By Chris Johansen

The Australian Government’s slogan addressing their approach to climate change, “Technology not Taxes”, has a lyrical ring to it but let’s flesh it out a bit.

Firstly, “technology”. 

The Coalition Federal Government is reluctant to join the majority of the world in committing to net zero emissions by 2050, due to their much greater commitment to backing Australia’s fossil fuel industries into the indefinite future. Thus the “technology” they are referring to facilitates the ongoing, if not expanding, use of fossil fuels. 

Their favourite “technology” is carbon capture and storage (CCS), as this supposedly sequesters all of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from burning fossil fuels. Reality check! Capture of CO2 from fossil fuel extraction or burning processes was developed over 50 years ago, for the purpose of pumping back down oil wells to enhance oil extraction. When climate change came increasingly into the global consciousness, some 40 years ago, fossil fuel proponents promoted CCS as a means of sequestering CO2 in underground reservoirs.

 However, it is yet to be demonstrated that such reservoirs would remain leak-proof for centuries. There is not a single CCS project in the world that has delivered on time, on budget, and captured the agreed amount of carbon. But the most serious barrier to implementing CCS is economic.

It is an additional substantial cost to fossil fuel use, which even in the absence of CCS is increasingly less able to compete with renewable energy. Greg Bourne of the Climate Council concludes, on the basis of global evidence so far, that “CCS is not a climate solution but an expensive attempt to prolong the use of fossil fuels in the energy system”.

If there seem to be a few problems with getting CCS up and running then Government ministers refer to “future technology” as being able to solve GHG emissions problems. One such candidate technology is direct capture of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is possible on a small scale but it blows the mind to think that enough of such machinery could be built to make a dent in global CO2 levels, especially if fossil fuel burning continues. And the astronomical cost of this! Even the fossil fuel supportive International Energy Agency reaches similar conclusions.

And there are other “future technologies” such as stratospheric aerosol management – pumping gasses into the upper atmosphere to reflect solar radiation – which Government ministers have probably not yet thought about: but when they do they’ll no doubt hail it as the saviour of fossil fuel industries. This is really “way out” stuff when you think of the cost and all of the possible known and unknown side effects of human’s further tampering with the atmosphere. 

If the Coalition could adopt a more “liberal” interpretation of the word “technology” then I can give them the good news. There is sufficient technology already available to solve the climate crisis at less economic cost than continuing with use of fossil fuels (and that is without counting the economic cost of future climate change-caused disruption). Medium term economic returns from new build wind and solar options are by now much cheaper than new build fossil fuel options. And in many cases cheaper than keeping existing coal and gas electricity generation plants running, due to ongoing costs of fuel, maintenance and repair of these. 

Hydrogen technology to replace natural gas and electric vehicles (EVs) to replace petrol/diesel-driven vehicles are already with us. Their cost curves are rapidly declining with mass production so as to most likely undercut their fossil fuel competitors within this decade. The Coalition have been fighting tooth and nail to stop EVs – like their mantra at the last election that they will ruin weekends – but considering the rate at which traditional global vehicle manufacturers are now switching to EVs the Coalition’s battle seems lost.

The technology of capturing carbon from the atmosphere has been with us for a long time, with a realistic substantial potential of drawing down atmospheric CO2. Simply, green plants which assimilate CO2 as they photosynthesize. The technology of “not cutting down trees” – and thus reducing the sequestration power forests and other vegetation was with us ever since humans evolved, and before. 

The technology of leaving this sequestration mechanism in place was somewhat diminished about 30,000 years ago, at the beginning of the stone age when axes were invented and could be used in chopping down vegetation. The WA Government has recently rediscovered this ancient technology by putting a ban on native forest logging!

Further, some 10,000 years ago humans learned the technology of growing plants from seeds, to be able to increase CO2 sequestration capacity.

In summary, these ancient technologies related to green plants offer much more effective, and cheaper, means of reducing atmospheric CO2 levels than anything CCS or industrial direct capture of CO2 can offer.

Secondly “not taxes”.

This bit of the slogan relates back to the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd days (2007-13) when a favourite war cry of Tony Abbott et al. was “axe the tax”, in response to the Labor-Green attempts to put a “price on carbon”. Obviously it was not then, or even now, part of Coalition philosophy that the polluter pays. 

This is perhaps explained by the fact that many in the Coalition then did not believe the climate science and indeed that CO2, or other greenhouse gases such as methane, were pollutants. And this situation continues to this day albeit with increasing numbers of conservative defectors now supporting some form of climate change recognition and climate action.

The simple reason why the Coalition, and now Labor for that matter, would not want to impose a “pollution tax” on the fossil fuel industries is that it would result in an immediate reduction in political donations, and other forms of political support, from those industries. And it would put a spanner in the works of the now well-oiled revolving door between political office and top jobs in fossil fuel industries, so clearly illustrated in 350 Perth’s Captured State

Present governments not only oppose placing any form of pollution tax on these industries but they are reluctant to collect the already legislated resource taxes and royalties, permitting these organizations to get away with their international accounting tricks. Further, they use taxes collected from other parts of the economy to fund infrastructure projects that specifically benefit the fossil fuel industries, e.g. roads, railways, airports, ports, townships, etc.

The bottom line: there is essentially sufficient existing technology to prevent catastrophic climate change, if only it could be deployed as a matter of urgency. Further, all industries should pay for the pollution they create, just as we include in our council rate payments a substantial sum for our rubbish bins to be emptied every week.