By Dr John Töns
The Labor Party has announced its commitment to Australia becoming Carbon Neutral by 2050. The proposal has been dismissed out of hand by the Morrison Government with the familiar cry ‘where is the money coming from?’ Had they not be so blinded by ideology they may have rejected the commitment as too modest – we can fast track the transition to a zero, perhaps even negative carbon economy well before 2050. To understand how we need to start with our summer of catastrophies.
The first of the Australian bushfires started in June. For fires to start in June and continue through well into February is unprecedented. Moreover, although heavy rains extinguished many of the fires those same rains now brought with them floods and landslides. Rural communities that had spent much of the summer coping with the fire emergency were now faced with having to deal with yet another emergency triggered by extreme weather events.
Although all of these emergencies played out in regional Australia, they also impacted on the lives of city dwellers. For weeks on end thick smoke blanketed many of the major cities. Health authorities advised that people with respiratory conditions should avoid going outside. Few Australians were left untouched by the fires. It was a crisis that impacted on all Australians. Research by ANU has shown that 70% of Australians were impacted in someway by this summer of disasters.
That same research has shown that faced with the tangible impact of climate change there has been a substantial shift in thinking. As late as November Michael McCormack dismissed those who sought to link the fires with climate change as “inner-city raving lunatics” by talking about ‘inner-city raving lunatics’ he was playing to his constituency. However, by February 2020 his constituency had had a change of heart; the participants at the Q & A Bushfire special from Queanbeyan were in no doubt about the role climate change played.
The hostility of regional Australia to continued climate change denial should not have come as a surprise to those politicians who had assumed that their natural constituency had little truck with climate change. They merely had to look at the compendium of case studies compiled by Monash University which documented that the thinking of regional Australia was really no different to the rest of Australia. That set of case studies dealt with Regional Victoria’s response to Black Saturday – the overall theme from those communities is perhaps summed up by The Centre of Resilience based in Emerald:
[We aimed] to develop a community development strategy that connected businesses, community groups, local education, events and the arts by exercising our relationships in a practical way and developing local management capacity. The government representatives told us to ‘Say No to the community, scale back and stick to your core business’. We rejected this advice and set about acting on our vision.
‘Community continuity’ encompasses a variety of planning, preparatory and related activities which are intended to ensure that community functions will either continue to operate despite serious incidents or disasters that might otherwise have interrupted them, or will be recovered to an operational state within a reasonably short period.
The goal of CoR is to contribute to community continuity by encouraging the efficient and effective use of existing social, natural, economic and built community-based assets in a progressive and sustainable way.
Right around Australia there is an emerging view that these disasters need to be seen as a unique opportunity for nation building. As I listen to communities around Australia it is clear that we have moved on from the climate change debate. Australia is looking at developing local strategies for sustainable living. We are becoming increasingly aware that the short-term policies pursued by our politicians is kicking the problem in the long grass, as a nation we are of the view that we cannot afford to leave the next generations with problems that could have been nipped in the bud in 2020.
So, what could be done almost immediately? A good place to start is with funding. Yes, it is expensive to make a rapid transition to a carbon neutral economy. The big stumbling block in our political thinking is that this generation is asked to make sacrifices in the interests of future generations. Why should we pay for benefits that may not come until some 100 or 200 years in the future? The answer is simple – we don’t. There is no reason why we cannot raise the trillions of dollars needed by entering into a 100- or 200-year loan.
There are at least three things we could do almost immediately. The Royal Commission into the Black Saturday fires recommended shifting to a decentralised energy network. At the time it reported the cost of switching to renewable microgrids was still prohibitively expensive. The cost of these has come down. Were we to invest in micro-grid technology we could become a world leader in state of the art micro-grids. We could design these so they fit into a large container – meaning that we can manufacture and export these microgrids to the many communities in Asia and Africa for whom connection to the national grid is prohibitively expensive.
The second initiative would be to accelerate the shift to hydrogen power. This can be done by simply setting a target that by 2030 we can only buy either all electric or hydrogen powered vehicles. We have seen that government decisions to phase out the use of fossil fuel has encouraged innovation – there is no reason why we cannot join that party.
Plasma furnaces – one of the problems that the world faces is how to deal with waste. There are a number of plasma furnaces around the globe that can process all waste. These are generally small scale – ideally suited for our regional settlements. Again, if we invest our energy into improving on that technology we have another export industry for the problem of waste (especially plastic waste) is a global problem.
These three ideas are but the tip of the iceberg. We need to acknowledge that changes in technology will mean changes in the employment profile. However, if we commit to a principle that no-one will be left behind, that we are not in the business of closing down businesses and throwing workers on the scrap heap much of the resistance will dissipate. We also need to stress that the government’s continued support for coal is doing no-one (other than some very wealthy mine owners) any favours – the writing is on the wall for the fossil fuel industry to continue to use tax payer funds to prop up unproductive industries is myopic. We are far better off working with communities to enable them to develop successful enterprises that do not depend on fossil fuel.
- Crowe, D., Deputy PM slams people raising climate change in relation to NSW bushfires, in Sydney Morning Herald. 2029: Sydney.
- University, M. Centre of Resilience. 2008 08/02/2020]; Available from: https://www.monash.edu/muarc/research/research-areas/home-and-community/disaster-resilience/compendium-case-studies/centre-of-resilience.
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