Australia’s transition to a low carbon economy – a personal view from Down Under.

I am proud to live in Australia, “the lucky country”. A country which, in the words of our National Anthem, “abounds with nature’s gifts”. But with these gifts comes a problem: Australia is one of the highest emitters of carbon per capita.

So how is Australia’s transition to a low carbon economy going?

Confused and not so well, would be my summary. Take a look at a selection of climate-related news from the last three months:

16th February 2017

Australia relying on ‘ambitious’ State Govt emissions targets to meet Paris commitments: Expert

http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2016/s4620811.htm

It seems that the Federal Government, having repealed a carbon tax, is relying on state governments to do the heavy lifting needed to meet the commitments made by the Government in Paris. At the same time, it is criticising the states for putting ideology ahead of the stability of the national grid with unrealistic renewables targets.

26th February 2017

Hazelwood power station closure could have catastrophic consequences, residents warn

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-26/hazelwood-power-station-closure-catastrophic-impact-economy/8304622

Australia is closing down its dirtiest brown-coal powered generator (a decision made by the French corporate owner), but there is concern about job losses.

March 14th 2017

SA electricity crisis: Government unveils $550 million power plan

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/sa-electricity-crisis-government-unveils-550-million-power-plan/news-story/e2ab8a28eae35758610bee62d52e9c96

South Australia recently faced a disastrous and extended power-out caused in part, it is believed, due to extreme weather events causing wind power to come off line and subsequent failures in the grid. A few days before this announcement Elon Musk, of Tesla and SolarCity fame, promised to fix the problem in 100 days with a massive battery farm – or he would charge nothing.

16th March 2017

Snowy Hydro scheme boost to secure electricity supply on east coast: Government

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-16/snowy-hydro-scheme-funding-boost-to-secure-electricity-supply/8358502

Here is the Federal government wading in 2 days later with what looks like a hastily cooked-up plan to help secure electricity supply with a large hydro-electric upgrade.

18th March 2017

Adani: Qld Premier, mayors hope to convince company to go ahead with Carmichael mine

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-18/adani-mine-support-shown-by-qld-premier-mayors-in-india/8366126

Here we have a desperate scramble by the Queensland Government to secure Indian investment in a massive planned coal mine which is projected to deliver 15,000 new jobs.

10th April 2017

Coral bleaching events on Great Barrier Reef leaves marine scientists devastated and horrified

http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2016/s4651203.htm

Scientists wring their hands in despair at the extent of damage to the reef due to increased water temperatures. I was there not long ago; it makes you want to cry.

19th April 2017

Mega Solar farm planned for Gympie

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-19/mega-solar-farm-planned-for-gympie-qld/8451774

Now, not far away from the planned Adani mine, we have plans for a mega solar farm consisting of up to 3 million solar panels which will deliver 15% of the State’s electricity needs.

As you can see, the picture is confuddled and erratic with no sense of a clear direction or plan.

As a country where so much of the economy depends on the export of commodities, particularly iron ore and natural gas, Australia has always had a schizophrenic attitude towards climate change. My observation and belief is that much of the Australian population has a strong affinity with nature and that there could be strong public support for leadership towards a low carbon economy.  Unfortunately, with three-year election terms and a history of knife edge results, making a bold move in that direction would likely be political suicide for National politicians.

So if we assume that the Federal regulation lever is unlikely to be pulled any time soon, what other options are there?

At the State and City level the prospects for regulatory and policy changes are much better. There is an enthusiasm amongst politicians at this level – paradoxically driven by an apparent enthusiasm for green progress at a local level from the same voters who elect the Federal government!

On the design and technology front, there are reasons for optimism also. With a few exceptions (for example AgTech and BioTech), Australia’s historical record of innovation and commercialisation of ideas is not great. However, in recent times Australia has “caught the start-up bug” with some world-class new ventures emerging from Universities and incubators. We can expect some strong contributions to the problem from these businesses in the future.

However for Australia, I think that the finance and investment lever may ultimately be the one which nudges the country towards a low(er) carbon economy. We have already seen global miner Rio Tinto recently divest their Australian coal assets – they clearly saw some writing on the wall. The Adani decision may be a watershed moment for the Australian coal industry. Despite recent Prime Ministerial lobbying with the Adani family in India, it is still not clear whether the project will be funded. Over the lifespan of a mega-mine the risk of stranded assets casts a long shadow. If shrewd Indian investors decide that the risks are too high, then perhaps this signals the death knell for the Australian coal industry. If this happens then maybe Aluminium is next and the centre of mass for the Australian economy will be tilted inexorably towards the industries of the future.

The lucky country, with its renowned competitive spirit, has the capacity to change, embrace and succeed in a low(er) carbon future, but I think we need a pretty big nudge to get us off the beach. Sadly, at this time it’s not clear where this might come from.

That’s my view from Down Under, how does it look from where you are?

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Australia’s transition to a low carbon economy – a personal view from Down Under.

  1. @Planet Pulse can I just start by saying that you have done a great job at not only writing the content but how well you have communicated the points. The visuals and newspaper articles with emphasised captions have really captured my attention and drew me in.

    Being a part time Australian, I think you have pointed out the major gaps we are facing as a nation. We definitely do need a nudge to get off the beach and someone up in parliament needs to put their big pants on and face the music. As illustrated in your articles state governments have no idea what they are doing or what direction they want to head towards. Its unfair to place responsibility and pressure on these states to address climate strategies identified during the Paris agreement without the necessary leadership, support, or resources provided by the federal government.

    I think a question worth asking is how can we take the enthusiasm conveyed at a state and city level towards green progress and apply that a federal level? More so, why is there more enthusiasm at a state and city level? Could this be a result of small tangible victories? Perhaps businesses are playing more of a role at these levels having greater space to make decisions and influence. Whatever the answer may be ensuring balance, commitment, and persuasion are perhaps the first ingredients required to develop a recipe for transitioning to a low carbon economy. And I think business can continue to nudge and drive this progress.

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  2. Andy,

    A great review of what’s going on down under. Up top we don’t get much news from your part of the world so this would good to read.

    I’m straddled between urban and country life, and your comment “that much of the Australian population has a strong affinity with nature and that there could be strong public support for leadership towards a low carbon economy” got me thinking. Is it living in the countryside, or at least with ready access or frequent visits to the countrywide which maintains/develops this affinity? I’ve often wondered if that is why sustainability is big in places like Brazil and South Africa? There’s probably an MSt dissertation in that topic.

    My next thought was how the global trend of urbanization will impact on that affinity? The urban population of the world was 746m in 1950, 3,900m in 2014, and is predicted to be 6,000m in 2045. If urbanization equals less affinity with nature, then urbanization could remove popular pressure for a lower carbon economy.

    I then wondered what impact urbanization itself, regardless of any impact on affinity for nature, had on sustainable living – is it more or less sustainable to live in cities than in the countryside.
    The UN says that “Sustainable urbanization is key to successful development…Providing public transportation, as well as housing, electricity, water and sanitation for a densely settled urban population is typically cheaper and less environmentally damaging than providing a similar level of services to a dispersed rural population”. So this would be better news, and may well counter any adverse effect arising from a disconnect with nature.

    http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanization-prospects-2014.html

    Didn’t Jorgen Randers suggest in his lecture that Australia would have it easy when it came to transitioning to a low carbon economy: relatively few people per square kilometre, mainly grouped together, with lots of spare, sunny land for solar PV, and rich in other natural, renewable resources? Perhaps you’ve just had it easy with a high carbon economy, and the nudge you need is a hike in carbon prices, either because of increases in global oil prices or the introduction of global carbon taxes.

    And anyway, what does a low carbon barbecue look like?

    Andrew

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  3. Dear PlanetPulse,

    Hope you are well!

    Thank you for another interesting and insightful blog. I had the pleasure of visiting Australia a few times, as my grandfather lives in Brisbane. Every time I was there, I was impressed by its unique and diverse wildlife. The Koala, Kangaroo, … I cannot think of a country, which has more iconic (and dangerous!) animals than Australia. In addition, Australia has an amazing mix of adventurous rain-forests and desserts across its continent.

    According to a survey conducted by the Economist in 2016 (The Guardian, 2016), Melbourne is the world’s most livable city for the sixth year in a row. Melbourne received an average livability score of 95.7. The average was calculated based on the following scores: Stability (95/100), healthcare (100/100), culture/environment (95.1/100), education (100/100) and infrastructure (100/100).

    Additionally, Perth was also ranked in the top ten of most livable cities. The article states that wealthy countries with relative low number of citizens, such as Australia are able to foster more leisure activities without causing high levels of crime or overworked infrastructures.

    In my opinion, Australia is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. The fact that it is surrounded by water and located on the edge of the world, makes it even more mysterious and adventurous.

    Sources:
    (1.) Mail Online. (2017). Sydney tops list of world’s friendliest cities. [online] Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3216691/Sydney-tops-world-s-friendliest-cities-list-tourists-saying-not-like-does-rest-Australia-think.html [Accessed 22 Jun. 2017].

    (2.) The Guardian. (2017). Melbourne wins world’s ‘most liveable city’ award sixth year in a row. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/aug/18/melbourne-wins-worlds-most-liveable-city-award-sixth-year-in-a-row [Accessed 22 Jun. 2017].

    Like

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