Saturday, 17 October 2009

Simply shift smelting where there’s hydropower and look to conservation for jobs.

In today’s Age, there is a lengthy and clear discussion of the problems posed for Australia’s extremely high greenhouse emissions by Portland’s and Geelong’s aluminum smelters, and how things have changed since the smelter first opened in 1979 (people forget it was the year of the inaccurate and destructive Lonie Report for which Robin Underwood really should still be prosecuted given the environmental damage of expanded car usage).

The Age is saying that the government is maintaining subsidies to the aluminum smelting industry to prevent it moving overseas “into the arms of countries with little carbon conscience” is the best thing that can be done.

I cannot agree with that at all. If we exclude sub-Saharan Africa and perhaps the Pacific, virtually every nation in the world now has more “carbon conscience” that Australia. Moreover, I cannot see it likely that sub-Saharan Africa is being proposed as a location for new aluminum smelters!

Because likely energy sources in developing nations are closer to major population centres and are  likely to be hydropower, it is actually probable that any large-scale movement of jobs will reduce greenhouse emissions in spite of far lower government standards. Since Australia’s extremely old soils and low runoff coefficients completely rule out reliable hydropower, the cost might also be less than improving the energy efficiency of brown coal.

When it comes to jobs in areas affected, we must take George Megalogenis’ call that Australia cease growing crops for export on its extremely old and impoverished soils at a time when the subtropical dry belt is moving a degree poleward every three years and according to Tertiary paleoclimate records will not settle until Tasmania is completely within the arid zone. A logical replacement would be conservation: Australia’s uniquely fragile soils and geology ought to be ample justification that it have a level of conservation far, far greater than any other continent. The real aim, given likely climates in the next decade, should be that all land from the south coast at least as far as Dubbo be returned to native flora – and that the road and coal lobbies pay the price for this.

Farmers abroad also should be willing to pay for this since revegetation of Australia’s farmland – exceptionally labour-efficient but unsustainable even with the best technology – will allow them to make money without subsidies that strangle and innovation and produce wasteful spending on pesticides and excessive fertiliser use.

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