People care, but baulk at paying
THE ‘‘ seismic shift’’ in Australian public opinion about climate change is encapsulated by a new poll in Queensland. Ninety per cent of 1,800 people in the state interviewed by CSIRO’s Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies now rate climate change as an issue vital to the country’s future — treble the reaction polls were eliciting nationally on the issue three years ago.
The Queensland poll is in line with a swathe of similar public opinion tests in the past year — last November, for example, Newspoll found that 92 per cent of those it interviewed did not believe the national government is doing enough to encourage clean technologies.
It is rare, says Queensland State Development Minister John Mickel, to find such a public consensus on any issue. ‘‘ This suggests a major shift in public thinking.’’ However, he points out, the rise in concern is not mirrored by public awareness of what is being done by government and industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nor, according to some market analysis, does it reflect the ability of consumers to identify where they can take effective action.
While strong public opinion on climate change may have an impact on the federal election due later this year, actual public behaviour on energy use — which along with commercial and industrial energy use will be what counts in cutting greenhouse gas emissions — tells another story.
What is truly in the mind of Australians on climate change may be reflected in a study carried out late last year by independent market analyst Datamonitor. In a survey of 2,000 households, Datamonitor found 81 per cent of customers would take up green energy options if they could pay the same prices as they do at present — but only 9 per cent would be attracted to do so if costs were 6 per cent higher.
The clash in the minds of Australians between emotional responses to environmental issues and the hard reality of paying more for energy at a time when many are highly in debt is not only a headache for politicians trying to win elections, but also for policymakers trying to pursue actual emissions cuts.
Residential electricity use in Australia accounts for only 28 per cent of total power consumption — less than that of energyintensive manufacture, which uses a third of national electricity production and employs 1.1 million people — but its inexorable rise is part of the emissions abatement problem.
Energy Supply Association data shows that in the three major consumption areas of NSW/ ACT, Victoria and Queensland, householder use of electricity has risen by more than 18 per cent, or the equivalent of the annual output of a 1,000 MW coal- fired power station, in six years. On the other hand, market demand for on- grid solar PV installations under the national subsidy reached a puny 700 kilowatts in 2006.
Nationally, residential customers are now consuming more than 57,000 gigawatt hours of electricity a year compared with 51,000 GWh in 2002 and 48,000 GWh in 1997- 98 when the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated.
Households and businesses in rural Australia beyond the reach of grid- connected power are buying 650 million litres of diesel a year to generate electricity.
Use of air- conditioning has risen from 33 per cent of homes in the 1990s to 60 per cent today. The energy supply industry estimates that more than $ 24 billion will be spent over the next 10 years on peak power plants, building new urban networks and upgrading stressed older systems..
In Adelaide, which is particularly ‘‘ peaky’’ because of bursts of extremely hot weather, $ 1 billion will be spent in the next five years on transmission and distribution expenditure, representing several thousand dollars outlay per kilowatt hour of demand.