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Government duty

Today's market structures hinder use for sustainable energy production despite existing technology. Even in these early days of competitive markets and electricity choice, the message of green pricing to government leaders heading for the UN's climate change convention in Kyoto is clear: the people are prepared to pay for a cleaner world, even if big business is not.

With the UN's climate change convention in Kyoto drawing nearer, there are increasing signs that positions in the greenhouse gas debate are becoming so entrenched that the chance for progress is dwindling by the day. The wind lobby, as a specially invited guest of the UN (page 34), has the opportunity to blow some much needed fresh air into the debate. Meantime, a salient look at the broader picture could prove useful in focusing the world on the bottom line: that the technology exists for sustainable energy production, but today's market structures are hindering its use.

In his ground-breaking book, The Ecology of Commerce, US businessman Paul Hawkin describes the head-butting dance between the "no rules get-out-of-my-way" desires of some in business and the "protect the commons" duty of elected governments, charged with the task of taking care of us all. Nowhere is this duty to manage more pressing than when considering the dangerous climate changes caused by man's pollution -- and what to do about it at Kyoto.

Hawkin argues that "protecting the commons" arose as a government function from the earliest days of trading in the common ground used by a community for market activities. Although some might want to gain advantage, say a sheep herder who wanted more grazing, the "government" had to manage the space so that it was available to all who wanted to use it. In this market commons, consumers could easily compare price and quality. This is what is happening in the few electricity markets where consumers are being given the choice to buy green power at a premium. Even in these early days of competitive markets and electricity choice, the message of green pricing to government leaders heading for Kyoto is clear: the people are prepared to pay for a cleaner world, even if big business is not.

The significance of green pricing is the importance of this political signal. It is not a panacea solution to electricity related pollution. Clean energy advocates must continue efforts to "level the playing field." To achieve this, the introduction of market mechanisms to encourage more use of renewable sources of energy and less use of fossil fuels is the probably the best method available. But for that to happen, binding targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions must be agreed and recalcitrant countries like Australia must be brought into line. It could still happen at Kyoto, if wind and its allies can keep the focus on the bottom line.

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