World like leaky boat: Australian expert

All will sink, says Tim Flannery.

Hyderabad: Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery believes the world is like a leaky boat because of climate change, doomed to sink unless all countries work together to save it.

Mr Flannery was in Hyderabad on Tuesday to deliver a talk on climate change organised by the Australian Consulate in Chennai, and Manthan, a city-based forum.

A scientist by training, Mr Flannery has been chief commissioner of the Climate Commission, an independent body set up by the Australian government. Today he leads the Australian Climate Council, the country’s largest crowdfunded organisation. He has taught at Harvard University and advised the Australian and Canadian governments.

As a conservationist and mammalogist, he has been credited with naming over 25 living and 50 fossil mammal species.

In a freewheeling conversation with Deccan Chronicle, he spoke about the need for more renewable energy, water and food security and why nuclear power might be a thing of the past. Excerpts:

Could you tell us about the purpose of your visit and what you wish to accomplish by it.
We are at a particular moment in the climate crisis that we are seeing significant impacts worldwide. Over the next few years, we will see increasing impacts across the world, especially in India. The important areas here will be food security, water security and sea level rise. I hope that through my meetings and talks, I will provide bureaucrats, politicians, and the youth with an information base to work on.

It has been said that developed countries, whose activities have led to the most pollution, are not taking an active interest in addressing climate change. What is your assessment?
Historically, yes. Developed countries have been the cause of most pollution. However, we must realise that the earth is like a leaking boat. Unless all countries work together, it will sink. There have been intergenerational injustices as well. There are a lot of inequalities. But, this moment if for bailing the boat.

How do you think India is doing in terms of addressing climate change?
I think India is doing reasonably well. You have decreased your energy intensity, you’re starting to decarbonise your grid. But the government’s approach has largely been incoherent. It does not offer a better future. Not enough has been done on food and water security, and sea level rise.

You have batted for 100 per cent renewable energy. But can developing countries such as India and China practically hope to pull millions of people out of poverty without using thermal energy?
Clean energy — solar and wind — is the cheapest form of energy right now. This is true here in India as well. You wouldn’t build a coal-fired power plant today unless it was subsidised. In a few years, with more adaption, costs will come down even further. It will probably be cheaper to construct and run a solar power plant than a thermal plant.

The reason coal-fired plants continue to survive across the world today is because they are heavily subsidised. Also, the first electricity that Indians who do not have it will get will be solar.

You had earlier talked about a ‘Darbon Dictatorship’. Could you explain this concept?
I fear that if some countries do not take corrective measures, the threat will become so big that some countries will become carbon dictators. These countries will force others to adhere to emission targets. We are not at this point today. Today, emission targets are voluntary. But this future is very much possible.

You were once a proponent of nuclear energy. Have your views changed?
In the past, nuclear energy may have formed an acceptable solution from a climate perspective. Today, it is not economical. The rapidly dropping costs of wind and solar energy mean that no one in the future will ever finance a nuclear power plant. The government may do it, but a private enterprise will never do it.

How can countries address the displacement of jobs in the thermal power sector?
One has to look at the example of Germany. The country had a huge dependence on coal in the past, but recently they almost shifted entirely away from it, without losing a single job.

They have done it using mine site remediation (repairing the damage done by mining) and also by using mines as sites for energy storage. As you build clean energy systems, you actually create jobs. This is clear from the examples of Germany and Australia.

What can India do in the short term to address climate change?
First of all, encourage solar and wind energy as much as possible. Next would be appointing a climate commissioner. This person’s job would be to raise the level of education on all aspects of climate change.

One can also look at setting up a state-owned clean energy entity. Today, the majority of clean energy entities in India are private.

Also, a State-owned entity needs to be there to compete with State-owned thermal plants.

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