George Wilkenfeld

on Tuesday, 15 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Issues Motivated Leadership

George Wilkenfeld
George Wilkenfeld and Associates
George Wilkenfeld

George Wilkenfeld, with a PhD in Environmental and Urban Studies from Macquarie University, Sydney, joined the Energy Authority of NSW in 1982, and left in 1989 to establish George Wilkenfeld and Associates.   In the 1980s he set up the national appliance energy labelling program, and in the 1990s, he pioneered mandatory minimum energy performance standards. 

In 1995 he co-ordinated the first major review of the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Methodology.  In 2004 he helped set up the national water efficiency labelling program.   

He compiles the electricity sector of the Inventory every year, and regularly undertakes analyses of the inventory as a whole for the Australian Greenhouse Office. 

George Wilkenfeld has written many articles and spoken passionately about his understanding of what is happening and what is at stake. In the quote below, Wilkenfeld talks about the historic development of Australia's energy systems and the paradigms that underlie the thinking behind them.

INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE WILKENFELD

From your understanding, can you state what level of climate change do you envisage occurring in the short and long term future?

I am not an expert on the science of climate change, although I have enough of a general scientific background to follow the general arguments and find them persuasive.  I read the Assessment Reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (http://www.ipcc.ch/ ) and the climate projections for regions of Australia published by the CSIRO (http://www.csiro.au/science/ClimateChange.html) and I get very worried.  I think the climate is already becoming warmer, dryer, more variable and more extreme: higher maximum and minimum temperatures, more intense rainfall (but less rain overall, making collection and storage more difficult), high wind events, more fires, more violent and more southerly hurricanes.

This will affect every aspect of our lives - where and how we live, what food we eat, what diseases we get (as dengue fever moves south, for example), how and where we travel.  Less tangibly, it will affect the natural world around us - many species of plants and animals we have grown up with and which make up our mental landcape as much as our physical world will vanish in our lifetime, at least from the wild.  Also, as countries less rich and fortunate than Australia are at greater risk of being overwhelmed by drought, rising sea levels and starvation, much of the world will be far less pleasant to visit than it is now.  Goodwill between nations could become very stretched indeed.  

And we will have done all this to ourselves.   

What types of myths and half-truths do you consider governments adopting to mask their inaction?

It is not just 'their' inaction - it is ours.  In democracies we get the governments we deserve, and their actions (and inactions) reflect the deepest views of their electors.

Governments in the West get elected largely on the promise of increasing and maintaining material prosperity, and they are given a very short time to perform.  Occasionally, an immediate security threat (or perception of threat) intrudes for a while on the relentless push for economic growth.  Planning has become a dirty word - more and more is left to the operation of the market, and oversight of the market is limited at best. Competition between special interest groups has taken the place of agreed social goals.

This model is exactly the wrong one to deal with a threat like climate change, where the only effective solutions must be centrally planned, sustained, and involve some material sacrifice in the short term.  Our governments (and oppositions) are reflecting back to us the myths and half-truths we want to hear:

  • that whatever we do as a country is not significant - others must act first, or shoulder more of the responsibility than us
  • that the solution will be incredibly difficult
  • conversely, that it will be easy, and we can continue to live more or less the way we do now, with a few token gestures (buying 'carbon credits' when we book air travel!)
  • that we can leave it to the market, without co-ordinated planning
  • that simply giving out taxpayer money to special interests groups (whether the coal lobby or the renewable energy lobby) is effective
  • that there is such a thing as 'clean coal' or that nuclear energy is a realistic solution
  • that we can still have cheap energy and endless material growth

What do you think are the major factors that inhibit governments from making the transition from coal to natural gas so that we can progress towards a renewable energy system?

The unwillingness to undertake any form of planning from which there may be immediate and influential losers, such as the mining companies and/or coal miners and their families, who are concentrated in particular regions and seats.  Of course, if governments were prepared to explain the danger and the strategy clearly, and compensate those who are actually disadvantaged (as distinct from those who think they are),  the workers in the industries affected would probably support the strategy no less than other responsible and informed citizens.  

What do you think of the reasons the Australian government has chosen for not wanting to sign the Kyoto Agreement? How does their refusal to sign this Agreement affect our situation and prospects?

The reasons given are entirely specious.  In fact, the present government was very pleased with the Protocol when it was negotiated in late 1997, but cooled over the next two years as the fossil fuel interests lobbied it and in some cases actually wrote its climate change policy.  In early 2001 President Bush repudiated the Kyoto protocol and the whole framework of international obligations, in effect putting the right of Americans to waste energy above all other global principles.  The Australian government then had a further reason to abandon Kyoto - to support the US alliance.  

In retrospect, this chain of events may come to be seen as the loss of a crucial decade, not just for us but for the world.  We are now, in 2007, at the stage of beginning to take the issue seriously.  Had we done so in 1997, ratified the Kyoto protocol and put in place the necessary strategies, it would have been much harder for the Bush administration to withdraw.  The international effort would have been strengthened rather than fractured, and the developed countries would now be in a position to exert moral pressure (and offer assistance) for the developing world to join in efforts to contain emissions.

Also, we are outside the core of Kyoto-ratifying countries that are now beginning to negotiate the post-Kyoto arrangements (which may have real teeth, unlike the initial Protocol, which was a necessary first effort).  We may well find that our exports to Kyoto-ratifying countries will be taxed for their carbon content.

What concerns you most about the energy efficiency standards of  household goods and transport vehicles for personal use? Are the companies that produce and sell such products abiding by any forms of controls?

The standards regime for appliances works reasonably well, but compliance could always be improved.  The biggest problems are imports from developing countries, some of which (not all!) are not tested properly or the results are deliberately falsified.  This is a compliance issue (like food or safety standards) that can be managed.  The actual minimum efficiency levels could be much more stringent, and will probably be ramped up as part of a first serious effort to reduce emissions.

There are no mandatory standards for cars - just a series of 'voluntary' targets which the motor vehicle industry has consistently failed to meet.  This is another example of favouring powerful lobby groups (the carmakers and the automotive unions) over the public interest.  Australia has persisted in making large, inefficient cars that very few private buyers actually want, which are propped up by the purchases of company and government fleets, which after a few years dump them cheaply on the private market. 

You have stated,“In the meantime, Australia’s emissions continue to rise inexorably, despite the outlay of considerable amounts of private and public money, most of which has been wasted.”('Clean coal' and other greenhouse myths Research Paper No 49) http://www.tai.org.au/documents/downloads/WP108.pdf  What are the main reasons for such a deplorable outcome?

The combination of all of the above. 

Are there five things that each of us can do to effect a better outcome in relation to all of the above issues for ourselves and our planet?

Live in the smallest house you can - ask yourself if you really need all that space.

If you build a new house, make sure it needs as little heating as possible and NO air conditioning - there are very few parts of Australia where a properly designed house should need air conditioning.  Consider putting a photovoltaic array on the roof (you can get money from the government for this).  

Use gas for water heating, space heating and cooking - avoid using electricity for those purposes (unless it is a solar-electric or a heat pump water heater). If you must have air conditioning, buy the most efficient (5 or 6 stars on the energy label) and use the reverse cycle for heating.

When you buy a new car, make sure it has a fuel consumption no higher than 8 litres/100 km. You don't have to buy a Prius - there are plenty of small, efficient conventional cars. If you REALLY need something for occasional towing, off-road etc,  rent it when you need it. 

Think about what you eat.  In general, locally grown means less transport and less emissions. Eat as little meat and fish as possible - the greenhouse impact of a kg of beef is higher than a kg of aluminium, and a lot of energy is needed to catch fish commercially (not to mention the fact that nearly all fisheries and aquatic ecosystems are under huge pressure).

What leadership strategies do you use to create the changes you see as being significant and what motivates you to keep doing so?

Talk to other people of goodwill, but don't waste time with denialists.  Try to do what you advocate (if not always perfectly!). Vote as if global warming was the most important issue (or at least equal with every other 'most important' issue!).  Don't underestimate the magnitude of the problem but don't despair.

In the context of the upcoming Australian federal election, how do the promises of the major political parties weigh up in your opinion?

There is no real difference between the major parties.  Neither acts as if it considers global warming other than a useful rhetorical strength (or weakness) to be exploited or neutralised during the election campaign.  For more on this, see my article http://www.australianreview.net/digest/2007/08/wilkenfeld.html.  Some of the minor parties have much better policies, and could be influential in the Senate.