Hewson's View: Morrison will have to act on waste and fuel

Why not here?: John Hewson says it's embarrassing that 80 per cent of the canola we export to Europe is used by them to make biofuels. Photo: Janie Barrett
Why not here?: John Hewson says it's embarrassing that 80 per cent of the canola we export to Europe is used by them to make biofuels. Photo: Janie Barrett

While the Morrison government has a "tin ear" when it comes to acknowledging the substance of the climate protests, and Morrison himself was even prepared recently to address the UN falsely claiming that Australia had basically dealt with the climate challenge, there are a couple of specific issues that are reaching crisis proportions the solution of which can indeed significantly reduce emissions, while also boosting our growth and jobs, particularly in regional Australia.

These issues are waste and fuel security and Morrison simply can't ignore them.

Waste is fast becoming a crisis now that our Asian neighbours (most notably China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka) refuse to allow us to export our waste to them. Waste is spread right across our country offering the possibility of waste processing facilities in key regional centres.

Proven technologies exist to convert almost any form of waste - green waste, sewage, household and industrial garbage, plastics, and so on - into say biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel), electricity, bio-plastics, and a host of other products, all reducing emissions and, in some cases, improving our fuel security.

It is most unfortunate that it has been all too easy in Australia to landfill all sorts of waste, probably the most barbaric of all environmental practices, as landfills break the carbon cycle, leach into the water table, and emit methane gas (much more of a problem than CO2) for decades.

Some 20 years ago I chaired a company that built a household garbage recycling plant on the Eastern Creek landfill where, instead of landfilling, the garbage was dumped in our plant, sorted to create various income streams (glass, paper, metal and so on), attempted to extract the methane and turn it into power, leaving an almost pure residue that could then be safely landfilled, or converted to fertiliser, road base, and other by-products. On another project, underwritten by some 230 cane growers in Queensland, the concept is to build a mill to extract the sugar, and then use the waste (the bagasse, that would otherwise be burned) to make electricity, or ethanol, or biodiesel, or bio-plastics and other by-products, providing the growers the opportunity of significant additional income and ultimately full ownership of the mill.

I also recently went to Barnawatha for the reopening of a biodiesel facility that recycles animal waste (tallow). While a relatively small project, it is of considerable significance to the economy of that small regional area.

There are also many regenerative agriculture projects that seek to put carbon back into the soil by simply improving their farming techniques - replacing chemical with organic fertilisers, shallow tilling, better land clearing and land management, and so on. Indeed, some sectors such as grains are realising that they can actually be carbon negative, putting back multiples of the carbon they take from the soil, and thereby able to make a very significant contribution to our national challenge to reduce carbon emissions.

Moreover, these activities allow farmers to create carbon credits which if sold provide another significant income stream for them. It also works to improve soil resilience and thereby make them more drought resistant.

On fuel, it should be alarming to recognise that most of our fuel is imported - we rely on about 44 ships coming from Singapore - we only have about 22 days of fuel in reserve across service stations etc. There can be very significant consequences if the fuel doesn't arrive, as indeed has happened for farmers harvesting in Western Victoria, at Melbourne airport, and for a military exercise in Darwin, as recent examples.

It should be alarming to recognise that most of our fuel is imported.

Globally, the aviation industry has committed to a 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050, and the marine industries to a 70 per cent reduction, ensuring an enormous demand for alternative fuels over the next several decades.

Clearly, we need a national fuel security strategy, and to also recognise the considerable export potential for biodiesel and ethanol. It should be embarrassing to recognise that 80 per cent of the canola that we export to Europe is used by them to make biofuels. It begs the question why aren't we doing that here in Australia - we certainly have the feedstocks, the technologies, and the opportunity. While the Morrison government ducks the big transition to a low carbon society by 2050, it will be forced to act on these and other "crises".

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.