Hunting for happy dolphins and ‘clean’ coal – Hallbarhet Day 2

The first day on the road got off to a fast and early start and continued the pace through the day. Although, you can’t complain about being too busy if your first appointment is cruising the beautiful Port Stephens for a cruise on the estuary looking for dolphins. These dolphins are worth seeing, in fact between the 90 of them, they bring in $40 million dollars of tourism income to the region. However teir happy lives entertaining humans are under threat due to the sheer volume of boats, and from a proposed new water treatment plant that would dramatically increase the level of nutrients in the estuary.

I enjoyed reconnecting with the sorts  of issues I used to deal with as a coastcare  facilitator, but also sensed I would get quite bored if I had to ever be restricted in the scope of my work to single-issue, conservation- focused  projects.

The new CSIRO Energy Technology research centre in Newcastle was the next stop, where the facilities host the research, but are also a research project in themselves. The solar tower, thin film panels and died titanium oxide wall coverings all generate power on-site. While the whole intelligent building design is not new, but is not something I have personally seen close up. The neat integrated automatic climate control system incorporates user feedback accounts for human psychology and even the clothing that occupants are likely to be wearing at different times of year.

I was happy to visit this site, and proud that CSIRO was doing some cool stuff. But, as we drove off I also had the feeling that it was also a monument to the lost opportunities when Australia was leading the world in solar research, and decrease in freedom and funding of the CSIRO in past decades.

Then, dashing off to the Tom Farrell Institute at Newcastle University, set up to be a credible voice for the region as well as research and run projects that may be relevant to other similar regions in the world. John Rodger of the institute introduced Dr Joe Herbertson of Crucible Carbon. Dr Herbertson emphasised useful distinctions between environmentalism that focuses purely on impacts, versus a sustainability approach that emphasises value over impact. I was happy to here this, as it is the way I often introduce sustainability, especially referring to maximising satisfaction of human needs within ecological constraints.

He also presented some information and perspectives that challenged those who only think simplistically about the transition period from our current unsustainable energy and agricultural systems to sustainbility. Specifically, he warned against seeing coal as ‘evil’ versus understanding the challenges and opportunities related to such unsustainable practices. He provided examples of how coal could be complemented by burning biomass and pyrolitic processes to generate carbon neutral or ‘net negative emissions’ energy. The resulting materials, such as biochar, can then be used to increase agricultural productivity. It is these technologies and applications that were featured on recent online and television reports in Australia.

During the following presentation, I witnessed and participated in a very interesting clash of cultures and worldviews. The general manager in charge of operations at Delta energy, Chris Horner, presented their strategy and thinking on the short and medium term future of coal. Some of the grunts and shifting in chairs hinted at the audiences distaste for some of his company’s strategies, and there were many questions that challenged the assumptions underlying their priorities. For example, Delta energy are projecting ongoing increases in energy demand, while Professor Broman from BTH cited Swedish studies on the 50% decreases in industry energy demand after simple efficiency changes. Chris didn’t believe what Goran was describing was possible.

Ultimately, I think it was quite a challenge for our group to a) understand the context in terms of the nature of Australia’s economy (coal exports being a major earner) and b) being willing to accept that the context, understanding of the system, and strategic options can not be reconsidered.  Whatever Chris doesn’t understand that we do, it is our chosen role as sustainability professionals to be intelligent about engaging and working with those whose knowledge, behaviours and impacts we wish to affect. I really enjoyed it, and really appreciated the opportunity to hear from someone like Chris and especially from someone like Joe Herbertson.

Their presentations provided more than enough food for discussion during the subsequent bus ride to Pittwater and a hostel set in bushland on an isloated headland….

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