But what happens to the trout?

It’s our economy, let’s use it

23 November 2009 – Water levels in the dam at Oberon, just west of Sydney over the Great Dividing Range, have fallen to 12 per cent of capacity, but the town will continue to share its water supply with the coal-fired Wallerawang Power Station.

“We don’t want to have a situation where we are drinking water but sitting in the dark,” Oberon Mayor Keith Sullivan told a newspaper reporter.

So is this what happens if we heed the call to be “reasonable” and balance the needs of the economy and the environment?

The policy at Oberon, which incidentally sports a Big Trout to celebrate the area’s great fishing, will continue until the dam reaches 5 per cent capacity, at which point the town will have exclusive access to the 12 months of water expected to be left. One assumes the policy then requires a “reasonable” approach from Mother Nature to provide some rain.

Maybe not.

This is not Orwellian fiction. As Bill Clinton might have said, “It’s the economy, stupid”. But the economy is meant to provide for us. Instead it could kill us.

As Copenhagen swiftly approaches and we’ve already had the first new “catastrophic” fire warnings of the summer season, maybe it’s time to seize control of the economy so that it serves us, not the other way around.

With any luck this could already be happening. At least in the property world.

At a string of conferences, seminars and other events on climate change and the built environment that The Fifth Estate attended in the past two weeks, the impression is that there is profound change under way. Business is excited about the prospect of making money from an environmental revolution. Better still, it’s working out how to do it.

This was clear at last week’s Profitable Sustainability in Property conference in Sydney, held in a partnership between the Australian Property Institute’s NSW division and the Australian Direct Property Investment Association.

Michael Friedlander, chief financial officer of one of the largest pension funds in the world, APG Asset Management Asia, showed how he made investment returns of 23 per cent by greening buildings, and how hard it was to convince others of the potential. [See Lynne Blundell’s report]

In his groundbreaking work “Doing Well by Doing Good,” Nils Kok showed how he proved academically that people would, in fact, pay more for green buildings. [See our main coverage]

And the creative French-American architect and planner Guy Perry showed how sustainability could drive economic activity in the most unlikely of places. He also revealed how in Poland shopping centres of more than 2000 square metres are banned because they are deemed unsustainable in the broad sense, and later how in the US shopping-land is readjusting to the real world by allowing 20 per cent of their malls to “go dark” – that is, to close.

But what do we do about climate sceptics?

According to leading scientist Tim Flannery, absolutely nothing.

Speaking at a Landcom conference in Sydney’s west last Wednesday (18 November) to launch a new sustainability rating tool for residential development, Precinx, Flannery pointed out there are climate deniers and there are people who believe the earth is flat.  You simply move on, the same as you with people who don’t believe in evolution, he said.

Speaking at the same conference Graeme Pearman, a former CSIRO climate scientist and adviser to Al Gore, reminded his audience that as well as the 173 people who died in the Victorian bushfires last summer, 350 people died in those few days as a result of the heat.

He also noted that Australia’s oil imports have risen from 20 per cent of total consumption to 90 per cent, at a cost of $10 billion a year, and we only have five days’ supply at any one time.

Disruption of oil supply would be catastrophic but “unlikely” to occur, said Pearman, smart enough to leave the “why not?” question to erupt spontaneously in the minds of everyone in the room.

What would happen if the oil supply did stop?

Probably quite a lot, “thought leader” and member of the Club of Rome, Keith Suter, told the same audience. “You can do things in a crisis that you can’t do at any other time,” he said.

At the Intelligent Grid conference, where City of Sydney City chief executive officer, Monica Barone was a guest speaker, one question (so often discussed) was how to convince householders and businesses to lower their energy use.

Would better education work? Tougher pricing? More specific metering or ratings systems for appliances?

But when Australians slashed their water use in response to the worsening drought, the authorities didn’t rely on a mechanism, or metering or eduction to change behaviour. What they used, around the country, were tough new restrictions: Level 3 restrictions, Level 4 and then 5. At Goulburn in NSW every litre of water was accounted for with households allocated a quota according to household size. It worked.

At Oberon, as the water levels continue to shrink, you can bet the town’s citizens might think the same tactics, applied to energy use, would be a perfect reasonable response.

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