This week’s theme is Australia. For a while I've been promising you a review of what's been going on from an environmental point of view since Anthony Albanese's Labor government took office in May. I spoke to Dr Simon Wright. He’s Director at Simply Sustainable Consulting and Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) at the Orange campus of the University of Technology, Sydney.
I found out that he was born in Cambridge UK, so as we are both Brits we started off by talking about the weather...
Simon: So I actually live four hours west of Sydney in a place called Orange, which is quite English in many ways. We're 1000 meters up, so we have an instantly a cooler climate, and our winters are cool and our summers are warm but not humid, and we're surrounded by vineyards and fruit orchards. So in some ways it's sort of like a southern English, northern French climate.
Anthony: Wow. Yes. Well, I imagine where you are, you don't get the floods, do you? If you're 1000 feet up.
Simon: Yeah look, 1000 meters up. We've had a lot of rain, but yeah, the water runs downhill and we don't have a river in Orange, so we don't tend not to suffer from flooding. But there is a ridiculous amount of water around. Well, no one's really seen it. It really is quite unprecedented. You might even think that the climate was changing, but hey, we know that's just a right wing piece of propaganda.
Anthony: Yes. Talking of the right wing and propaganda, it's been very controversial in Australia for a while, hasn't it, Simon? Scott Morrison I think was the guy who went into parliament with the lump of coal and said, "Don't be afraid of it."
Simon: That's right. That's right.
Anthony: Of course Coal is very important to your country. Exporting coal was equivalent, on the latest figures I've seen to three and a half percent of GDP. And well, it's something that you rely on. Not just mining coal, but mining iron ore, and many other metals. Iron ore in fact I think is a bigger export than coal.
Simon: It is, yes. It is.
Anthony: Now you had a change of government. Anthony Albanese came in May of 2022, and everybody expected that things would be much more environmentally friendly, environmentally informed. And in fact, one of the first things he did was to update the NDCs, the nationally determined contribution, which is Australia's contribution to achieving the Paris Climate Agreement targets. And he did that in July, only a few months ... No, June. Only a month after he won the election, which is great. The target that was proposed was that you would achieve 43% below the 2005 level by 2030, which is a 15% improvement. But that has taken your rating from highly insufficient to insufficient. So he's gone a way, but there was an awful long way to go, because your carbon footprint per capita is one of the very highest in the world. In fact, you are in the top four, I think. You're below China. China is just off the scale, but Australia is worse even than the United States, according to some measures. So how much further can Mr. Albanese take the country?
Simon: Well, it's an interesting time, Anthony. We certainly feel as though the adults are back in control, which is nice. The previous governments really ignored the science and perpetuated the fossil fuel legacy, and was positively antagonistic towards the renewables industry. So certainly the change of government and the change in the composition of the respective houses in parliament are welcome. We have a government that is certainly making many positive noises. And yes, has set a reduction target of 35% by ... Sorry, 43% by 2035. 2030? 2030-
Simon: Yes, that's right. Sorry, I haven't had enough coffee this morning. And so these are all very, very welcome noises, but it's still insufficient, and it's still below what the scientists recommend.
Now, Albanese and Chris Bowen, the energy minister have said that it's a floor, not a ceiling. There is a grouping, which again is quite unusual for Australia, there is a grouping of independents that have won many marginal seats, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne in the big cities.
Anthony: Now these are the Teals, is that right?
Simon: The Teals, that's right. They have a strong pro-climate orientation, which is great. And there is a hope that they will strongly shape the direction of the target. So I think that at the moment there is a sense that after 10 years of an extraordinarily conservative government, and then suddenly a very strong statement by the Australian community around wanting change in climate, I think there is a feeling that Albanese is trying to almost use the independents to take him to where Labor would ideally be, without Labor making those commitments themselves.
And the reason for that is that at the last election, which Labor lost and were expected to win, they made some very aggressive commitments around carbon reduction. So moving towards net zero and renewables. And it was cited as one of the major reasons why they lost the election. Very simplistic analysis, but I think they have had their fingers burned, and so he's trying to play a political game. From my perspective, it's a little frustrating because, like you, working in this space, I appreciate the urgency of action, and therefore further dillydallying is really very, very frustrating. But we're hoping that the politics will play out.
Now, some of the positives are that there have been some very aggressive commitments made by this government to renewables attempting to get to 80 to 85% renewables by 2030, and the state governments are doing an awful lot on the ground. In fact, it's been the state governments in the absence of any federal leadership in the last decade that have been promoting a rapid transition. And ironically, it's been the conservative government in New South Wales that has been one of the leaders in terms of promoting renewables, renewable energy targets, building renewable energy zones and special activation precincts, and doing everything they can to accelerate our transition to renewables, because they understand the economic opportunity.
Anthony: Well, you've got a long way to go. You've got quite some way to go.
Long Way to Go
Simon: We have a long way to go. We have a long way to go.
Anthony: Because 71% of your electricity was generated from fossil fuels in 2021, and 51% of that was coal.
Simon: That's right.
Anthony: And yet you are a country who have one of the greatest amounts of sunshine in the world.
Simon: Well, not just sunshine, but we have astonishing depths of renewable energy resources. And so I think we are seeing, I suppose, an awakening in many people's minds that we should be the renewable energy superpower. And unfortunately, our addiction to coal, and it has been an addiction, has really blinded people to the opportunity of renewables. But you're absolutely right, we have ridiculous amounts of sunshine. We're the sunniest place on the planet. I think where I live we have about 270 days of sunshine per year. We're a big continent, so the wind blows pretty consistently. Obviously we have some weather extremes, and particularly we have lots of offshore opportunity for wind, which has hitherto not been developed, unlike in Europe. And we're only now under this new government starting to talk about offshore wind, but that's three to five years away at least. So we do have some great wind resources.
We also have other great sources potentially of renewables. We have biomass, which could play an important role in the overall energy mix. And we have hydro. Obviously, we have the snowy hydro, which was brought many years ago. And there are plans to extend that. And there are now more hydro projects, pumped hydro projects being considered. There are a couple down the road from where I live here in the central west of New South Wales. But again, they are quite contentious projects. And the social licence for pumped hydro can be a very complex process, particularly there are many environmentalists, for example, who are very, very keen to see action on climate change, and very keen to move to renewables, but are against pumped hydro. Sometimes because of the impacts upon the natural environment and areas that ... So it's complex. The social licence is complex.
Wave Power and Hydrogen
And then we have a lot of good research going on into of wave powered energy. But obviously these aren't going to happen tomorrow and they're probably not going to help us with our 2030 targets. And of course now hydrogen. Every other news story seems to be about hydrogen at the moment, and Australia has forged a very close working relationship with Germany to explore a rapid transition to the hydrogen economy. But again, that's probably not going to help us in the short to medium term. That's still some way away. We need our grid. To make hydrogen you still need energy, and it needs to be clean energy. And at about the moment, I think we're sitting now, since those 2021 figures, we're sitting at around almost a third of Australia's energy is derived from renewables. We've seen some days where it's getting up to 60 or 70%. Mostly when industry is not operating. So Saturdays and Sundays. But we're still seeing some very good numbers. And our household solar penetration is the biggest in the world, as it should be. But there is a realisation that we should be the global superpower in renewable energy, and that this is a great potential transition away from coal.
Now coal has been an enormously contentious political issue.
Anthony: Yeah, I want to ask you about that. How much freedom of movement has the government on coal, given that there are some major investments? The name Adani comes to mind, they're building not only massive mines, but port facilities, railways to ship the coal, and all of that has been done with government approval. Now, I can't see ... Well, tell me. Can the present government suddenly turn round, turn its back on that when investors have actually put so much money into projects like this?
Simon: Look, it's a really good question. As an academic, I would answer as follows. I would say that generally the market is talking, and we're seeing coal fired power stations that were due to close in 2040, and now closing in 2030-32. Recent announcements, Australia's largest coal fire power station down in Victoria has been scheduled to shut more than 10 years earlier than anticipated. The market is starting to talk. Only yesterday, investors were moving into one of Australia's largest retail energy companies that also owns generation, and there is real pressure on particularly companies with coal fired assets to close them sooner rather than later to enable a clear path to a renewable energy transition. So that's all really positive.
Adani is the big blip on the horizon. Sorry, I should also say that our environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, has announced greater scrutiny of energy projects just this week, looking at, I'm guessing, in the run up to COP 27 she was quite keen to be saying good things. So she was talking about greater scrutiny of applications for coal developments. But it is insane that we would be contemplating any new combines and coal developments, when we are trying to move rapidly to decarbonisation of our economy.
Anthony: Of course, you're not burning the coal, the majority of the coal you're not burning domestically. You are exporting it.
Simon: You're exporting it. That's right.
Anthony: With demand from places like Indonesia to run their coal-fired power stations. It's very difficult to say, "Well, we will forego the revenues from sending it out." But the thing is-
Simon: And that is the argument.
Anthony: But somebody else burns it, it still affects the whole world, doesn't it?
Simon: That's right. And that's the argument of the coal industry. The coal industry says, "Our coal is good coal, it's mined responsibly, it's clean coal," whatever that means, "And hence, it's better that we meet their demand." So that is very much the argument of the coal industry.
But yes, Adani is a blip. It's a legacy of the previous government. There are still considerable pressure on companies financing and insuring Adani, but it certainly seems counterintuitive to where we are trying to head with our de-carbonisation pathway. So it is a very mixed picture. It is still a big part of our economy, and there is still a lot of sensitivity in coal mining communities about jobs and transitions. And there's still an absence of a detailed transition strategy in Europe. You've obviously had lots of conversations, well in the UK in Spain, in Germany, in Slovakia, in Poland, all big coal mining areas, lots of conversations around transition plans. We are a little behind on that, and that has caused a lot of uncertainty in coal mining communities.
So it's not so much about the coal, I think it's about the jobs. And of course where you have coal mines, you have whole communities that are very contingent upon those mines. And those communities in the Hunter Valley here in New South Wales, in Gladson in Queensland, and also over in WA, those communities want some answers about how they're going to survive in this low carbon environment when their coal mines shut. So there's a lot of sensitivity. Interestingly, it was the coal mining areas that the previous election contributed very much to Labor's defeat. This time round, it's been the coal mining areas who have acknowledged that they need to transition, and there was a much stronger supportive Labor in what I've been, traditionally, Labor heartlands, unionised Labor heartlands, similar to the UK, but they still want some detail and answers, and I think this government has a window opportunity. Probably one electoral term to give those answers to those communities. But it's very challenging.
The mining industry is slightly different. I think the mining industry sees a shiny future in the low carbon landscape. We know that Australia is very fortunate. We sit on a lot of mineral deposits that are absolutely critical to the renewable energy future. The demand for all of those metals for batteries and for componentry is going to remain very, very high, and I think the mining industry sees a bright future. And we're seeing some of the leaders, the CEOs of Australia's largest mining companies looking at investment in hydrogen and clean energy to support their mining activities.
So I think the mining industry sees a bright future in renewables, but I think the future of coal ... The future of cold is pretty clear. It's just about how we get there and how we bring those communities along with us. That is the challenge for this government.
Anthony: Do you think that the mining industry, therefore, is going to specialise more in special metals rather than bulk commodities like iron ore?
Simon: I think there's already a realisation that Australia needs to value add onshore. Historically, we've just dug this stuff up and shipped it off and then let other people really create value and make the money from that.
But absolutely, I think Australia understands it needs to specialise to add value on shore, and to support this renewable energy transition. And of course, being such an energy intensive industry, it also understands that it needs to play a role in terms of investments in generation and particularly hydrogen listing Fortescue Metals, in particular. And their CEO has been very outspoken in terms of the need to drive investments in clean energy and particularly in hydrogen.
LULUCF - Land Use and Forestry
Anthony: Right. Now, according to Climate Action Tracker, your nation's land use and forestry is in fact a source rather than a sink for CO2. Has that appeared anywhere on the national agenda? Is anybody addressing that issue?
Simon: Yeah, it's a very hot issue at the moment, Anthony. Again, hotter than it might have been under the previous government. And obviously the discussions and commitments at COP 27 around methane and methane reduction, that's a big issue for us because of our agricultural industry, and particularly cattle. Cattle is an enormous industry here. I drive around and livestock dominates the landscape, particularly at the moment where most of the crops have been ravaged by the rain. And so it's a massive issue for farmers.
The good news is that the farming groups, National Farmers Federation, making livestock are all making very clear commitments towards net zero. There's an acknowledgement that something needs to be done. The conversations around biodiversity ... Obviously Australia is a very, very large country, has a mass of biodiversity, but also can play an enormous role in terms of using its natural assets to capture and store carbon. There's real interest. I wouldn't say excitement at the moment, because we know that the methodologies around measuring carbon in soil are very questionable and variable. But there's real interest in the farming community, as looking at carbon as a source of income for them. Australian farmers are looking to diversify. They farm in what is probably the toughest climate, or one of the toughest climates in the world. And unlike their US and European counterparts, get no subsidy. So farming in Australia is very, very tough, and farmers are very grounded individuals. But they're also incredibly entrepreneurial. There's a general perspective that farmers are not entrepreneurial, but I would really counter that. I think they're incredibly entrepreneurial, because they have to be survive.
And so there's a real interest there in carbon farming, and working with governments to generate income from their assets. Essentially, farmers are not stupid. They're very canny business people, and they will do what they're paid to do. And so if we can generate some funding schemes for farmers to store carbon, then they will. But at the moment, those schemes have been very patchy, quite complex. And so that market has not moved as much perhaps as it might have done. But absolutely. Look, there is a general awareness of the important role. I think agriculture accounts for about 13% of our total emissions. You may have the figures in front of you there, but I remember listening to a podcast not so long ago talking about that. So it's an enormously significant contribution. And the farmers are very mindful that ... Australia has a very positive reputation in terms of its agricultural products overseas. We're seen as a clean, responsible agricultural producer, but there is now a need for us to be a clean, responsible and low carbon producer of ag products. And the farming community is very aware of that, but they need some help in getting to point.
Anthony: Yeah. Simon, you say you drive around, how many Australians are driving electric cars these days?
EVs and Emissions Standards
Simon: We probably have the lowest penetration of EVs of any developed country. Again, unfortunately, a bit of a legacy of the previous government that refused to support this transition, and also refused to establish emissions standards for vehicles. The new government has started talking about that, which is refreshing. And the state governments are starting to invest in charging infrastructure, both in the cities and the regions.
One of the challenges we have, obviously Anthony, is we can see really strong interest now. I had a cup of coffee with a mate this morning, he drives a Tesla. There's a strong interest now in the cities in electric vehicles, because we were so recalcitrant in terms of our emission standards, not many electric vehicles were actually making their way to us. And actually a lot of car manufacturers were dumping older models of cars into Australia. Arguably still are. And so that's now starting to change, and we are seeing investment in infrastructure. But the challenge we have is that we are the most urbanised country in the world. 80% of our people live in our cities. I don't. I live out in the country. I'm the 20%. And the distances between towns is quite enormous, and the populations are very thin. And so there's a real challenge for us in building infrastructure in the regions.
But in the cities, a great opportunity. I think what we'll see is, as we're seeing with renewables, I think we'll see in Australia one of the quickest transitions to electric vehicles, at least in the cities, of any of country. And that's starting now. And we are seeing commitments next year of greater numbers of electric vehicles to be imported into Australia. And so certainly the EV future here is bright. And obviously yesterday's announcement by Volvo of focusing solely on electric vehicles was very exciting. And people looked at that, and I think people are realising that the future is electric, and certainly the cities we'll see a rapid transition. But in the country, both in terms of vehicles and also in terms of heavy vehicles ... Heavy vehicles also is a challenge for us. Australia has a woeful rail network because of years of under investment. And so unlike in Europe, where a lot of goods are shipped by rail, most of our goods, logistics is focused solely on big trucks. I just spent the last few days traveling around New South Wales, and probably 50% of the vehicles on the road are large trucks. Everything is shipped by road, which is-
Anthony: These are the trucks with multiple trailers, aren't they?
Simon: Yeah. So typically where I live, we have one trailer, but in outback Australia, they have two or three. The road trains. Yeah, they're absolutely enormous. And look, it's a very inefficient way to ship stuff around. But that unfortunately is the way that it is. We're not going to see rail ... Rail is taking more and more market share, and we've seen a new inland rail link just being built not far from where I live, here in central New South Wales, for transporting goods from Adelaide, and Melbourne, and Sydney, up through central Australia, and then off to Queensland, Northern Territory, and over to Western Australia. So that is happening slowly, but we need electric solutions for heavy vehicles.
Now, we have seen an electric truck company starting up in Melbourne, which is very exciting. And I think we are seeing enormous amounts of innovation in Australia around electric, which is really exciting.
So look, going back to your original question, I think we will see a really rapid transition in Australia. It's been non-existent to date. EV penetration's very low. But I think we are about to see a really massive and rapid transition of vehicles to electric, which is very exciting. And we'll see some economies of scale and we'll see vehicle prices coming down, and we are seeing fast charges emerging around the traps, and so it's an exciting time.
Anthony: Right. Well, going back to the broader picture, it seems quite clear that since the new government's come in, a lot of things have changed, a lot of things have been done. Do you see that momentum continuing to go forward?
Simon: Well, let me clarify. I would say that a lot of commitments have been made, and there are lots of conversations going on. We haven't seen much action yet. It's been a very short period. It's barely six months since the new government was elected, but we've seen an exponential uplift, I suppose, in terms of engagement, excitement. There are billions and billions of dollars of investments now being discussed, whereas six months ago they weren't being discussed. Nobody wanted to invest in Australia. It was too uncertain. The risk profile was too great, with a government that clearly wasn't supportive of renewables.
Lack of Skilled Labour
So we're seeing lots of good conversations, lots of commitments being made, lots of multi-stakeholder conversations with industry and government and communities. Lots of really exciting plans. But the proof of the pudding, as they say, is yet to be eaten and digested. And at the moment, we're still a little away from that. There are very many obstacles. Not least the obstacle that all developed economies are facing, which is a lack of people to do the work. We have these incredibly ambitious goals to build solar and wind assets in regional Australia, and a lot of where I live around here, but unemployment rates are very low. And when you can't find plumbers or painters, goodness me, you can't find engineers and wind farm technicians. So there are lots and lots of obstacles.
But look, the outlook is way better than it was. Lots of positive conversations, and it's an exciting time in the renewables landscape in Australia. And personally, I have believed this for a long time, is we have so much potential here. We really could be the global renewable energy superpower if we can move quickly, and we can get some alignment in terms of investment, and government policy, and address some of these logistics issues. It's a very, very exciting time here for renewables, and I hope that we can go from global climate pariah to a global energy superpower, and lead the way both in terms of product, but also in terms of technology and knowhow, and that renewables can become the new mining and mining services. That Australia will be known for its knowledge and smarts around renewables and around some of those value add services that are so critical to our global renewable transition.
Anthony: Well Simon, that's a very positive and optimistic note to end on. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and insights into Australia with the Sustainable Futures report.
Simon: Yeah, pleasure. Thanks Anthony.
Simon Wright, of the University of Technology, Sydney.
I need to make a correction. In that interview I said that Australia’s revised NDC took its overall rating from Highly Insufficient to Sufficient. In fact the rating by Climate Action Tracker was changed from Highly Insufficient to Insufficient. Still some way to go!
As I said, next week I shall be commenting on the outcomes of COP 27 and other issues which have come up over the last few weeks. I have a program of interviews which will take us through now until February. Later this month I will return to the theme of managing carbon footprints then we have news from the Material Library of India and an interview with Stacy Savage, the Texas Trash Talker.
Jane White has contacted me with a number of ideas for future episodes, and thanks to, to John and Darren for your feedback on previous episodes. As I said, the schedule is quite full for some weeks ahead but I'm always grateful for suggestions and ideas and I hope to do them justice in due course. Jane, John and Darren are of course some of my loyal patrons who support the Sustainable Futures Report to keep it independent and ad free. I'm always most grateful to them and to all the other patrons.
Maybe you'd like to join them. Details at patreon.com/sfr.
On the Sustainable Futures Report website you'll find links to background information on the state of the environment in Australia.
That's it for this week. Thanks again to my guest Simon Wright.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
Sources and References
43% below 2005 by 2030 - 15% improvement
Climate Action Tracker
Coal and Energy
Just Have a Think - Australian Climate
Australian flag Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/openclipart-vectors-30363/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=156188">OpenClipart-Vectors</a> from <a href=“https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=156188">Pixabay</a>
Mining Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/stafichukanatoly-3558116/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=2023592">Анатолий Стафичук</a> from <a href=“https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=2023592">Pixabay</a>
Kookaburra Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/beckytregear-6512371/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=4761218">Rebecca Tregear</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=4761218">Pixabay</a>