By Michael Mobbs…

What if the fuss over making rules to stop climate change was a waste of time? What if the rules would not make a difference, simply because they address the wrong pollution?

Let’s put to one side the self-aggrandisement we exhibit in this debate – that we humans know how to control Earth’s climate, even though we have never done it before.  (I think the only person who knows how to make it rain is the Wizard of Id whose king directs him to go to the beach without an umbrella when he wants to make rain.)

And let’s also ignore the fact that the rules being discussed will not take away the pollution we’ve already put into the atmosphere which, if the proponents of the new rules are to be believed, is what’s causing Earth’s climate to spiral out of control.

Those wishing to set strategies or to take practical actions to achieve sustainable use of energy, water and land need data about all the energy and water used. Without accurate data it’s unlikely the strategies or actions will be well chosen. If, for example, most actions and priorities focus on one set of data to the exclusion of another, and the data chosen is the wrong data, then it’s unlikely we will achieve sustainable use of water, energy or land.

Presently, for greenhouse strategy and actions, most data being relied upon by all three levels of government, and everyone else taking time off to talk to them, is for direct energy use.  In many documents, strategies, actions, there is no mention of the existence of indirect energy, and it’s not considered in any of the BASIX, First Rate, and other sustainability checklists.  “What, me, an engineer/architect/planner/builder/power plant owner, talk about food, or agriculture, or air travel…?”

Direct energy use is easier to measure because it can be counted with energy meters (for example in household and business energy bills), and so are trends.  The Weekly Greenhouse Indicator is a classic example: it only lists greenhouse from electricity generated by coal, gas and petroleum:

Indirect energy use is more difficult to measure.

It shows up in our minds, for example, in increasing fuel and food costs, but in many other cases it’s expended without measurement. Air travel for example, or council garbage tips or in agricultural land. Quantifying it accurately is difficult, and trends are difficult to count, too.

So, because it’s too difficult to measure accurately, we focus on things like our electricity bills and state how much greenhouse we’ve caused by using electricity.

But there are those who measure the big stuff, and who say clearly what really matters. Research by the UN, some parts of Australian governments (Victoria is doing some great work on food), CSIRO and universities is unequivocal; most energy used in Australian society is from indirect sources.

The University of Sydney says, for example:

In a generic sense, the combined direct and indirect requirements for energy, land and water all increase steadily with per-capita income, . . . There is little suggestion that the per-capita requirements saturate or plateau over the range of income data represented in the household expenditure surveys for Sydney. . . .

For the environmental management of households in Sydney, it is apparent that a policy focus on reducing the direct component of energy use, while laudable, is probably misdirected since direct energy use constitutes remarkably small portion of the total energy requirement over a range of incomes.

Inner Sydney and Eastern Suburbs statistical area
Energy requirement (GJ) per household              252
Per capita energy requirement (GJ)                        169
Goods, house, services, food (indirect energy)    93.5% of total expenditure
Goods, house, services, food (indirect energy)    66.1% of energy use

Fairfield Liverpool, Outer South-Western Sydney statistical area
Energy requirement (GJ) per household              375
Per capita energy requirement (GJ)                        96
Goods, house, services, food (indirect energy)    85% of total expenditure
Goods, house, services, food (indirect energy)     54.8% of energy use

requirements of Sydney households, Lenzen, Dey, Foran, Ecological
Economics 49 (2004) 375 – 399),

Or to put it bluntly; yes, sustainability devices like BASIX tries hard, but it misses the big energy uses.

NOTE: The biggest contributor to energy use out in western Sydney, or any outer suburb (see table)  is the consumption of fuel for food buying and transport and for work and leisure related transport – far greater than for household electricity.

Therefore any new home buyers are opting for higher living costs and with electricity prices rising at over 20 per cent a year across Australia their disposable income will decline rapidly over the next decade and in particular during the current poor financial climate.

The full economic story of the first home buyer’s subsidy is probably one akin to substance abuse – if most of those houses are far from food and work then they are being misled and exploited by government for the benefit of the new home builders who bear no responsibility in the system for seducing these folk too far away from food and work.

Michael Mobbs (pictured, right) is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. see:
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