ANALYSIS

Clean energy future and COP26: Jobs, mining and regions in. Fossil fuels out

Senator Bridget McKenzie, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Senator Bridget McKenzie, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

In just over two weeks time, Team Australia - most probably lead by the Prime Minister - will attend a world gathering where the nation has a bad reputation - the latest UN climate change conference, COP26 in Glasgow.

Heavily reliant on fossil fuels and the only nation to ever repeal an emissions trading scheme, Australia will have an emissions reductions roadmap to take to the party.

A deal is being considered as you read this between the government Coalition parties, the Liberals and Nationals. Barring some sort of lightning strike, it will be struck and Scott Morrison is expected to announce it next week.

The key is wavering Nationals members and regional communities who these Nationals plead are being left behind.

With the extraordinary dexterity of seeming both in and out of the government, Nationals minister Bridget McKenzie gave a telling interview on Wednesday with Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National.

Demanding respect as "the second party of government" but talking of a Liberal plan not a government plan, she stated there will be "no deal unless it's right for the regions".

The positioning by the Nationals makes it seem that regions aren't keen on significant climate action, but they are - at least according to polling conducted for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

It would be remarkable if a deal did not happen. Most of the 21 members of the Nationals party room are open to considering a net zero target.

The Prime Minister is not planning on legislating a new target. He has the upper hand, but needs the Nationals onside.

But it is notable that Liberal and Labor representatives of regional electorates don't appear to have same grievances.

"I don't get a sense of feeling worried or threatened around me and I feel that I know my communities very well," Environment Minister and member for Farrer Sussan Ley said.

To the weariness of climate scientists and campaigners who decry a decade of wasted years, the tide has turned.

The establishment has grasped the potential benefits and opportunities.

The Business Council of Australia, the NSW Coalition government and Britain's Prince Charles are urging a Morrison government transition from carbon. Grab the opportunity with both hands, advises the NSW Liberal Treasurer. It is a "last chance saloon," according to the Prince of Wales.

It is difficult to talk of strange bedfellows when the bed is on fire.

Indeed, while we have been battling the health emergency of COVID-19, the environmental crisis of climate change has remained bubbling at the surface, keeping us on a path toward a warming planet.

The Morrison government is touting technology as the way forward, such as hydrogen fuels and carbon capture and storage. Billions of dollars will be invested in this. But they are not proven and, if they do work down the track, they will not be enough to fix the problem.

Professor Matthew England established the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and is the deputy director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science.

To get to net zero, he says Australia must get off an addiction to fossil fuels as soon as possible.

"There is no viable way to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere," he told The Canberra Times.

"Once it's there, it stays there for thousands and thousands of years. It's gradually sequestered in vegetation and into the oceans, but over a multi-thousand year timescale."

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"Anybody who thinks that we can we can sort of suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere with a giant vacuum cleaner or with a giant program to revegetate forests is not aware of the scale of the decarbonisation we need to do so.

"Those extra tons and tons, giga-tons, of carbon dioxide that are going into the atmosphere, they're warming our planet, they're acidifying our oceans and we can't get them out of the atmosphere once they're there in any cost effective way."

But if we have to go back to what Australia, in particular regional Australia, might be losing through a credible clean energy transition, a new coalition of unions, business and conservation groups say it is not jobs.

The Business Council of Australia has joined the Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF-Australia and the ACTU to advise that the trade resulting from investment in clean energy exports could create 395,000 new local jobs and generate $89 billion in new trade by 2040.

Where are these tens of thousands of well-paid jobs? According to the Sunshot report, mostly in regional areas and "accessible by workers across all levels of skill and education."

The opportunities are in renewable hydrogen and ammonia, green metals, critical minerals, battery manufacturing, education and training and engineering, ICT and consulting services.

A possible job surge through clean energy investment is no surprise to Professor England. He says mining jobs will still be needed in the future, just not for coal.

"Mining is gonna thrive in a renewable-rich world. We won't be mining coal we will be mining precious metals," he said.

"To make solar panels, there's a lot of mining required to get the metals that are required to produce those solar PV cells."

"It is going to ruin the coal industry. We need to do that. We need to keep coal in the ground. We shouldn't be scared of doing that, but the mining sector itself is going to be well and truly, central to producing the solar cells that we need."

One lump of coal, in particular, has become an emblem of the climate roadblock in Australia.

Mr Morrison as treasurer brandished it in Parliament while urging the opposition to "not be afraid" of it.

With even climate contrary News Corp papers seemingly on the bandwagon, there are signs that the deep polarisation and misinformation on climate may be on the way out.

Yet climate policy has been a leadership killer since Tony Abbott toppled Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader in 2009. Why would an effective political wedge be let go? Especially, this close to the next election.

They don't call it the climate wars for nothing.

This story It is difficult to talk of strange bedfellows when the bed is on fire first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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