Can market-based mechanisms save the planet?

The next step in the ‘business as usual’ approach to saving the planet

Can market-based mechanisms save the planet? (2004)
The next step in the ‘business as usual’ approach to saving the planet


During its nine years in power, the Howard government has excelled both in terms of telling people they are doing a lot for the environment and in developing a form of green nationalism that masks in- action on key environmental problems. While they have invested heavily in ecological restoration, this was done through the partial sale of Telstra. In many instances, they have focused on issues where others can be blamed for environmental problems. Two obvious examples would be commercial whaling (blame the Japanese) and deep sea fishing (blame the Uruguayans). In these instances, Australia gets very upset at poor behaviour by others. But on the question of global warming, arguably the greatest ecological threat of the 21st century, the Howard government has said that we must only protect our own interests. And they define these interests very narrowly. Instead of tackling climate change through supporting the development of a thriving renewable energy industry, they have continued subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and invested millions into a new and largely untested technology: geosequestration.


Australia, like all countries that have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has an obligation to take action to prevent dangerous climate change. It is now widely accepted that to limit the impacts of global warming we will need to limit the average global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius. To prevent this increase, industrialised countries need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by between 60 and 80% by 2050, with further reductions in global emissions by 2100. We need to change to a system based on energy conservation and renewables, including wind, solar, and sustainable biomass, and this will provide great employment opportunities as well as helping us to meet our global responsibilities.


However, the current government has aligned itself to the coal dominated energy mix we have in Australia (and the industry behind it ) and continues to argue that moving into renewables will mean that we can’t spend as much money on environmental protection. They need to find a way to justify this ongoing reliance on fossil fuels in spite of growing public opposition, and the clear need to take immediate action on global warming. A cornerstone in this ‘business as usual’ response will be ‘geosequestration’, the process of trapping GHG and storing them underground, as a key element of the Coalition energy policy. Geosequestration of greenhouse gases carries with it a range of environmental, technological, social and economic risks.


According to Climate Action Network Australia (CANA), “geosequestration is an end of pipe response which raises the fundamental issue of intergenerational equity and shifts the responsibility to manage our waste to future generations. In terms of certainty and efficiency it is far better to respond to climate change by not creating greenhouse emissions in the first place. Renewable energy, energy efficiency and reducing demand allows us to do this.”


At a time where we need to provide both financial and policy support for the fledgling renewable energy industry in Australia, the Howard government commitment of substantial funds to continued support for the fossil fuel industry and geosequestration will have a range of environmental and social impacts besides increasing Australia’s greenhouse emissions, such as air pollution and reduced employment opportunities. As a side note on how unhelpful this technology will be, geosequestration of emissions from coal fired power stations is not expected to be widely available before 2015. This investment directly threatens the development of the renewable energy industry, as does the recent refusal by the federal government to increase the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) from its current tiny 2% target for renewable energy as a total of all of Australia’s energy production.


This technology is largely untested on a commercial scale. Clearly, if the sequestered greenhouse emissions leak back into the atmosphere, then geosequestration will have failed as a climate policy because they will cause more global warming. Governments and proponents of geosequestration must unambiguously prove permanence of storage (CANA suggests a lifetime of at least 100,000 years). There must be full public disclosure and independent scientific review and monitoring of geosequestration projects on a site-by-site basis.


Geosequestration will take investment away from renewable energy, energy efficiency and demand management, which are sustainable, create more jobs than fossil fuels, are lower risk alternatives, and based on proven technology. Geosequestration will instead mean investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure. Perhaps this represents the final stage in the complete disintegration of the tattered Howard government reputation on climate change. Geosequestration certainly provides more proof that the Coalition has profoundly failed the Australian people when it comes to environmental protection.


For details on what you can do, see:


Cam Walker is campaigns co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth Melbourne.



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