COVID-19 has presented a unique opportunity to finally overcome the political inertia surrounding climate action. And it is not just environmental activists and scientists pushing the idea this time, but a range of businesses and industry groups recognising that the shift to clean energy is not only a necessary course of action, but a smart one.
The sudden and unprecedented rise in unemployment, already estimated at 6.2%, compels a reflection on how future disruptions can be best prevented. It is becoming increasingly clear, as lockdowns around the world persist, that future-proof jobs do not lie in fossil fuel industries but in renewable energy.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a damning report for fossil fuel industries, indicating that during the pandemic, the demand for gas has dropped by 5%, and coal by 8%. Only renewable energy remained resilient to the global drop in energy demand. Renewables are already cheaper than new coal power in two-thirds of countries, whilst the cost of solar power has declined by 85% in the past decade. But what does this mean for the workers in fossil fuel industries? Regional workers particularly have expressed frustration at their marginalisation in city politics, and have taken to the streets to protest what they perceive as inner-city environmental movements.
Perhaps the most well-known protest movement of this kind was the pro-coal movement in Mackay, mobilising in support for the Adani Carmichael coal mine and the jobs promised through it. The promise of job opportunities in Mackay demonstrates the persistent economic arguments underlying the advancement of renewable energy projects in regions dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Yet Tony Wood, the energy program director from the Grattan Institute, has argued that the government is cheating the nearly 100,000 Australian carbon workers by letting them think their protests against clean energy development will hold in a future predicated on renewable energy on a global scale.
This is not to say that these workers will lack employment. Instead, the creation of renewable energy plants would provide masses of new job opportunities. Potential employment figures are estimated by the Clean Energy Council to be at 50,000 construction jobs and 4,000 ongoing jobs. The Grattan Institute further finds that new industrial development in ‘green steel’ made with renewable hydrogen could employ 25,000 in coal-intensive regions. Beyond Zero Emissions is also developing a “million jobs plan”, with potentially 300,000 jobs in a national energy “retrofit” drive to render three million buildings more energy efficient.
Australia’s abundant natural resources mean renewable energy is a ticket to advance Australia’s global standing through exports. The Australian Energy Market Operator released a ground-breaking report in April, stating that Australia has the capacity to run a power grid on 75% solar and wind energy by 2025 with technologies that are already available. Whilst environmentalists and scientists have been promoting these changes for decades, it has taken a global pandemic to meaningfully engage businesses and industry. The Business Council of Australia has argued strongly that every “dollar we invest in energy, should be a dollar towards a lower carbon economy.” It is government policy that is hindering this necessary and highly conceivable shift away from fossil fuels.
At a surface level, state policy seems to be shifting towards clean energy development. Online summits presenting the need to frame the COVID-19 recovery around climate action were attended by representatives from each state and the ACT. For instance, Queensland’s premier indicated that green hydrogen would overtake the state’s liquefied natural gas exports, whilst SA’s energy minister hoped for SA to run on 100% clean electricity before 2030. However, these statements do not indicate a complete energy revolution; the Queensland government has announced a support package for the oil and gas industry, and the Victorian government has decided to lift the ban on onshore gas drilling. And NSW has approved an extension of coal mining under a Greater Sydney reservoir
These policies are clearly aimed at appeasing worker grievances. However, they are ultimately short-term fixes. Smarter developments in renewables are being sidelined in favour of attempts to save fossil fuel industries, with environmental goals of moving towards a zero-emissions future being sidelined. The extensive media coverage of COVID-19 has seemingly provided an opportunity to hide environmentally-damaging decisions, despite states vocalising support for clean energy. The states do appear to be ahead of federal policy change however, with the federal government not represented at either online energy summit. The federal government has instead promoted a fossil fuel-powered pandemic-recovery based on gas, despite evidence of its diminishing economic viability. Unsurprisingly, the federal government has not addressed how this sits with pursuing emissions reductions.
The coal industry will not stand indefinitely, and by investing in fossil fuels in the post-pandemic stimulus, Australia would be passing up a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost the economy and create jobs in new sectors, ensuring long-lasting economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is near-impossible to maintain the argument that fossil fuel jobs are future-proof; now is the best time to ensure that the Australian economy is.