Monday, 18 November 2019

More thoughts

Yesterday I mentioned how hot it was here which led to some comments regarding climate change. Australia is the direst inhabited continent on earth (I've excluded Antarctica). It has one of the lowest carbon emissions footprints based on land mass. However it has one of the highest carbon emissions footprints per head of population. The reason for this is the majority of Australia's electrical energy is powered by coal. Australia is blessed with vast deposits of coal. One estimate is the coal reserves will last at least another 200 years.

Australia is a major exporter of coal. I recall counting the bulk coal ships waiting off the port of Newcastle during one flight. There were 56 ships waiting to enter the port. The coal trains run from the mines 24/7, loading and unloading on the move. They even refuel the locos and change the crews on the move. Much of the coal goes to China. More recently India has become interested in Australian coal and an Indian company is attempting to open a huge coal mine in Queensland. The environmentalists are protesting against that. However the State and Federal governments welcome the investment, jobs and royalties. The argument is; carbon emission in India is an Indian problem.

Many Australians would like to move away from coal and the energy companies are not investing in new coal fired power stations. Actually they are not investing at all whilst they wait for a coherent long term government energy strategy. Australian governments regularly change with each political party having its own agenda. One consequence of this is the national strategic energy strategy constantly changes or reverses. A power station has a life of 50+ years so the energy companies wait... and wait!

The State of South Australia decided to invest heavily in renewable energy sources and decommissioned their coal fired power stations. The State relies internally on solar and wind power along with power from other States via a large cable. Unfortunately this has resulted in electrical shortages. No sun or wind equals no electricity. Meanwhile the other states are sweltering in a heat wave; meaning there's no "spare" electricity to send to South Australia.

As mentioned at the beginning; Australia is very dry. Water is a critical resource. The major river systems flow through various States and each takes the water it needs (wants) resulting in water shortages downstream. The issue is exacerbated because Australians have a serious reluctance to drinking recycled water. A Labor government in South Australia attempted to partially rectify the water problem by paying for a hugely expensive water desalination plant. It's actually so expensive to run that it's been mothballed most of its life. Here in Perth 48% of the city's drinking water comes from desalination. The rest is from dams (rainwater 7%) and groundwater. It's unlikely the city will run out of drinking water as more desalination plants could be built. However we would need to find the electricity to run the plants. The problem is the lower quality water required for other uses (industry & agriculture). Most of this water is drawn from a huge aquifer underneath greater Perth and it's being exhausted. We need to do more recycling.

Back to the current bushfires. I fail to see the logic in implementing a policy of capturing carbon by maintaining conservation forests only to have them burned during bushfires? Surely the carbon just goes back into the atmosphere?

The Australian Aborigines were a nomadic people who used fire to manage the land. By burning off the "fuel" lying on the ground it flushed out their food (lizards, kangaroos, etc). Moreover the seeds of numerous Australian plants will only germinate if exposed to fire. The newly burned land would then regenerate with fresh tasty plants that attracted animals... for the aborigines to hunt. This continual "light" burning of the ground was both sustainable and beneficial.

Roll the clock forward 200 years and the conservationist object to the controlled burning of the land because it destroys the habitat for the native fauna and creates carbon emissions resulting in climate change! As a consequence Australia has vast tracts of land where the ground is heavily laden with tinder dry fuel just waiting for a spark. Too much fuel results in enormous heat with temperatures that destroys the ground. In some instances it will be sterile and won't regenerate for a decade or more.

It's early spring and the bushfire season isn't supposed to start for another month. But we have major fires across a wide front. This is going to be a very long bushfire season and already there are two major issues. The first is managing the human resources required to fight fires for a prolonged period. The majority of rural fire fighters are volunteers. Can they be expected to continuously fight fires for months instead of days? The second is equipment. It used to be the case that there was a northern hemisphere fire season and a southern hemisphere season. These occurred at opposite times of the year. Water bombing aircraft just moved between seasons. This year the season has started early and the north-south seasons are overlapping. Aircraft usually don't extinguish bushfires.... they contain them allowing ground resources to extinguish them. Hard decisions are currently being made with many of the fires in isolated areas being left to burn whilst limited resources tackle those threatening human habitation. It's likely the more remote fires will burn until extinguished by autumn rains.

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