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.