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The real obstacles to greenhouse action

By Geoff Davies - posted Monday, 2 August 2010

The real obstacles to effective global warming action in Australia are not cost, nor technical difficulties, nor even lack of will in the electorate. The real obstacles are those with interests vested in present arrangements.

The fossil-fuel-dependent industries propagate a smokescreen of misconceptions about what can be done, and when. The token policies and delays announced by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott attest to their resulting disorientation, and there is little prospect they will find their way to clear air via the sloganeering and dog whistling that have so far characterised the election campaign.

All change is opposed by vested interests, yet Australia has seen major changes in industry policy and economic policy over recent decades. Those changes reduced wealth and jobs in whole industries, such as textiles, shoes, citrus, sugar and other primary industries. Some assistance was provided, but mostly people just had to lump the disruptions to their livelihoods.


However, the modest changes to the fossil fuel industries proposed in the Rudd government’s ineffectual carbon pollution reduction scheme were accompanied by multi-billion-dollar subsidies. Those proposed subsidies would have negated the intended incentives and would have been added to already huge direct and indirect fossil fuel subsidies estimated to be worth at least $9 billion per year.

In fact nothing has been proposed by either of the major parties that would seriously affect fossil fuel use in Australia. Why is this industry spared the bitter medicine forced upon others in the name of the national interest?

The whole premise of the global warming debate in the political mainstream is false. Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is not technically difficult. It need not be hugely expensive if approached in the right way. It does not require underdeveloped, speculative, or dangerous gigabuck technology. More jobs can be created in new industries than would be lost from old industries. The new industries are a good investment, so we need not, and should not, wait until the rest of the world acts.

The evidence to support these claims is readily available, but gets little traction. The political mainstream hears only the powerful lobbyists whispering in their ears, and mainstream media seem content merely to propagate the lobbyists’ press releases.

So what can we do about greenhouse gas emissions? There are by now many smart designs available that dramatically reduce the energy usage of buildings, factories and, potentially, transportation and cities. With a serious program to implement and retrofit smart designs, our energy use and emissions could start to decline immediately, and within a decade could have been reduced by tens of per cent.

As our energy needs decline, so renewable energy sources become more feasible and sufficient. A smartly managed mix of available geothermal, hydro, wind, solar and storage could provide a reliable and rapidly increasing proportion of our declining energy needs, thus further reducing emissions.


Economic studies show that with a coherent policy framework to encourage these shifts the net cost to the economy would be minimal, a reduction of the growth rate by a few tenths of a per cent. This could mean, for example, that instead of doubling our wealth within 20 years we double it within 21 or 22 years.

Some studies even suggest there could be net savings to the economy, which means we should do it regardless of what other countries are doing. Even if there is a modest cost, we should still do it, because it will demonstrate good policy to other countries and we would gain an advantage in the new industries, a race that we are currently losing badly.

The crucial word here is “net”. The net cost to the economy can be minimal. Some sectors of the economy would prosper, whereas others would not. A political difficulty arises because the new industries are mostly not yet wealthy and powerful, whereas the old industries that will decline are very well established with great political influence.

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About the Author

Dr Geoff Davies is a scientist, commentator and the author most recently of Desperately Seeking the Fair Go (July 2017).
He is a retired Senior Fellow in geophysics at the Australian National University and has authored 100 scientific papers and two scientific books.In 2005 he was awarded the inaugural Augustus Love medal for geodynamics by the European Geosciences Union, and he has been honoured as a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union.

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