in the discussion of using nuclear technologies in Australia. They cautioned their audience that nuclear power stations take on average a decade to build, and ‘Australia cannot wait this long to replace our aging fleet of coal power stations’. 

 Notwithstanding that their figure was fallacious and misleading, they don’t say why we cannot wait more than 10 years to receive an environmental benefit. The argument is likely a local variation on the global theme of ‘we only have X years to deal with climate change’

 At this point, I will tread carefully, lest I be misunderstood[2].

I stand for deep, rapid decarbonisation of the global economy, and concomitant reforestation/afforestation, with other technology-based means, to draw down atmospheric CO2. I stand for this because I am deeply troubled by the implications of the climate change we are calling down upon ourselves, and deeply troubled at just how badly we are failing to decarbonise- despite the availability of nearly all the necessary tools and processes. I am fully aware of the benefit in early mitigation over later mitigation, given the avoided warming impacts of a swifter path to decarbonisation.

I also assert that setting arbitrary timelines/dead-lines and cut-off dates for achieving decarbonisation is wrongheaded and unhelpful, even though the underlying science is very important indeed. This deadline argument it is commonly redeployed from a message about greenhouse emissions, climate sensitivity, thresholds, tipping points, and a lag in impacts, to instead form a self-serving argument in an ideological battle against our most effective decarbonisation tool – nuclear technologies. I defer to Michael Marshall, who said it so well I won’t attempt to top it:

They are certainly correct to emphasise that climate change is an extreme threat to our civilisation and that we need to take urgent action. But the claim that there are 12 years until the point of no return is at best questionable, and at worst actively confusing. The reality is that there is no such cut-off: just a problem that gets worse and worse the later we leave it.

The implication in this ‘deadline’ argument and how it is deployed is that any clean energy that comes on line post, say, 2030 is fundamentally pointless – because it’s already too late. 

This is patently ludicrous. 

The global population is set to grow until beyond mid-century. Not even everyone alive today yet has acceptable energy access. Today’s global energy supply is dominated by fossil fuels (80% of primary energy consumption). While the mix changes, the total proportion of fossil has barely budged in two decades while total consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, have both shot up. Power stations of all sorts will reach end-of-life. Of course we are going to need new clean energy delivered beyond 2030[3]. We can bet our houses that when the next ten years have passed us by, we will commission renewable energy projects without anyone saying ‘too late, don’t bother’. Deploying the deadline argument selectively against nuclear technologies is fallacious to the point of absurdity.

Marshall speaks of ‘urgent’ action. So did Alex Trembath in rejecting a call for panic, calling instead for ‘a controlled sense of urgency’. The Great Southern Ark rewilding is a conservation plan acting with a ‘controlled sense of urgency’. Ten years in the planning, twenty years in the delivery, for an outcome that will last for as many generations as we choose. Thank goodness these conservationists were not hamstrung by arbitrary deadlines, as are so many misguided (or disingenuous) climate activists. 

 We still could hold them hostage to the clock, of course…Imagine that in 2025 modelling demonstrates that with >99% certainty we will miss the near-term IPPC emission targets for confidently staying within 1.5 degrees. Should we de-fund the Great Southern Ark because, you know, we’re completely stuffed so there’s no point?

Of course not. Those conservation projects are building resilience that we are going to need no matter what happens next in energy. If anything, we should be identifying other locations for the same type of project and attempting to plan and fund them into existence at the same time. Who says we can only make one rewilding zone in the next 20 years? 

That project operates from a powerful conviction – hope for a better future. 

We need that, and the same controlled sense of urgency, in our decarbonisation. We have dozens of avenues in which to ‘act now’ including many energy projects that can be realised relatively quickly. While doing so, nations can also invest the time required, with a controlled sense of urgency, to establish a nuclear power sector for the future, and to protect and extend the clean energy supply they already have. Thank goodness many are doing exactly that. History proves a determined nuclear sector can then bring clean energy online very rapidly indeed – in fact, nothing has ever been faster. If that happens anew at the same time as we intelligently deploy other zero-carbon generation technologies, we might be able to break that record. Acting to constrain our options is the worst possible step to take right now - we need to open ourselves up to the possibilities of decarbonisation. We need to think big.

If we want reliable clean energy that has near-fully displaced unmitigated fossil fuels, then we are bound by the same truths that will give us comprehensive, representative rewilded conservation zones. 

The best time to act was 20 years ago.

The second-best time, of course, is now.


[1]Big shout out to Australian Government National Landcare ProgramSA Department of Environment and WaterNorthern & Yorke NRM BoardWWF-AustraliaFAUNA Research AllianceBirdlife AustraliaZoos SAConservation Volunteers AustraliaYorke Peninsula TourismLegatus GroupRegional Development Australia – Yorke Mid NorthYorke Peninsula CouncilPrimary Industries and Regions SAAg Excellence AllianceGreening AustraliaTrees for LifeNature Conservation Society of SA; Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation

 [2] By some, altogether deliberately and with malice aforethought. Continually ‘misunderstanding’, ‘misconstruing’ and then ‘misrepresenting’ me despite my best efforts at clarity, is the M.O. of some.

[3] Take just one example – Kenya. With a population of just under 50 million, it has installed electrical capacity of approximately 2,250 MWand consumes about 9,500 GWh per annum. That’s not dissimilar consumption to South Australia, population just 1.6 million, consumption 12,200 GWhper annum. The scale of that disparity is astonishing. Kenya is developing its renewable energy generating capacity, notably geothermal. It is also preparing itself to deploy nuclear power. Kenya will be adding new power capacity well beyond a 10 or 12 year deadline. 

Ben Heard2 Comments