Climate change policy: Does Australia need it?

The other day I listened to a presentation from the CEO of a company in the carbon game. Branching out from bio-energy, this company has developed smart technology to grow algae using the CO2 emitted from coal fired power stations.

It was an impressive story. The algae do what algae do in high-tech plastic bags and convert carbon dioxide to plant material at a claimed rate of up to 800 t per hectare (for comparison average wheat yield in Australia hovers around 1.5 t per hectare).  A quarter of the algal biomass harvested is extractable as vegetable oil and the rest as vegetable protein (dry pellets). The potable water byproduct is recycled back into the bags for the next batch of algae.  The list of salable items that can be manufactured from the algal produce was endless.

If I were an investor I would be muscling my way through the heavy hitters already camped outside the guys office and buy whatever shares I could. Not surprisingly the owners see no need to sell shares in the company to the public.

And the thing was that this particular entrepreneur, with a genuine smile on his face, did not care one iota about a carbon price, greenhouse gas emissions or a climate change policy. Why would he? He had salable products (oil and protein) that a host of buyers wanted, and he was making them from industrial waste (CO2) that everybody wants to get rid of. He had found a great win-win. And when that happens it’s all good, including in this case a powerful combination of greenhouse gas abatement and mitigation with the bonus of food production.

No doubt you are thinking, ‘Oh, but there has to be a catch’. And maybe there is in the scalability, sources of nitrogen, finding enough land next to power stations or many others we haven’t conjured up. The point is though, that the combination of smarts, entrepreneurship and willing investors can be a powerful tool when let loose on a problem.

If business actions can fix the climate problem, then why do we need policy? The reason is this. There are only a few courageous entrepreneurs and, especially in Australia, even fewer risk taking investors. This means that the rest, the mainstream who are risk averse and a tad timid, need help to solve the problem; and this is the role of policy. For policy can provide support, encouragement rules for a social climate that help us help ourselves.

Since the Australian government dumped its own Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, an emissions trading solution to what Prime Minister Rudd has called ‘the greatest moral challenge of our age’, the media has talked of backflips and the taxi drivers have expressed their disappointment at broken political promises. All the people I have spoken to are just a bit depressed at it all.

These reactions to political weakness are inevitable because we do need policy, we need it to give us confidence and in the case of climate change policy we need it now.

The hip pocket

A young colleague recently claimed that her generation has great concern about environmental ills. She thought that her y-generation all have deep feelings about the woes of our world. They want something done about it, especially climate change. She claimed that late alphabeters will be angry at any government that promised action on climate change but then reneged as the Australian government has just done.

“Are you sure,” I said, ‘won’t they vote with their hip pockets?”

“No they have all they need,” she said, “I mean we all have food and shelter and with those needs met we want to do the right thing.”

I believed her, at least the intent part. And I am sure it is how she feels herself having moved her own career path away from high finance into an environmental company. Unfortunately I don’t think that we have the freedom from basic needs that our apparent wealth implies.

It may be that most westerners are well fed, sleep in a bed, have a wardrobe, watch TV and take the occasional holiday. And it seems that all primary needs are covered (yes, it is true the TV is now a basic need according to the UK social services) and, therefore, higher values should mature. We should think about values beyond the basic, including care for the environment.

But this wealth, that supplies all the basics and more, has not given us emotional freedom. We are not free to think of higher things because we are still struggling to keep our wealth coming. We are locked into long hours of work to pay for large mortgages, excess food and more clothes than we could ever wear. And as we are at work we have to pay for someone else to look after the kids, and someone to do the washing, to mow the lawn and so it goes. In the end we have to keep the kids at home until they are middle aged to help us pay for it all.

And what if we just stopped? If we gave it all up in order to be enlightened, then the monetary flows so essential for our economies would stop as well. Our material world would collapse in a heap. And, well, it just can’t happen. Back to work we go, stressed to the max, a hand checking on the hip pocket.

Let us hope that I am just a cynic, a product of a different generation, and that the youngsters really do have a sense of higher value – although anyone who has seen a Lady Gaga music video may have to search hard for higher value.  Let us hope and believe that these youngsters will vote on their beliefs and give with their voice to help change the way we think.

Let us hope that they won’t vote with their hip pockets.


Recent raucous debate on climate change In the Australian parliament resulted in the Greens, a minor party with environmental leanings, voting twice with the opposition against a Climate Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) policy proposed by the government.

The CPRS legislation was an emissions trading scheme that would leverage market forces to drive behaviours of consumers and investors to cleaner more efficient energy options to lower emissions. I say ‘was’ because the policy option has just been shelved. This decision means that climate change will not be a central item in either government or opposition campaigns in the upcoming election, handy for both major parties.

And why did the Greens oppose the legislation? Because, they said, it did not go far enough. It was too weak and too kind to the heavy polluters. The reduction targets were a joke, so the rhetoric went.

This is a curious position for green politicians to take. The CPRS was an attempt to restructure the way we generate our energy and a mechanism that would money would be made from climate change adaptation measures. In other words legislation that would push more funds towards environmental benefit than any previous conservation measures in the country’s history. Instead there is no climate change policy and no serious debate on climate change legislation likely for at least another two years, possibly longer. And without a policy there is no emissions target at all.

Someone once said that the perfect can get in the way of the good. After the excesses that brought us anthropogenic climate change, it would be irony indeed if the desire for excess in redress scuppered the good.