16 Dec 2020
WHY AUSTRALIA’S CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE IS CLOSER THAN YOU THINK
Originally produced content by Guardian Labs Australia to a brief agreed with and paid for by WWF.
The seeds of Australia’s renewably powered future have already been planted. Here’s your window into a cleaner tomorrow.
The first green shoots of Earth’s rejuvenation appeared on social media. Smog-free skies over Paris, Beijing and LA. Flamingos flocking in Mumbai. The Himalayas, visible from the Punjab for the first time in 30 years. A snippet here, an anecdote there. Like a redemption montage at the end of a disaster film. Under cover of the Covid-19 shutdown, Gaia was bouncing back.
After countless doom-and-gloom news cycles – including the relentless tension of Australia’s eight-month Black Summer bushfires – it seemed that maybe Jeff Goldblum’s oft-memed Jurassic Park scientist was right, after all: life finds a way. After decades of ratcheting climate anxiety, it felt like hope.
Flamingos, the migratory birds, which visit Mumbai every year have come in huge numbers this year due to less pollution after lockdown forced vehicles off the roads for almost 2 months.
“Nature is so resilient,” says Damon Gameau. The Australian filmmaker’s inspirational, radically hopeful climate regeneration documentary, 2040, was released last year. “That we were able to upend our lives so quickly has been the most promising thing of the whole Covid experience,” he says. “It showed that we’re actually capable of creating enormous change in a very short amount of time.”
Gameau says the twin disasters of coronavirus and our Black Summer can be the catalyst for long-term, genuine change. Australia, experts say, is the developed nation best placed to capitalise on transitioning to a clean energy economy. Blessed with abundant sunlight and land, wind power, mineral resources and knowledge, we are perfectly placed to be the truly lucky country of the new millennium.
The country had been ablaze for months, and the Harbour Bridge obscured by smoke, by the time economist Ross Garnaut’s book, Superpower: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, was released in November. “No other developed country has a comparable opportunity for large-scale, firm, zero-emissions power, supplied at low cost beyond domestic consumption requirements,” he wrote.
Those opportunities are already being seized. Projects in development include Sun Cable, Twiggy Forrest and Mike Cannon-Brookes’s $20bn proposal to transmit Australian solar energy directly to Singapore, via something like a giant extension cord. Australia can make hydrogen-fuelled “green steel” – and provide thousands of jobs in traditional coal mining regions – “more cheaply than countries such as Japan, Korea, and Indonesia”, noted a recent Grattan Institute report.
Embracing renewables now at a national level will make energy plentiful, cheap, and guilt free, says Nicky Ison, energy transition manager at WWF-Australia and research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Within 20 years, she says, we could be producing up to 700% of our domestic requirements – without fossil fuels.
In March, Tasmania’s (conservative) government set a world-leading renewables target of 200% by 2040, making it the first government in the world to actively plan to export surplus renewable electricity. Even without the benefit of federal industry stimulus, South Australia is on track to 100% renewable power by 2030. The ACT is already there. More than 7,000 solar panels line the landscape at one of the ACT’s four solar farms.
The changes in our day-to-day lives will appear gradual, then sudden. “Well, we’ll have cleaner skies, clearer air, and less pollution,” Gameau says. “[But] the first thing people will notice is probably that their energy bills will be cheaper.”
Rooftop solar options are only just starting to heat up. Soom, peer-to-peer energy trading will allow you to monetise your own systems, using Blockchain-like technology. Community Power Agency has a Solar Garden pilot in development, and both the Victorian Solar Holes and South Australian Home Batteries programs have been targeting solar for social housing.
You may also be powering your own electric car. If you’re still sceptical about electric vehicles (EVs), you needn’t be. Stephen Corby, a self-described “former petrolhead” editor of Wheels magazine and now editor at large at evcentral.com.au, says: “China is already buying more than a million EVs a year, and in countries like Norway they make up half of all new cars sold.
“A decade from now, EVs – which are not only the greenest option, as they don’t even have an exhaust pipe, but fun to drive as well – will be well on their way to global market dominance.”
With all of these changes, fewer of us will die of respiratory illnesses, Gameau says. “We spend about $2.5bn each year on health-related issues, like respiratory illnesses, that are directly related to coal-powered fire stations and petrol cars,” he says. “Plus, less pollution will mean we’re growing food in our cities again, because we won’t have to worry about particulates in the food. Animals and birds will be starting to come back into those environments.”
To take the next step, Ison says, all we need to do is put in place effective renewable energy policies. “What is heartening is that we’re seeing state governments across party lines really embrace the opportunity of renewables,” she says.
Fuelled by cheap, abundant clean power, Australians can profit hugely from a rapid transition to renewables, and the associated lowering of our national carbon footprint would allow us to meet and exceed our climate change mitigation targets.
Gameau says: “There are so many countries doing incredible things, from Costa Rica, through Latin America, [and] the European Union is doing a Green New Deal as a rebuild from coronavirus. There’s so much to be hopeful for.” Particularly given Australia’s natural advantages in the renewable energy realm.
The most important thing that’s required to compel change, Gameau says, is “an event”. “Those are the unforeseen or random moments that can open the door to previously unthinkable changes.”
In the past 12 months, Australia has had not one such event, but two. And just as life finds a way back, so can we. The best way for Australia to ensure cleaner, green future is to get serious about renewable energy, and to make those previously unthinkable changes.