Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Big Polluters R Us

By Simon Grose

The buck stops with “ordinary taxpayers” when it comes to paying for carbon emissions.

Over winter you may find yourself travelling home in a tram reading a newspaper story about the debate over pricing carbon. You may be in a train, reading the story on an iPad or Blackberry. You could be in a car or a bus, listening to the issue being discussed on radio.

When you get home you will probably turn on the heating, cook a meal or go out to a restaurant. You could flick on the box to find the carbon pricing debate still beating away, or use a computer to catch up with the debate online and check out Facebook.

When it comes to pricing carbon, one of the phrases you will have heard repeatedly is “taxing the big polluters”. Sounds good: taxing large, unnamed monsters responsible for dirty deeds. Even better when you hear that the money raised will be redistributed to “ordinary taxpayers”.

Sitting in your train, tram, car or bus you catch glimpses of your reflection in the window framing the dark evening. You may recognise an ordinary taxpayer, but you may miss the background aura of those big polluters.

Your safe and uninterrupted tram or train journey will be dependent on fossil-fueled electricity unless it’s a windy night when wind farms are contributing a smidgin of the electricity available on

the grid. If you are reading a newspaper it would have been printed on a big press that sucks heaps of electricity, and then distributed around your state by trucks and planes.

If you are using a mobile device it is working because you charged it on the grid, while the data you are reading is available because it is stored on energy-hungry servers in air-conditioned data centres and beamed through the atmosphere on wireless networks powered by the grid.

If you are travelling in a bus or car you are burning fossil fuel and your safety depends on the traffic lights and street lights along the way. The radio station you are listening to, the heating and lighting and cooking at home or at the restaurant, all come courtesy of fossil fuels, as do the television program and the receiver you watch it on, your computer and every website you may care to visit.

It goes on. The steel, silicon, aluminium and plastics that make up your vehicle and your electronic devices are only possible due to fossil fuels.

Despite what its champions may claim it will be decades – if ever – before renewable energy can provide electrical energy with the heft and reliability that your way of life depends upon.

So when you look to see for whom the fossil fuel burns, it burns for thee.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (