Tim Flannery at the Australian Museum, 4 June 2019
Tim Flannery at the Australian Museum, 4 June 2019 Image: Nick Langley
© Australian Museum

Today marks the United Nations’ 2019 World Environment Day – a day created to raise awareness of the urgent environmental issues facing our planet, and an invitation to individuals and governments to act.

This year’s theme is air pollution. Why? Because the cascading flow of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere is the number one cause of the climate crisis.

Last night, Australian Museum Distinguished Fellow Tim Flannery gave a speech to friends of the Museum about turning around a dystopian vision of the future and changing our fate. Of course, the first step is hearing and believing our scientists. As Australian Museum Director and CEO, Kim McKay, said, “This is not the first time in history that scientists haven’t been believed. In this very museum, curator Gerard Krefft was thrown out by the board of trustees because they were Creationists and he was an Evolutionary Theorist. We are seeing history repeating.”

Here’s Tim Flannery’s vision for how to bend the ascending curve of a heating planet back in the right direction.

The 180° turnaround

Flannery suggests that our objective should be to go from being a carbon emitter, to a carbon absorber. While the challenge is daunting, it is possible.

“Half of the greenhouse gasses we’ve ever put into the atmosphere, over all of human history, we’ve put in in the last 30 years. Do you think if we can put it in over 30 years that we can’t get it out in 30 years? Young people can be a part of a whole new economy that takes us from a carbon emitting economy to a carbon negative economy.”

Australia is the 55th most populous country in the world, but we are the 16th highest CO2 polluter. This disproportionate rate of emissions obliges us to be leaders in the work to find a solution – not a reason to sit back and do nothing, Flannery says.

“Australia is a big emitter. Some say it’s only 1.5% of the entire emissions, why should we bother? If we don’t all work together on this we’ll never get a solution. We need to do our fair share – more than our fair share because we’re such a large polluter.”

We need big, ambitious ideas

There are real opportunities for new industries, says Flannery. But so far, we haven’t been talking about them because we have failed to recognise the scale of the problem. Young engineers, take note: here are some possibilities.

Big idea #1: Seaweed farms

Where do you find a sink big enough to take the Amazon River of carbon out of the atmosphere? Tim Flannery suggests the world’s oceans.

“Oceans are huge. Seaweed grows fast. Seaweed captures vast amounts of carbon. The only scaleable studies that I have seen where we can draw that carbon down at the same time as stopping emitting so much is in our oceans.

“I hope in 30 years from now, seaweed farms will be commonplace. They will be the place we grow the food we need to feed a population of 10 billion people. They’ll be the engine we use to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and sink it into the deep ocean and give ourselves a chance to bend that trajectory in the right direction.”

Big idea #2: Carbon-neutral concrete

Nine percent of our emissions come from construction. The use of concrete is incredibly carbon intensive.

“And yet in Australia today you can buy carbon-neutral concrete. If you’ve ever flown into Toowoomba Airport or docked at the Brisbane River wharves, you’ve walked on carbon-neutral concrete. It’s 3% more expensive than other concretes – but isn’t that worth paying? And as the industry grows, it will get cheaper.”

Big idea #3: Making industrial materials out of CO2

Why not harvest the pollution itself and use it to make things? Industrial processes can offer great opportunities, says Flannery.

“Carbon fibre – the lightest, strongest material we know of – can be made from atmospheric CO2 – the problem itself. We could then use that technology to drive polluting competitors out of the market. We just need the innovation.”

Big idea #4: Making fuel out of CO2

Ironically, clean fuel can be made from the biproduct of fossil fuels – CO2. Imagine travelling the world in carbon-neutral aeroplanes.

“Why don’t we use jet fuel made from carbon dioxide? At the moment it’s made in such small batches, it’s 25% more expensive. But if that equates to an air flight from Melbourne to Sydney, it’s about $25 extra for a ticket to fly guilt-free.”

Tim Flannery at the Australian Museum, 4 June 2019
Tim Flannery at the Australian Museum, 4 June 2019 Image: Nick Langley
© Australian Museum

The fact is that there’s only one way to make a difference and that is to lead.

Becoming the leaders we ought to be

The secret is the energy of our young engineers, which must be released, says Flannery.

“We must support our young people who understand the problem and are willing to risk themselves in an entrepreneurial enterprise. We have to have mechanisms where our government will help them build the industries of tomorrow that are going to make a difference.”

And when governments are opposed to the change we seek?

“Government is an expression of us. Government is ours. Governments are servants of the people. We need to keep reminding them.”

What about the biggest emitters siting at the top of the chart, who are unwilling to change? Don’t they need to do something before anyone else does?

“China is the biggest emitter by far. China is the manufacturer for the world and we buy their goods. We buy them because they’re cheap. If we keep buying cheap goods we’ll end up with slave labour and we’ll end up with a polluted environment. We need global rules around this sort of stuff. The Chinese are doing their best to clean up their air pollution because they have to breathe it.

“But the fact is that there’s only one way to make a difference and that is to lead. No matter how small you are you need to lead. Children are good leaders. On a global level that leadership is important. Dodging the issue is not the way to go. If we do a dodgy deal to get around the requirements of the Kyoto agreement, why shouldn’t everybody else?”

What will life be like in 30 years?

Lots can happen in a 30-year period. And the next 30 years that’s coming up is going to be far more transformative than the 30 years that characterised 1919 to 1950, says Flannery.

“It could be some Jet Jackson sci-fi world, it could be some dystopia world, I don’t know. But what I do know is if we go back a century we can understand what 30 years of change means.

“So much will change. I know that because we are so powerful today. We humans possess the most powerful technology that our species has ever possessed. We have transformed our globe in our lifetimes. We can transform it for the better in the next 30 years if we make the commitment to do that. I urge you all to be part of that journey.”