Retrofitting Suburbia for Energy Descent Futures

Last week I attended the Eco-city World Summit in Melbourne.[1] On Friday, permaculture co-originator David Holmgren presented an ‘alternative keynote’ based on his forthcoming book RetroSuburbia. The session was arranged and chaired by Sam Alexander, Research Fellow in Sustainable Economy and Consumption with Summit co-organisers Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute. Sam invited me to join award winning landscape architect and urban designer Kate Dundas in responding briefly to David’s presentation. My brief was to drill down a little further into the energy context and implications for RetroSuburbia. Continue reading

The Unseen Cost of Travel

Back at the start of May I was invited to speak at a business networking event run by Moral Fairground on the theme ‘The Unseen Cost of Travel’, alongside Intrepid Travel co-founder Geoff Manchester and Janine Hendry of Reho Travel. The invitation came about as a result of my posts here last year on the climate impacts of air travel. My brief was to cover the implications of carbon offsetting.

Here’s what I had to say, under the rough title ‘Carbon offsets or carbon penances? What a finite emission budget means for air travel and tourism futures.’


For a period pretty much identical to my own lifetime, travel for most rich-world citizens has effectively been synonymous with flying. In broader historical terms that’s a very small blip, and I’ll come back to that at the end in thinking about how those of us who take climate change seriously might deal with the dilemma that commercial aviation presents. Continue reading

How do we transition to a renewable society?

Earlier this year, The Rescope Project launched with a forum series titled Regenerating Society, run in conjunction with the annual Sustainable Living Festival. The final forum, ‘Renewable Energy and Beyond’, focused on what transition to renewably powered societies asks of us and featured Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. Richard, speaking via skype, joined Rescope Project host Anthony James, Melbourne-based energy and climate researcher Andrea Bunting, and myself. The event was introduced by Brendan Gleeson, Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (see the note at the end of this post for news on The Rescope Project’s participation in the 2017 Ecocity World Summit, co-hosted by MSSI).

To kick things off, each speaker responded briefly to the framing question ‘How do we transition to a renewable society?’. Anthony then opened the floor for a wider conversation with the audience. Video of the full forum is available here. A slightly edited version of my own primer follows. Continue reading

Navigating the energy transition landscape: summary findings from a dynamic systems view

I’ve been asked a few times now to provide an account of the energy transition modelling featured on Beyond this Brief Anomaly over the past year or so, that goes beyond the very brief article for The Conversation in May, but that is more accessible than the detailed documentation provided in earlier posts here, here and here. The article presented here is intended to fill that gap. It’s based on the presentation I gave in July at a University of Melbourne Carlton Connect Initiative event on energy transitions, discussed in the introduction to this earlier post. The presentation abstract will serve for orientation:

Energy transition discourse in both the public and academic spheres can be characterised by strong and often fixed views about the prospects for particular pathways. Given the unprecedented scale and complexity of the transition task facing humanity, greater circumspection may help ensure collective efforts are effective. While significant attention has been given to the question of how to satisfy future energy demand with renewable sources, dynamic effects during the transition period have received far less attention. Net energy considerations have particular relevance here. Exploratory modelling indicates that such considerations are relevant for more comprehensive feasibility assessment of renewable energy transition pathways. Moreover, this suggests there may be value in asking broader questions about how to ensure energy transition learning and praxis is sufficiently ‘fit for purpose’. Continue reading

Flying in the face of climate science—Part 2: Air travel emissions in perspective

The first installment of this two-part series set out the case for why carbon offsetting is incompatible with serious response to climate change, and looked specifically at what this implies for rich-world attachment to air travel.

In coming to terms with why this does actually matter, there is a further basic question that needs grappling with: why should flying in particular be singled out for such scrutiny? It’s hardly the largest source of emissions overall, so why give it such weight? With carbon dioxide from aviation accounting for just 2 percent of total global carbon dioxide emissions (roughly 12 percent of CO2 emissions from transport, which in turn is 15 percent of the global total) the concern I’m expressing might seem thoroughly misplaced. Even for Australia, direct aviation emissions account only for 3.1 percent of the national total for all greenhouse gases (i.e. on a Global Warming Potential CO2 equivalent basis, rather than in terms of CO2 alone). I suspect this may in fact play a substantial part in why broader cultural attitudes diverge so sharply from my own.

There is a two-level problem with this apparently obvious but far too simplistic view. Continue reading

Flying in the face of climate science—Part 1

NASA released data last Monday indicating that the recent streak of monthly global temperature records has continued, with July 2016 being the hottest month since the modern temperature record commenced in 1880. Each month in 2016 has now been the hottest on record—in fact each of the last fifteen months running have now seen record maximum temperatures. The first seven months of 2016 averaged 1.3oC warmer than at the start of the record in the late nineteenth century. Arctic sea ice monitoring shows it at lowest recorded coverage for five out of the first six months of the year. 2016 is almost certainly on the way to being the hottest year on record.

It is now just seven months since announcement of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. That agreement supposedly paves the way for keeping global temperature increase during this century ‘well below’ 2oC, with hopes even of a more ambitious restriction to 1.5oC. This is viewed—rather arbitrarily—as the threshold for a relatively ‘safe’ global climate. In light of the current warming trend though, that mitigation task, regarded only last December as achievable by signatories to the Paris Agreement, seems already to have slipped from reach. Continue reading

The City as Commons

A broadly held view in the modern world is that economic relations are best governed by some mix of state regulation, and market-mediated exchange of privately owned resources. This tends to reflect a deeper assumption: ‘ordinary citizens’ are not well placed to collectively organise the managing of resources in which they have shared interests – left to their own devices, narrow self-interest will eventually lead to over-exploitation and deterioration of the resource. The dominance of states and markets in arranging economic life is, however, a relatively recent development in public policy thinking. And it was in the wake of Garret Hardin’s (famous or infamous depending on who you ask)1968 essay ‘The tragedy of the commons’ that the idea gained widespread popular appeal in liberal democracies.[1]

Today though, while the state-private duopoly continues as the dominant influence in economic governance, claims for its exclusive empirical validity or moral superiority no longer remain tenable. This is thanks in large part to the work of political economist Elenor Ostrom, co-winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for her work demonstrating that successful commons remain alive and well around the world today. There are many situations where resources held and managed in common by those relying on them to meet their needs are simply not subject to the fate ascribed by Hardin. Such management may even improve the state of a commons. Continue reading