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Adapting for the future

By Ron Oxburgh - posted Wednesday, 22 November 2006

The debate over whether human beings are changing the Earth’s climate for the worse is over - we certainly are. The question now is “how should we respond?”

Some may choose to deny climate change and bury their heads deeply in the sand. Unfortunately that inelegant posture prevents them from seeing the opportunities that lie ahead. But even among those who accept climate change some may try to persuade us that all is doom and gloom and that our only future is to wear hair shirts and live in caves. Indeed that might happen, but only if we fail to take determined action now. I believe that there is a third way.

We have to respond to climate change with a double strategy - we have to take precautions against the climate changes that are coming our way. In other words we have to adapt.


But we also have to attack the causes of climate change - we have to maintain our standard of living while not pouring into the atmosphere the greenhouse gases that we now know to be the root cause of climate change. In other words we also need to mitigate the causes of climate change.

Mitigation involves concerted action by everyone because everyone produces greenhouse gases; but the lead will have to be taken by the richer countries of the world. Adaptation will be at a local level because different places will experience climate change differently.

The message for the future is “Yes - we may live differently but if we adapt and mitigate, we can live just as well”. In facing this new world we have three main approaches and we shall need all of them: we have new technology, we have the ability to use markets, and we have behavioural change. Some people bridle at this last but it is worth remembering that in the 18th and 19th centuries human beings found that life was a great deal better if they did not throw their rubbish and slops into the same river from which they took their drinking water!

In the same way it will be better for us if we refrain from dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not to mention producing less of it.

What can all this mean for Australia? It could mean a real opportunity for Australia’s coal technology. The reason is twofold: burned in the conventional way coal is the most polluting of the fossil fuels - it produces more greenhouse gas per unit energy than either oil or gas. However, we know that we shall depend on coal for many decades.

This is particularly true of India and China both of which have massive coal reserves that they use to fuel their burgeoning economies. Managing the emissions from coal is one of the greatest global challenges if greenhouse gases are to be mitigated. To be more precise, the challenge is not managing them, but doing so cost-effectively. The Holy Grail is to be able to burn coal cleanly as cheaply as it can be burned today in a conventional power station.


This is a massive business opportunity for Australia. Australia has a long tradition of using coal for power generation and could lead the world in capturing the gases that are produced in power stations and putting them back underground where they came from.

The Federal and Victorian Governments are to be congratulated on their decision to work with industry through the CO2CRC to retrofit the Hazlewood coal-fired power station in Latrobe Valley with carbon capture and storage. This is likely to be a world first in an area where the best way of learning is doing.

A time of change is a certainly a threat to the sluggish but it is an opportunity for the nimble. Climate change will certainly bring the costs of adaptation, but if they grasp the opportunity Australian coal and many other industries could come out ahead.

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Lord Oxburgh addressed 'New Technology for Infrastructure - The World of Tomorrow', the 2006 Annual Symposium of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering on November 20 on the topic 'Technology and the Energy Challenge'.

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About the Author

Lord Oxburgh was chairman of Shell Petroleum until last year. He Chairs the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology. Lord Oxburgh is an adviser to Climate Change Capital and to Englefield Capital and is chairman of D1Oils a bio-diesel company.

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