Book review: The Clean Industrial Revolution: Growing Australian Prosperity in a Greenhouse Age

Surely I don’t need another book on climate change. My first book about global warming in Australia, however, is gripping. Turns out I’m surprisingly ignorant about what powers our big cousins—and especially ignorant about what global warming means for them. It can be summed up in a four-letter word: coal.

Coal is fundamental to the lucky country. At A$25 billion, coal is the largest export earner and assumes 30 percent of Australia’s global trade. Australia has the fifth-largest coal reserve of any country and 80 percent of the coal that’s mined is exported. The remaining 20 percent is used primarily to power Australia’s electricity needs, thanks to a major government investment programme following the 1970s oil shocks. Coal is big noise across the ditch.

Which suits a world of the 1970s and 80s. But what about a world where carbon emissions are taxed? Where alternatives to coal are aggressively sought, built and subsidised? A world where coal is the villain, not saviour?

Climate scientist Ben McNeil has written a forceful case for Aussies to develop an uncharacteristic anxiety disorder about their future. He supplies three good reasons.

First, Australia is so thoroughly coal-dependent that its ‘carbon intensity’—the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted per dollar of economic output—is third only to China and Saudi Arabia. Soon, he points out, carbon will have a price that will be passed down the supply chain to all Australian products. Could Australia become uncompetitive, thanks to dirty electricity?

Second, we often think that China is the big filthy coal user, and it is. But China takes only two percent of Australia’s coal. The largest customers are Japan and the EU—the countries that are most aggressive in seeking alternatives to coal and starting carbon reduction programmes.

Third, Australia has done flap-all to find alternatives. Aussie miner BHP is the world’s 27th most profitable company, largely based on its success with coal. Yet BHP is only the 714th largest spender on R&D, almost none of which goes into clean tech or coal alternatives. In 2006, Australia spent just 2.4 percent of its R&D spending on energy resources and technology: a paltry $100 million. McNeil is embarrassed to admit that cloudy countries like Denmark are leaders in solar energy when his own is blessed with a heritage of engineering ingenuity and untold sun.

McNeil’s shame is also his plea. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “C’mon cobbers, we’re better than this.” And he does it convincingly with strong command over a slew of interesting statistics and an easy writing style that’s neither preachy nor dry.

McNeil may do for the Aussies what management guru Thomas Freidman is doing for the US; that is, make global warming an exercise in economics.

Where’s the Kiwi version?