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Real climate change action will help SA - but we can't do it alone

Opinion

South Australia can capitalise on the global transition towards more ecofriendly industries, but we need to understand this will take more than planting trees and putting in batteries, argues Andrea Michaels.

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Historians often say looking back is a good way to learn more about current events. For years there’s been fighting and bickering over what to do about climate change at the federal level, but little action.

We’ve been wasting precious time even after signing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which saw us agree to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.

Both the CSIRO and the Australian Academy of Science have said we need to be close to carbon neutral by the middle of the century and yet it is clear we will not reach these targets.

In fact, the Global Carbon Project claimed that in 2018 Australia emitted 421 million tons of carbon dioxide – the 16th-largest global emitter, just above the UK.

Our failure to act has now contributed to what scientists at the World Economic Forum a few weeks ago called a “planetary emergency”.

‘Calm down’ messages have backfired

It seems crazy now but not so long ago people were still trying to tell us climate scientists were either “misinformed” on global warming, overreacting, or just plain kooky.

In 2017, with South Australia’s storms causing major blackouts, we were told our renewable energy reliance was the problem. And consider reactions to the emergence of Greta Thunberg last year and the rallies she inspired with other young people around the world. Our own Prime Minister rather patronisingly told us to calm down: children shouldn’t be getting anxious about these issues he said. We should “put it in perspective”. Others, including the US President Donald Trump, wrote off Greta’s passionate appeals as simply absurd, saying she was just a young girl with an “anger management problem”.

As policy-makers around the world tighten their regulations to address climate change, global companies and the financial markets will be looking at mitigating risk by investing in low carbon industries

Given recent events, including the images of children clinging to the docks of Mallacoota at 2am and of the families on Kangaroo Island battling to save their homes and their businesses, I’m sure many of us might think just little bit differently now.

The reality of climate change has come to our door and it is hard to ignore. Yet, the Federal Government is doing just that.

Australia cannot afford to ignore the issues

Traditional electricity generation methods using fossil fuels cause more than 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with tree clearing and other industrial practices having an impact too. And if you think our country doesn’t have much of a role in this, think again.

Australia’s total contribution to world emissions from fossil fuel combustion (including our exports) has been put at between 4.4 per cent and 4.8 per cent – despite the fact that we have only 25 million people. The Australia Institute in 2019 found Australia now mines 57 tonnes of CO2 potential per person, which is 10 times the global average.

Premier Steven Marshall was correct when he admitted SA’s new attempts to become carbon neutral won’t make much of an impact – this needs to be done at a federal level to be effective. It seems our climate change strategy has become “every man for himself”, with states like NSW and SA desperately going it alone because they know their people want action. It’s a ludicrous situation.

Planting more trees, shoring up our coasts, and building better batteries is a good idea, however, we need to understand that just adapting to climate change and mitigating the risk of future events isn’t the solution. We need to be united in our determination on a national level to address the root problem – and that’s fossil fuel use.

Building new industries will drive growth

For the Federal Government there is a lot at stake with legacy industries like coal mining still holding power.

Nobody wants to lose jobs, or to tank the economy. Fossil fuels are a cheap source of energy that we have been relying on for more than 100 years, but being resistant to change will hurt us in the long term.

We need to work harder to create other opportunities through the creation of alternative industries and clean energy turnaround strategies. We also need to be honest and admit that this will cost money (despite Premier Steven Marshall telling us it won’t). Becoming a low carbon economy doesn’t come cheaply. Just fudging the figures around reporting our progress toward lower emissions isn’t helping us at all. In real terms, we are simply not progressing in reducing our emissions fast enough.

Climate problems could work to our economic advantage if we are clever. Innovation will be the key to our success.

As policy-makers around the world tighten their regulations to address climate change, global companies and the financial markets will be looking at mitigating risk by investing in low carbon industries.

Just recently US-based fund manager BlackRock (which has more than $US5 trillion of assets under management) announced it was moving toward renewable energy investments, with a large portion of its fund to be based in Australia.

As the world turns away from a reliance on fossil fuels, there will be a real opportunity to drive new economic growth, not just in clean energy production, but with solution-driven, environment-saving technologies and expertise.

SA should seize the opportunities

South Australia is well-positioned to take advantage of these opportunities. Recent surveys show we now lead the country in terms of our clean energy use and commitment to alternatives like wind and solar power thanks to the Weatherill Government.

Currently, we perform better than both Victoria and NSW on the number of households using solar energy (we are at 35 per cent) and our overall renewable energy usage is currently at more than 50 per cent.

We’ve proved that large scale projects like the Canunda Wind Farm, opened by Mike Rann in 2005, can be successful. That project now generates enough electricity to power around 30,000 homes.

Wind and solar technology are only one form of green power production, SA’s world leading experts are also examining the application of alternatives like hydrogen, geothermal and wave power that can be used across many industries. It’s clear we have the expertise to attract global players to this state and to build new exports, but we will need Federal Government support.

Better funding models needed

At a state level, our government certainly has the capacity to build the knowledge infrastructure that can drive this new economy.

It is still a struggle for smaller start-up companies in the environmental space to find the funding they need to scale up. They could be tomorrow’s agricultural technology specialists, recycling businesses, solar and hydrogen specialists, or green transport companies.

However, there is still a distinct lack of support for early-stage research and development once it leaves a university setting.

We are at risk of important IP going offshore. We can prevent this by establishing a new kind of Green Fund that aims to attract a diverse range of companies to develop their ideas here in SA, perhaps with local partners. In addition, we must work to encourage a more supportive environment for private investment to boost home-grown green ventures.

Let’s not waste more time by buying into polarising debates. Most Australians want to tackle climate change, even if the Federal Government is  dithering. However, we must all be on the same page as a nation to make any headway. And we must consider our global role too. It’s easy to say SA will export more clean power, yet that sounds hypocritical considering as a country we still ship huge amounts of coal overseas.

Our future lies in driving innovative solutions that will change the very nature of our economy. That is the only thing that will put us on the fast track to halting global warming and building a greener, and economically stronger future.

As one former Queensland politician said recently, there will be no jobs on a dead planet. Let’s make 2020 about real action on this issue.

Andrea Michaels is the Labor MP for Enfield and the managing director of NDA Law.

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