The Seaweed Solution and the ‘Silverbuckshot’ Approach

Kelp Drying King Island

A recent Catalyst show on ABC TV featured Tim Flannery of the Climate Council put forward a ‘silver bullet’ solution to climate change. Cultivating fast growing seaweeds would draw down the CO2 in the atmosphere thus mitigating greenhouse enhanced global warming. Flannery wrote about this in his Atmosphere of Hope (Text, Melbourne, 2015) when he said:

“Seaweed is hugely productive, outstripping the fastest growing land-based crops many times over in its rate of growth and CO2 absorption. Globally, the potential scale of seaweed farming is 600 times greater than any other method of cultivating algae… One study asserted that seaweed farming could produce 12 gigatonnes per year of biomethane, while storing 19 gigatonnes of CO2 per year directly from biogas production, plus up to 34 gigatonnes per year from carbon capture of the biomethane combustion exhaust gas. All of this would come from seaweed ‘forests’ covering and area equal to 9 per cent of the world’s ocean surface.” (p.41)

In the TV show Flannery emphasized the carbon captured by the seaweed dropping to the deep ocean floor where it would be permanently stored. He also outlined many of the problems facing such a massive project such as the problem of nutrients required for seaweed growth in the open ocean.

Personally although the optimism associated with Flannery is a breath of fresh air I have a problem with concentrating on a single solution – the ‘silver bullet’.  Washington and Cook in their Climate Change Denial (Earthscan, London, 2011) talked of the ‘silver buckshot approach’. They noted:

“Climate change also impacts on almost everything we do – whether it’s water use, food production, forestry, house building or industry. If we accept the reality of the problem how do we go about solving it? Hume refers to what have been called ‘wicked’ problems, a term derived from cultural theory. Wicked problems have no simple solution…Rather than just one ‘silver bullet’ to solve the problem he suggests silver buckshot. No single solution is sufficient (Pittock 2009). The silver buckshot are the multiple solutions one applies to the problem. We agree that solving climate change – and the underlying environmental crisis it is a symptom of – will require several different approaches, a number of ‘silver buckshot’. (p.119)

The ‘silver buckshot’ solutions are manifold. I prefer options that can be implemented immediately in our currently hostile political environment like planting trees or installing rooftop solar. Many other possible ‘silver buckshot’ have been suggested by organisations such as Beyond Zero Emissions. Carbon sinks including soil carbon, fast growing trees, mangroves, biochar, CO2 absorbing cement (recently proposed by BZE) are among the suggestions. Some of these were mentioned on the Catalyst program.

There is a need to work simultaneously on a wide range of solutions some of which will be far more successful than others. On the other hand applying a ‘silver bullet’ like Flannery’s seaweed solution, whilst ignoring the CO2 we keep putting into the atmosphere with our coal-fired generators, cars and forestry operations is a recipe for disaster.

Controlled Burns, Asset Protection and Climate Change

(Weekly Times)

A long press release from the Burning Issue symposium held recently in Bairnsdale (see below) made the front page of the East Gippsland News (6.9). By far the most important news in this event came from keynote speaker Dr David Cheal who relayed the findings of research done by P. Gibbons et al after the Black Saturday bushfires indicating that asset protection beyond 40 metres of the asset being protected was of little or no value.

He stated the research: “Used the 2009 wildfires in the Kinglake-Marysville region, modelled fire behaviour and loss of houses versus fuel characteristics (a very simple consideration of shrub and tree cover, particularly within 40m of houses, and planned burning within 5 years, so most sites in sclerophyll forests, at housing interface)” and that “modifying fuel levels could reduce house loss by 76-97%, but close to the houses, not in the wider landscape.”

David Cheal continued: “All fuel treatments were more effective when undertaken close to houses.  For example, 15% fewer houses were destroyed if prescribed burning occurred at the observed minimum distance from house (0.5km) vs. the mean distance of 8.5 km.  The results imply a shift in emphasis away from broad-scale fuel reduction to intensive fuel treatments close to property will more effectively mitigate impacts.”

The importance of this should not be lost on the authorities – that most of the ‘controlled burns’ currently conducted in Gippsland and elsewhere are, in terms of asset protection, useless and a waste of resources. Unless, of course, the asset being protected is the timber in logging coupes. It is clear that if we are to meet our climate commitments in Paris, both the logging of native forests and using fossil fuel for energy generation must be phased out as quickly as possible. In particular many of these forestry practices, for instance clear-fell logging in coupes and controlled burns, were instituted and well established before we became aware of the threat that global warming posed. To borrow the title of Naomi Klein’s book – “this changes everything” for forestry in Victoria.


Revisiting the Carbon Tax


I have written a number of times on how the carbon dioxide producing industries are getting a free ride by not being charged for the CO2 they produce – in particular for Gippsland the brown coal generators in the Valley and the loggers in the bush. For the latter with a nominal price of $30 per ton of CO2 emitted I have calculated that each hectare logged on average has at least a $50,000 subsidy (see The Burning Issue below).  Recently one commentator has suggested that a carbon price of $100 per ton of CO2 may be required to achieve the moderate goals of the Paris Agreement. There are a number of different proposals in the mix as to how to tax CO2 including the straight carbon tax, cap and trade and James Hansen’s Fee and Dividend.

We have already had a carbon tax of sorts under the Gillard Labor government. With hindsight this attempt failed for a number of reasons. It gave special treatment to certain industries, such as the brown coal generators, and the CO2 production of motor vehicles was in the ‘too hard’ basket and not taxed at all. But probably the main reason it failed was the completely inept sale of the ‘tax’ hardly mentioning climate change at all. The government would have done far better with a well-funded apolitical campaign educating the public on the greenhouse effect and the problems we all face with increasing CO2 rather than the justifications they used – now completely forgotten. It enabled the Opposition leader to dominate the campaign against the tax with the strong support of the Murdoch media.

The Guardian noted of ‘cap and trade’ that “a cap on emissions is set and then permits are created up to the level of this cap. The companies or other entities covered by the scheme need to hold one permit for every tonne of pollution (CO2e) they emit.” A form of this was first posed by the Rudd government in 2008 and supported by Turnbull as opposition leader, but was defeated when Turnbull was ousted from his position by Tony Abbott. Abbott with the support of reactionaries and climate science deniers in the Liberal Party rejected the emissions trading proposals and so Federal parliament sadly lost the opportunity for bipartisan action on climate change.

The ‘fee and dividend’ has been advocated by James Hansen for many years. Basically it taxes all forms of fossil fuels at the mine, well-head or port (the fee) which is then distributed equally on a regular basis to all the citizens of that country. In particular Hansen advocates that the collected ‘fees’ be paid out in their entirety meaning that it is not a tax as the government gets no part of it. It is a ‘carrot and stick’ approach where those who use more fossil fuels pay more and those that use less are rewarded. In theory at least this should appeal to people of all political persuasions, assuming, of course, that they accept the science of climate change.

Why a single issue climate party is necessary

I am sometimes criticised when I claim the Renewable Energy Party is the only registered single issue climate party in Australia. ‘What about the Greens?’ I am frequently asked. Some with strong ‘green’ loyalties even see single issue parties such as the REP as a threat and not as an organisation trying to achieve similar goals. Whilst it is obvious the Greens have by far and away the best ‘climate’ policy of all the major parties they are certainly not a ‘single-issue’ party as they have a range of ‘other’ policies on the issues we are facing.

Many of these ‘other’ policies are unrelated to the problem of climate change and frequently they obscure it completely in the day to day political ‘argy bargy’. The animal liberation movement for instance has some influence on their policies and many farmers and country people confuse these groups seeing the greens as closet ‘animal libbers’. Rightly or wrongly the greens are also seen as a party of the left and are therefore unable to fulfil one of the most important requirements of a single issue party – that it appeal across the political spectrum.

This appeal should be centrist and not left or right. The party should equally appeal to the conservative as to a green or labour voter.  The ‘climate’ party should be working to influence the political process and setting the political agenda rather than aiming to get people elected to parliament. Quite possibly some candidates will eventually be elected if the mainstream parties continue to ignore the issue.

The question remains as to how best to influence the political process. My preferred option is to target the climate deniers in parliament, to take votes off them and make their seats unsafe or vulnerable, even, at best, losing them. To do this you need an attractive or well-known candidate, a sympathetic media and a substantial budget – preferably all three. Further there is the thorny question of preferences. To maintain the centrist position a three-way split ticket is probably necessary and divided between those for whom climate change is an overriding issue and Labor and the Liberals. And yet to achieve the end result the preferences need to be directed away from the climate change deniers.

The seats that should be targeted are becoming increasingly obvious such as those of our ex-PM, our current deputy PM, and a large chunk of the Liberals and Nationals. The party should, as a matter of course, support climate independents in seats they are not contesting. They should also not contest seats in which a strong climate candidate already exists, such as Tony Windsor in New England.


Tipping Points and the Climate Emergency

We occasionally see the term ‘tipping point’ in the mainstream media when discussing climate change. Frequently it is misused to describe change or abrupt change and various analogies are offered to describe it. One from a Melbourne ‘safe climate’ activist described it as slowly pushing a wineglass full of wine away from you. At a certain point gravity takes over and the glass crashes, spills and breaks.  As this analogy indicates the ‘tipping point’ is a ‘point of no return’. It is the change from one state of climate to a new one and from which there is no going back.

Barrie Pittock in his Climate Change (CSIRO Publ. Melb. 2005 pp.37-8) quotes Richard Alley, chair of the Committee on Abrupt Climate Change who wrote in 2002: “Large, abrupt climate changes have repeatedly affected much or all the earth, locally reaching as much as 10 degrees C in 10 years. Available evidence suggests that abrupt climate changes are not only possible but likely in the future, potentially with large impacts on ecosystems and societies”.

Pittock notes that Alley is writing about “abrupt climate changes that can occur when variables that are gradually changing push the earth across some instability threshold. He likens this to how the slowly increasing pressure of a finger can flip a light switch from off to on” and it “should be added that such a switch cannot readily be turned off again, due to large delays or inertia in the climate system: it is more like one of those sensor switches used for lighting, which can be turned on by some sudden movement but only turn themselves off in their own good time.”

The possibility of a ‘tipping point’ being passed threatens our civilisation and our lives. Whether the threat is the high wet bulb temperatures which I have mentioned previously here and here that makes parts of the earth uninhabitable, whether it is catastrophic sea level rise as posited by James Hansen (see below), whether it is the continuous drought that created the Syrian crisis, floods of biblical proportions or some raging bushfire that eats around the edges of our cities consuming homes and lives we cannot know. Quite possibly all of them may affect us one after another. We do know that global warming is an existential threat and, if people stopped to consider, realise we are in a climate emergency.

With hindsight we should have been acting on the momentous challenges posed by global warming and climate change thirty years ago. It is definitely time to act now.


The Magic of an EV by Russell Peel

Traralgon EV charging station

Since there are now charging points for Electric Vehicles (EVs) in Traralgon, Sale, Bairnsdale, Metung and Marlo (for Telsa EVs anyway), you might think they have arrived.  In fact we are still in a very early stage which relies on early adopters who are willing to perhaps be at the bleeding edge.  And EVs are in no way all alike, they cover the full spectrum from mundane and practical to exciting/exotic/ultra-expensive, so whether or not to consider an EV depends on what you are trying to achieve.

If you have the means, and don’t mind taking a risk with your money, the currently available Tesla S is a new type of transport.  They are so unlike a regular fossil fuelled car they can’t be directly compared.  They are smoother, quieter, much simpler to drive, much simpler to make, much simpler to maintain, and just fun because of the instantaneous thrust of an electric motor.  You can’t sense how different without actually driving one, it feels totally different to a conventional car.

However, and unfortunately, the rest of the EV pack is less far less exciting, and although somewhat more affordable, in no way an attractive proposition compared to a conventional car, yet!

If your aim is to be environmentally responsible in the present, it is also difficult to fill your EV with renewable electrons to reduce your global warming impact.  To use your own solar energy you need to be prepared to spend thousands on a solar system at your house, plus an inverter, and unless you want to leave your car plugged in and going nowhere when the sun is shining, you also need a separate battery to time-shift the power.  And even if you purchased a 10 kWh battery for your home, it would only top up about 10% of the car’s capacity each night (50 kms of range), these cars have big batteries that take a lot of charge.

So at the present time you are still dependent on the electricity grid to charge your car, and in Victoria that means you are using brown coal generated electricity.  Even though an EV is very efficient, the overall CO2 emission is not as good as, and certainly no better than, an efficient diesel powered conventional car.  So, you aren’t going to save the environment by buying one either, yet!

What you are doing by buying an EV now is accelerating the future.  If no-one is willing to accept the financial penalty and potential inconvenience of owning an EV, then no-one is going to make EVs, and then there is no future change.  Someone needs to step up and be at the leading/bleeding edge, and it could be you!  It hurts the wallet to buy a Tesla, but from then on it is fun, fun, fun and about 500,000 people have already made that decision, that is the size of Tesla’s order book.  Yes there are other EVs around, but they are in a different ball game and difficult to find anyway as they are a dalliance of a fossil-fuelled car manufacturer who is just putting their toe in the water.


King Canute and Sea Level Rise

In primary school more than half a century ago we were taught a distorted version of King Canute and the tides. The king, the story went, was very foolish having his throne placed on the sea’s edge at low tide and commanding the tides to stop, which of course, they did not. Canute’s action was almost certainly the opposite of this story – he was demonstrating to his followers and acolytes that he was not omnipotent and no matter what he said or did he could not stop the tides. His was a wise rather than a foolish action. More recently I used the correct version of the fable in a speech at the declaration of the polls in Sale (in 2013). The point of the speech was that natural laws takes no note of human endeavours, and that our inaction on the best science on global warming was going to land us in deep trouble.

I have been warning of the problem of sea level rise that the Gippsland region faces for some time. Five years ago I wrote a long essay “The Gippsland Coast in 2100” and have modified or updated parts of it on 3 further occasions. The problem with making predictions of this sort is at least twofold. The sea level rise on the Gippsland coast is a steady 3mm a year, hardly discernible by human observers over the short to medium term. Almost all the predictions are based on the rate of doubling of the rise and much of this is guesswork as, as far as I am aware, no such rate has been satisfactorily established. There is also the possibility of abrupt change which cannot be included in any modelling or predictions.

The most well-known of climate scientists is James Hansen. His recent predictions, for a worst case scenario, are now about 2.5 metres. See here and here. Every one of the estimates I made in my 2012 paper are within this figure except the worst case figure of over 3 metres for the catastrophic scenario, and it should be remembered that I was factoring in a certain amount of coastal subsidence into the equation as well. It should be noted that no significant subsidence has been detected on the coast.

Unfortunately in large parts of the western world power is in the hands of those than deny the science of climate change. To not take note of the basic physics – the greenhouse effect has almost as long a science history as gravity – is pure folly. The ignorance, or deliberate deception of many of our politicians on this issue is appalling. Where, oh where, are the Canutes of our time, to try to get us out of the mess our politicians, egged on by the fossil fuel industry, have made of this huge problem?

Our sea levels continue to slowly creep up. If it takes 10 years for a container of water to be filled with the amount doubling every year, after 9 years it is still only half full.

The Burning Issue

I have been asked to present a brief talk on burning and climate change to the Community Fire Forum in Bairnsdale today. Presumably I have been asked because of my frequent pieces here on the burning question in Gippsland. By necessity I must emphasize that Climate Change is much more than an environmental problem.

As I have outlined here frequently I consider it an existential crisis threatening the whole of humanity. I intend to go through the basic physics of the Greenhouse Effect with the brief history of Fourier in 1827 whose calculations suggested the earth should be 30 degrees colder than it was (without the greenhouse effect the earth would be a ball of ice) through the important works of Tyrell and Arrhenious emphasizing that we work on best science.

The greenhouse effect means that as the gases are increased the temperature of the earth increases. The last 10,000 years, known geologically as the Holocene has seen benign temperatures in which civilisations developed. Since the industrial revolution with the combustion of coal, and later oil as an energy source, the greenhouse gases have been steadily increasing and the average temperature of the earth is rising. There are a number of eminent scientists – James Hansen, Peter Wadhams – who consider we are already in a climate emergency.

So what has this to do with our forests? Forests are one of the major stores of carbon on the planet. When burned – like fossil fuels – they produce greenhouse gases. All burning produces energy, usually in the form of heat, and carbon dioxide. There are currently a number of burning practices involving the local community which produce greenhouse gases – controlled fuel reduction burns, logging coupe burns and bushfire prevention and control.

Most of these practices were established well before climate change was seen as a problem. Now it is obvious that the practice of clear fell logging is essentially harmful with their contribution of greenhouse gases outlined below. The practice only continues because of the status quo and the influence of big business. With regards controlled fuel reduction burns, once clear fell logging is terminated the need for it will be considerably reduced. The question remains whether these burns protect the forest from severe or crowning bushfires. No doubt there will still be the need for some burning for protection of property and person.

I have used the example of the burning of logging coupes in a recent blog. There I calculated that for each hectare logged of mature ash forest and with coupe burned produced a minimum of 1700 tons of carbon dioxide. If a nominal value is placed on this pollution of $30 per ton as in the carbon tax, then the value, or subsidy if you like, is over $50,000 per hectare. Multiplied by an average coupe size of 24 hectares sees a ‘value’ of over one million dollars.


In Praise of Trees

Tree Planting Diary 2009

In 1999 I wrote an article with the same title for a different publication.  This article listed food production, windbreaks and six other benefits that trees provide for us. It concluded: “Planting and nurturing a tree is a positive act in terms of humanity (as others will benefit from your act), the environment… and even in personal power. It is an act of love for the earth, nature, your fellows and yourself.” The article was primarily about planting and reafforestation though it did mention our native forests as “a thing of beauty”.

However it just made a single mention of perhaps the most important benefit – forests as a carbon store. Growing trees as a carbon sequestration is, as various memes in the twittersphere point out, the only form of carbon capture and storage that actually works. For some years whenever I found a massive tree I would measure its circumference and make a rule of thumb calculation as to how much carbon was stored in that particular tree. The calculation was done by measuring the tree circumference at shoulder height then applying this figure to a table to give a return of carbon in kilograms stored. For example a young hardwood tree with a circumference of one hand (28cm) indicated a carbon storage of 33 kilograms; a circumference of 4 hands (100cm) more than 1 ton of storage and a very large tree with a circumference of 3 arms widths (5m) stored about 90 tons of carbon. It is easy then to comprehend that mature ash forest store more than 1900 tons of carbon per hectare.

Shade from trees and their cooling effect is another aspect relevant to a warming climate. Using trees in towns to help mitigate warming is something I hope to look at soon. In the meantime various government departments appear to be doing their best to destroy and remove these precious assets. I have blogged on the need to cease the logging practices of this government which destroys large areas of these stores and produces prodigious amounts of greenhouse gases. This is done to protect a small number of jobs making clear fell logging doubly damaging to our climate. Other departments are clearing trees such as those along little travelled roads for flimsy reasons such as fire protection.

Trees should be protected and preserved to the best of our ability. Severe penalties should be applied for any illegal removal. No tree should be removed without a very important reason and for each tree felled by necessity one hundred should be planted in its place. Landowners should be compensated for forests protected on private property. Planting and protecting trees is the easiest cheapest thing you can do to at least partially offset your personal contribution of greenhouse gases. If you have any space plant now, nurture them, and replace those that die.


The Scorecard – Energy Rating by BBSN

(1st published in Sustain July 17 Newsletter of the Baw Baw Sustainability Network)

The Scorecard is an Australian-first home energy rating program. The Scorecard will enable you to obtain a star rating for your home, in the same way as a fridge or washing machine has a star rating. The star rating is a representation of the running cost of the fixed appliances in your home. It will guide you to make home improvements efficiently and cost effectively.

Accredited assessors can be engaged to deliver a Scorecard assessments for a fee. They will use the government supported Scorecard web tool to rate the energy efficiency of your home’s construction, fixed appliances and other key features such as solar PV energy production. The two page rating certificate also recommends upgrade options to improve your home’s rating.

The Scorecard also rates your home’s performance during hot weather. This important feature helps you understand and improve the comfort of your home in summer.

Many Victorian homes have high energy bills simply due to the way their home is built. The Scorecard will help householders understand and improve this performance.

The program is being rolled out through not for profit organisations only this year but is planned to be open for commercial release sometime in 2018. BBSN is engaged already and we have one accredited assessor with 2-3 more in the process of applying. We are currently offering a Scorecard rating as part of our home assessment service so if you’d like to have your home done, please contact Malcolm on 0417 364 615 or at

The cost is $250 but if you are a pensioner, health care card holder, in community housing or on an energy concession there are subsidised programs available now and into 2018 that mean you can access a Scorecard assessment for free. Contact Malcolm for these too.  More information is available here.