The temptation for our politicians to look for magic bullet technological solutions to global warming is great. The notion that a technological deus ex machine will spare us from having to adjust our consumption patterns – and therefore spare politicians voter angst — continues to fascinate (Freeman Dyson recently advocated genetically-modified carbon-eating trees).

For a country like Australia that relies on coal so heavily both for power generation and exports, the temptation has proven to be overwhelming. The Howard Government, when it finally stop denying climate change was occurring, succumbed to it in joining the Bush Administration in the “Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate”, aimed at promoting a technological solution to global warming.

None of the proponents of geosequestration argue it is a magic bullet, but it has attracted serious government support. The Otway carbon capture demonstration project has received tens of millions of dollars in support from the federal and state governments, and the Federal Government is providing $50m to support another demonstration project at Biloela in Queensland.

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Earlier this year, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson announced the introduction of a regulatory framework for geosequestration, and a tender by the end of the year for sea-bed carbon capture projects. And Ross Garnaut in releasing his draft report last week cited carbon capture as one of the key technologies that could ease the impacts of an emissions trading scheme on the coal-based power industry. 

Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. It has to be funded and researched, with projects and concepts chosen from many competing priorities. Once developed, it has to be commercialised and marketed and, if it is to be successful, must prove effective and appealing.

Ideally, government involvement in any of those stages should be kept to a minimum. Picking technological winners is hard enough for the private sector to do, let alone governments.

And in the absence of incentives and signals to develop and adopt new technology, investment in it is likely to be wasted. New and improved technologies – for alternative fuel, greater efficiency in existing energy systems, and carbon capture – will play a role in carbon abatement. But it is unlikely to be one or even several technologies. It will be hundreds or thousands of small systems that fit the differing needs of businesses and consumers, and for which there is an economic case for adoption.

Geosequestration may have a role as one of these, but in the absence of an emission trading scheme that will create incentives for its adoption, its development and adoption won’t happen in any time frame likely to save us from cooking the planet. Its encouragement by governments – using taxpayer funding – should be approached sceptically.

Will geosequestration play a role as one of many small mechanisms to address climate change – or is it a politically convenient device for politicians – especially those representing coal-dependent regions — scared of confronting voters with the real price of change?

Crikey has asked three key players in the climate change debate – the Australian Coal Association, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne, to discuss the role geosequestration can play in Australia’s efforts to significantly reduce its carbon emissions.

Today, Dr Peter Cook of the Cooperative Research Center for Greenhouse Gas Technologies discusses the general concept of carbon capture and the operation of the Otway Project.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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