Transcript

A talk with Tim Flannery

31 July 2008

tim-flanneryTim Flannery

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 12 Mb].

Matt:

I'd like to welcome you today to the La Trobe University Podcast. Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, it all depends on where you're standing! Joining me today is a man who needs no introduction but considering it's a podcast we're going to give him one anyway. He's a well known and respected scientist, Australian of the year 2007, an alumni of La Trobe, and for that alone he's a winner in our books, plus if you believe his wikipedia page he's the body double for Billy Joel on his next Australian tour. It's Tim Flannery, thankyou for being here Tim, let's give him a round of applause from the studio audience.

Tim:

It's a great pleasure, thanks very much, Billy Joel, eh?

Matt:

Yep, you got your tour all worked out? He's coming in November.

Tim:

(laughing) I have no idea!

Matt:

Got some questions here for you, thought we'd start off with something applicable to what you're here today, you're here doing a talk at the Beechworth campus of La Trobe. What is your view of the idea of carbon sequestration, and is there a benefit, and what could be the risks involved?

Tim:

Well look, in my view carbon sequestration is likely to be expensive, dangerous, and absolutely necessary. And the reason I say that is if you look at the amount of money that's being invested in places like China, in conventional coal burning, they have built something like 8,000 megawatts of brand new coal fired power capacity over the last decade or so. They're not going to walk away from that, we're going to have to retrofit all of that with carbon capturing storage. I think that China's built itself into a difficult situation as Australia has, because while conventional coal is cheap, carbon capture and storage with coal is likely to be expensive so they've built themselves into a future energy scenario that's very expensive so there is no choice. And so we've just got to make it work. It's likely to be dangerous because while parts of the Earth's crust is probably pretty good for storing gases under pressure and we know that from methane and so forth, there's other parts that aren't so good and there's likely to be leakage. As I said, expensive, dangerous, but absolutely necessary.

Matt:

And what is carbon sequestration?

Tim:

Carbon sequestration is a process whereby you capture the carbon dioxide that comes from the smokestack of a coal-fired carbon plant for example, compress it, and pipe it to somewhere, a well, and then inject it into the earth. And you hopefully inject it down far enough, and in the right sort of geological region so that it stays there.

Matt:

Okay, and that's going to be dangerous to do, is it? But the carbon's got to go somewhere, it's got to be dealt with somehow.

Tim:

Well what else are we going to do with it? Unfortunately we've gone so far down the road of coal that we have no choice in the matter. And what's really morally invidious about this is that the coal people have lied to us for decades now about the dangers of climate of change. So they've been spending millions and millions of dollars misleading people like you and I and other members of the public on this issue, particularly in the United States, and now we've got to turn around and give them billions of dollars to get their act together. It's not a morally satisfying position to be in but it's the absolute reality of the circumstances that we're in at the moment.

Matt:

Is Australia looking at this to phase it in maybe?

Tim:

The Rudd government has offered half a billion dollars to start the sequestration off. That's probably a tenth of what's needed to get it moving at scale in Australia. The coal industry, they're doubling their profits, they're getting twice as much now as for thermal coal as they got a year ago, three much as times for coking coal, and yet they're still putting no money into this, or not enough in. Putting some in, but not enough, anywhere near enough to get this process running. So we are going to have to give them more money despite the great profits they're making to get this thing moving. But our future depends on it. We have no alternative but to get carbon capturing storage working at scale in the very near future.

Matt:

What's done with carbon at the moment? Is it just blown off into the atmosphere?

Tim:

Put off up into the atmosphere, yeah. And everyone suffers the consequences.

Matt:

My next question is that the Murray Darling River System is already suffering through drought and overuse What do you think the effects of ongoing climate change is going to be to it?

Tim:

We're already seeing the effects of ongoing climate change in the Murray Darling Basin. That system is what's known as an evaporation controlled river basin, which means that the feature that affects stream flow more than any other is evaporation. And in the Murray Darling Basin if you get on average say a hundred mills of rain ninety mills of that go up in evaporation and only ten mills actually go down the river. So as we warm the atmosphere and warm the soils those evaporation rates of course go up. It doesn't take a lot of warming to push those evaporation rates towards ninety-five percent or ninety-nine percent. So what we're seeing at the moment in the river system in my view is the result of climate change more than anything else. Most people don't realise this last year when we've had almost no stream flow we had normal rainfall in the catchment. It's not just a problem of rainfall, it's a problem of the balance between evaporation and streamflow.

Matt:

From reading your work, you can be described as having a great love of Australia as the land, the land and the bush. When were Australia's glory days, the time when it was at its functional peak, and what would it take to get the country back there?

Tim:

As a continent, an ecosystem?

Matt:

As a continent, yeah.

Tim:

Well it was probably in it's glory days, and I would define it's glory days as the days when it was productivity was absolutely maximal. This is when the system was working very efficiently; nutrients were being recycled very rapidly…

Matt:

It was sustained?

Tim:

Yeah, it could support more biomass, more kilograms of life sustainably than any other time. It was probably around 50,000 years ago.

Matt:

Okay. So pretty much before human occupation at all.

Tim:

That's right. Once you take the big animals out of the eco-system you break the links that keep it productive. So in Australia's case once the Diprotodons went extinct and the giant kangaroos and whatever, you broke a link. And you can imagine, just think about the ecosystem as a bank. And a Diprotodon going along and eating some grass, forty-eight hours later putting that grass back onto the paddock as a lovely great big Diprotodon pat, and the dung beetles and everything digging all that stuff back in and returning nutrients to the soil. That's like an ecosystem where a dollar changes hands every minute. Whereas if you get rid of the Diprotodons and the grass just grows up and eventually, after a year or two, burns and all the nutrients are lost to the atmosphere, that's an ecosystem where a dollar spent once a year and out of that fifty cents doesn't come back into the system again.

Matt:

Pretty much we can't get back to days like that, can we?

Tim:

Yes we can, we must.

Matt:

We must? How would we go about doing that?

Tim:

Well, in the short term we can use large grazing stock, with dung beetles and all of the rest, which will have to be imported now because Australia's dung beetles are extinct, we have to bring in overseas ones. So we can start mimicking those systems and we can use kangaroos and whatever else. But I think if you take the longer term view, we actually need to start rebuilding the building blocks of those ancient ecosystems. And maybe one day a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, genetic engineering will let us start doing that. But we need to start moving towards integrated systems again that are very very productive rather than the disrupted ecosystems we deal with today.

Matt:

Well is there some way that Australia; the land and the people that live in it; can somehow come to some sort of arrangement, to live in harmony at all?

Tim:

Well we've come to some sort of arrangement at the moment…

Matt:

It's not a very good arrangement on Australia's part though!

Tim:

It's a very bad arrangement on both of our parts because productivity is low, and soil fertility is dropping, we're losing our water, so it's clearly a very bad deal for all concerned. That's why our job is to build a sustainable future by starting to understand these ecosystems and starting to work towards what will inevitably be a slow and difficult process of bringing life back into balance.

Matt:

Much of the work that needs to be achieved to bring about any sort of change in Australia needs to be done by the politicians and maybe the large corporations as well, they need to lead the way and they need to take the initiative to do that. Is there anything that the people out there in podcast land, the listeners, the normal people at ground level…

Tim:

See I have a bit of a different view on that I think governments set the conditions that allow for success or not. You know, so that if we have a well regulated political system and a well regulated market place, business can make an impact. But of course individuals can make an impact as well and it's my firm view that nothing ever changed the world except a few good well intentioned and effective individuals. Businesses are built often around the vision of an individual. So if we can somehow use our own individual capacities to try to use human intelligence for the benefit of the planet, that's the fundamental thing. In our everyday lives it could be as simple as not wasting electricity. I was just reading that if you leave your gamestation plugged in, you could be wasting $250 worth of electricity a year. By just having it on standby.

Matt:

What, without having it turned on?

Tim:

Yeah, just by having it on standby. $250 worth of electricity, how much carbon is that, how many tonnes of carbon?

Matt:

You could buy a new gamestation for that.

Tim:

Exactly. So that sort of thing is really important, I think, people realise that we are individuals imbedded inextricably within the living matrix of our Earth. And the things that we do have a big impact on Earth, cumulatively. We're all individually perhaps small impact, but cumulatively a big impact when there's 6.6 billion of us. So being responsible for your own emissions is probably a pretty good place to start.

Matt:

And what was your belief in the effectiveness of Earth Hour?

Tim:

Earth Hour was fantastic, and I didn't even anticipate what it would do. I thought we'd save a bit of electricity over that hour, big deal, but it was much more than that. Because what Earth Hour really did in the end was let people see a dark sky. It slowed them down a bit. All the lights went off, you could enjoy a candlelit dinner, you could see the stars. All of a sudden it started putting people in touch with nature again. I think that was an amazing gift. And the fact that it spread from Australia in the first year, a few million, to a hundred and fifty million the next year, and this year they're aiming at a billion people, into China and India, that is a huge gift. I think it's very important as sort of a moment of reflection. It's very important.

Matt:

Now this is a question that I personally wanted to ask you. Have you ever lay awake at night wondering what sort of dinosaur used to live right where you're sleeping. Because I know I've done that, and I think to myself ‘probably a Muttaburrasaurus, something like that'. Have you ever done that?

Tim:

Not so much for dinosaurs funnily enough but I've done it for the giant marsupials.

Matt:

Well you're going to do it tonight!

Tim:

Yeah, exactly, for the dinosaurs! But I've thought that this countryside here, the basic elements haven't changed much since the Diprotodons were here. So the hills and the rivers and everything were all in place as they are today, the same gumtrees were there, the kookaburras are the same that were in the trees. But instead of cows there were Diprotodons and giant carnivorous kangaroos, and all sorts of bizarre creatures that we couldn't even imagine today. And I've often thought about that, about what was living right there where I was sleeping or walking, walking down Swanson St thinking that that little bit of a hill there as you go up, what was walking up that forty or fifty thousand years ago.

Matt:

Yeah, it would have been a great environment to be around at that time. Probably not a safe one, but it would be interesting!

Tim:

Yeah, well, you're right, but it's like anything you could get used to living there. It's amazing when you think you say not safe, I've been in the African savannah and seen twelve year old Masai boys with their herd of goats and the lions just creep off, you know? There's an understanding, an accommodation is reached between everything that lives together, we understand each other, so safety is as much a matter of learning what the danger is as anything else.

Matt:

Last question. Do you think there's a difference to what you can do as a person? Do you think there's disadvantages and advantages to being in the public spotlight as much as you are?

Tim:

Personally or in terms of just work?

Matt:

In terms of work.

Tim:

In terms of work there are advantages and disadvantages. I'm not a politician so I can't make political decisions. You always try to do your best and call it the best way you can, but inevitably all of us make mistakes as you go on. And in the end you just hope the good outweighs the bad.

Matt:

Okay. Tim Flannery, thankyou for your time today.

Tim:

It's a pleasure, thankyou.