Timing is everything: building a better energy future

Set in the heart of Victoria’Screenshot 2020 05 22 14.31.53s growing wind industry, Ballarat has much to gain if current calls for a green recovery from the economic devastation of COVID-19 are heeded.

The economic ‘snapback,’ pitched by PM Morrison takes the wrong direction—as does Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s recent enthusiasm for a ‘gas-fired recovery’. Yes the economic cost has been high, evidenced by over 600,000 unemployed, with many businesses left struggling to cover rent and debts with little or no income. But we must move forward—not back—and decarbonise the economy, cutting carbon emissions and investing in and incentivising renewable energy infrastructure. As Climate Works CEO, Anna Skarbek observed in the online Stimulus Summit this month, ‘this is a make or break moment.’ The cruel reality is that we have only one decade in which to keep global warming to 1.5C. The golden opportunity is that Australia is ideally placed to make a prosperous renewables-based recovery that addresses both crises. Both South Korea and the EU have already committed to green new deals—the World Economic Forum endorsing the latter as the “cornerstone” of Europe’s pandemic recovery” and forecasting ‘a competitive and inclusive 21st century, climate-neutral future.’ Global financial institutions are also turning their backs on fossil fuels, 133 according to analyst Tim Buckley, with 10 in the last two weeks. And last month, oil and gas multinational, Shell, committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.

While political will is currently missing in Australia, the political timing is not. And timing, as it’s often said, is everything. Hesitate, and we will scuttle our sun-blessed nation’s chances of becoming a world leader in renewable energy, while also condemning our youth to a hostile future. In his recent book, Superpower, economist, Ross Garnaut, presents a credible picture of Australia as a provider of renewable energy for the region, exporting green energy to Asia, in an energy revolution that would see renewables play a role comparable to that of coal in our past. 

The concept of a Green New Deal pivots off US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s program of public works that helped to lift the United States out of the depths of the great depression. So what might such a deal look like? How many and what kinds of jobs might be created in a green recovery? 

Last month the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released its Renewables Integration Study, revealing the nation is on track to be sourcing 75% of our electricity from renewables by 2025—pending regulatory and market changes. This month, the Clean Energy Council released A Clean Recovery, a plan to ‘jumpstart the economy,’ tripling the amount of renewable energy in Australia, creating 50,000 jobs in construction for large scale renewable projects and another 4000 in maintenance/operations, by injecting $50 billion worth of investment, ‘particularly into rural and regional areas.’ Others committed to a green recovery have also been crunching the numbers across the various sectors of the economy. 

In its Million Jobs Plan, climate think tank, Beyond Zero Emissions scopes green jobs across 8 sectors. Beginning with fast-track development of renewable energy and transmission infrastructure, the plan lists: construction of ‘Zero Energy Bill’ buildings including new builds and retrofits and starting with social housing; modernising and expanding manufacturing via low cost electricity; facilitating renewable mining (green aluminium and green steel via green hydrogen); implementing the circular economy with 100% recycling schemes for plastic, glass, metal and organics, reducing emissions from landfill; electrification of transport including rail, building a roadmap of charging stations for electric vehicles, plus a bus electrification program via local manufacturing; land restoration and carbon farming via tree planting and increased recruitment and training of Indigenous Rangers, plus community-led initiatives such as community energy hubs, micro grids, and biodiversity conservation.

One thing the pandemic has shown is that when the public interest is clearly communicated and the stakes are high, we can come together in defending it. As a nation we stayed at home and maintained social distancing in the interests of flattening the curve, saving our hospital system and medical staff from the kind of breakdown being experienced across the US and the UK where slow response has proved disastrous. The overwhelming majority of the Australian public (88%) supported the government’s social distancing measures and even business supported the lockdown as being in the public interest. In the age of individualism we identified as a society, recognising that yes, we are all in this together—a realisation that sadly has yet to dawn upon us as a nation with regards to climate change. 

Young people, among the most disadvantaged, are also the most disadvantaged by climate change—facing an increasingly hostile environment as temperatures soar and extreme weather events become more severe and more frequent. The devastating bushfires of last summer being a case in point. 

Struggling with the science of epidemiology, we have listened diligently to our various Chief Medical Officers explain the need to ‘flatten the curve.’ But there is another curve we must flatten. We need to pay the same heed to IPCC advice and keep global warming within 1.5ºC.

That bi-partisanship on climate is achievable, is evident here in Ballarat. In 2018 Council endorsed the declaration of climate emergency. In 2019 Council unanimously passed a Carbon Neutrality Zero Emissions Action Plan, and in 2020 reaffirmed budget commitments to its ambitious 2025 target. Similarly, the COVID-19 National Cabinet forged bi-partisan leadership to successfully manage the pandemic. A clean recovery requires that same bi-partisanship to build a renewables revolution and flatten the curve of global warming. We cannot afford the old right/left rivalries of the past. For our children and grandchildren we must work towards solutions in the public interest. With global finance and  industry players endorsing a renewables-led stimulus, Australia must act now or be left to play catch-up—if we’re to capitalise on our natural advantages in the renewables sector. As Climate Works CEO Anna Skarbek warned, ‘this window for action will not stay open.’  

Mary Debrett, President, BREAZE     Published in The Courier , May 22, 2020.