Making it last

Shifting from fear to hope

1 Comment 05 July 2010

Australia’s abundant energy and opportunities for future wealth and health

by Fiona Armstrong


Unlike many other countries, Australia has no significant climate policy. Efforts to introduce a lacklustre emissions trading scheme have failed, and apart from some minor policies, Australia has no significant policy agenda to contribute to the global effort of stemming our relentless rise in greenhouse gas emissions, or to draw down our legacy of excess carbon dioxide (CO2), as we are warned we must.1

Australia’s history is closely linked with a reliance on natural resources. We have been encouraged to think that the ‘lucky country’ is dependent on its natural assets for wealth and prosperity and that their exploitation is our only key to a stable economy and flourishing society. The bad news is that the way we are using some of those resources is damaging not only the ecosystems on which we depend, but also our economic security and our nation’s reputation as a good global citizen.

The good news is that our abundant natural resources can continue to dominate Australia’s future. But we must begin to transform our economy now to capitalise on this continent’s natural advantages of sun, wind, and soil and the opportunities they afford for a secure future.

The fossil fuel lobby’s claims that renewable energy can’t do the job, or that cutting emissions will harm Australian’s job prospects, are simply unfounded – in fact the reverse is true.2 Wind and solar data tells us that we have massive energy resources available and technology exists to provide us with renewable energy day and night.3 Detailed reports indicate there is huge potential for the creation of jobs in constructing and operating new renewable energy infrastructure.4 Further studies suggest that a failure to engage with new global markets that are being created by action on climate change means Australia is missing out on opportunities to develop innovative intellectual property and on growth in profitable new industries.5

Unless Australia supports the development of an economy powered by renewable energy sources, we risk a loss of competitiveness internationally. Our reliance on coal looks increasingly reckless economically as well environmentally as other countries begin to look at imposing border taxes on carbon intensive imports.6 We need to begin our clean energy transformation now, or Australia will lose out on the jobs and economic benefits from what is predicted to be the ‘biggest high technology market of the 21st Century’.7

It is time to link climate with policy across the sectors (energy, transport and agriculture in particular) and to develop strategies to ensure Australia is able to meet its fair share of the global obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce atmospheric CO2 to a safe level. This will require a considerable shift away from the current focus on propping up ‘sunset industries’ in the face of inevitable change.

The scale of transition is enormous, but as Sir Nicolas Stern, Professor Garnaut and others have identified, the costs of not acting far outweigh the costs of action.8

Repositioning Australia now to capitalise on its natural advantages by building industries based on sustainable resources will enable us to lower our emissions and draw down carbon dioxide – with the additional benefits of more jobs (and more secure jobs), cleaner air, economic prosperity and energy security.

Addressing climate change is both a matter of domestic policy and international obligation. Australia cannot have any credibility in global discussions on climate change if it takes no effective action itself. Effective international action depends on emission reductions being undertaken by industrialised nations, not just promised. It is the implementation of effective policies to reduce each nation’s emissions that is the key to international agreements, not the other way around.

The development of a comprehensive policy suite to address the challenge of climate change for Australia is well overdue. Action is needed to reduce emissions, draw down excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and to adapt and prepare for further changes to the climate. This will not only assist in eliciting cooperation from other global partners in the task of restoring a safe climate, it will also:

  • help position Australia in the increasingly competitive global marketplace of clean, sustainable industries
  • improve our energy and national security, and
  • provide considerable health and social benefits.

The story so far

During the past decade, Australian governments have been slow to respond to the global effort to reduce emissions and act on climate change. This reflected the scepticism (and later, denial) on the part of some of the senior members of the Howard government on the scientific evidence on global warming. Concerns about Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels (for electricity generation, transport and export revenue) led to that government’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (an international agreement effective since 1997 between 190 countries) despite being only one of two industrialised countries not to do so.

Under pressure from shifting popular opinion however, Prime Minister Howard pledged to develop an emissions trading scheme to reduce green house gas emissions in 2006, and commitments were made by the then Rudd Opposition to address the issue. Elected on a wave of popular support and desire for change, the Rudd Government adopted the Howard policy of emissions trading in 2007, and during 2007-08, developed a ‘cap and trade’ model, known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The Opposition changed position (and leadership) on the issue, and the legislation was rejected twice in the Senate, amid widespread criticism of the scheme.

With growing community concern about its inadequate targets, excessive use of offsetting, unnecessary compensation to polluters, and the setting of both a ‘cap’ and a ‘floor’ beyond which emissions reductions could not fall or rise, by early 2010 the CPRS had become a liability for the Government, and it was shelved (to be reconsidered, we are told, in 2013).

This decision offers a fresh opportunity to look at climate policy options in Australia and provides an open space for the development of innovative and effective policy ideas. Such ideas must necessarily reflect actions being taken globally as well as position Australia for leadership in the global effort to address the challenge of climate change.

Why does climate policy matter?

Climate change poses profound threats to the natural ecosystems and biodiversity on which humans depend, and is altering the previously stable climatic conditions that have existed over the past 10,000 years – allowing human civilisation to flourish. Overwhelming scientific evidence over several decades demonstrates human activity (in particular, the burning of fossil fuels for power, heat and transport as well as widespread deforestation) has led to an accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere above pre-industrial levels. This is causing increases in average global temperature, changes to the Earth’s climate, and severely compromising the ability of the Earth’s oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. Ocean acidification is threatening the viability of marine ecosystems, 9 with significant implications for food production for millions of people. 10

The most recent scientific evidence confirms these effects and demonstrates a rapid increase in the rate of warming due to dramatic increases in global emissions. The timeframe for effective action to reduce emissions and prevent the collapse of major ecosystems (and thus our food chain, among other things) is very short – global emissions must peak within this decade and then rapidly decline.11

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only problem

Climate change is only one of three ‘planetary boundaries’ (identified by Earth system scientists as quantified boundaries within which humanity can safely exist) that have already been transgressed. The others are the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity. Nitrous oxide requires special attention, as it is a significant climate forcing agent, with a global warming factor 300 times that of CO2.12 The profligate use of nitrogen by humans (mainly in agricultural fertilisers) is also responsible for the pollution of waterways and damage to marine ecosystems,13 and is implicated in outdated fossil fuel energy production.14

Biodiversity is often overlooked in policy discussions and efforts to reduce emissions. However there are compelling reasons to act to prevent further global warming on biodiversity grounds alone, and to place a value on the services afforded to us by the ecosystem. We need to recognise the vital connection between the choices we make on resource use, the status of the ecological system and the wellbeing of people.15 There are profound economic consequences for failing to do so: from a total of over $US 33 trillion (the 1997 estimated annual value of global ecosystem services), conservative estimates put the annual global loss of land based ecosystem services at €50 billion, and potentially equivalent to seven per cent of GDP by 2050.16

Protecting nature’s grey matterProtecting biodiversity means maintaining the irreplaceable intellectual property that is created by millions of years of evolutionary design – as memorably put by Ian McBurney from live·ecological: “We could also be losing the chance to study nature’s 3.8 billion years of design perfection and find cures for diseases or bio-mimetic glues, organic solar cells, structural designs, super fast computer hardware, self cleaning paints, truly biodegradable packaging, ‘photosynthetic’ hydrogen splitting for fuel cells, stronger and self assembling ceramics, more effective trains and aeroplanes, colour through shape, rather than pigments, bacteria that mine metals from waste streams, collision avoidance circuitry from locusts and lots more.”17

A diverse ecosystem is a resilient one, but the capacity of biodiversity to cope with climate change is not infinite: as the 2009 Australian Government report on biodiversity and climate change stated:

“Australia’s biodiversity has only so much capacity to adapt to climate change, and we are approaching that limit. Therefore, strong emissions mitigation action globally and in Australia is vital – but this must be carried out in ways that deliver both adaptation and mitigation benefits.” 18 Prompt and effective action on climate change is therefore an essential act of risk management.19 This action will also confer many more immediate benefits to Australia’s health, wellbeing, and national and economic security.

There is good news for jobs: studies show there are significant opportunities for ‘green’ jobs growth, since the renewable energy industry creates more jobs per unit of energy generated than the fossil fuel industry.20 It is also a safer industry: the risk of death or injury from workplace hazards is greatly reduced in the renewables sector compared with those working in coal mining and fossil fuel extraction.21

And there is good news for health: improvements to the transport system and powering it with clean renewable energy will reduce air pollution and (if carefully planned, promoted and maintained) stimulate greater physical activity, reducing the risks of some chronic diseases, such as respiratory disease, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.22 Modifying our food choices away from high emissions livestock production can reduce cardiovascular disease,23 and reducing our dependence on industrial scale farming practices will improve soil and water quality.24

Shifting from the burning of fossils fuels, such as coal, for our energy supply will bring significant benefits for those living and working nearby, with developmental disorders, cancers, heart disease and respiratory problems all implicated in proximity to the mining, transportation and burning of coal.25

Fast facts The annual health costs of coal-fired power generation in Australia are estimated at $2.6 billion.26 Coupled with costs from traffic pollution (a 2003 estimate put annual health costs at $3.3 billion), the health costs to the Australian community from burning fossil fuels is around $6 billion annually.27

Fast facts If the currently externalised total climate and health costs for Australian power stations were accounted for, the costs of energy generated by fossil fuels would be considerably higher. If total climate and health costs were included, costs are estimated at: $A19/MWh for natural gas, $A42/MWh for black coal and $A52/MWh for brown coal.28 In contrast, wind power installations are around $A1.50/MWh, while solar thermal and solar PV are equivalent to around $A5/MWh.29

Values and principles

There are both self-interested and moral reasons to act on climate change. We should act to protect ourselves from current and future risks, and we should act to prevent others being affected. Fundamentally, however, the principle that overwhelmingly demands a shift in our approach to economics, our use of natural resources, and our response to climate change, is simply the principle of the ‘interconnectedness’ of ecology and human society. Too little understood by economists, policymakers and overwhelmingly urbanised global populations, the awareness that we are intrinsically part of and totally reliant on a complex interconnected ecological system (whose equilibrium is currently disrupted and increasingly threatened by our current activities) is what should drive our responses to climate and environmental challenges. There are other important issues that should also underpin our response, such as our obligation to intergenerational equity (we don’t leave a mess behind for our kids), global justice (we don’t further damage the wellbeing of people in poorer nations by selfishly insisting we have a right to pollute, and alter the climate), and finally the precautionary principle – because reducing the risk of dangerous climate change is the most profound act of risk management that we can take.

Fear of these risks and consequences may not be what drives us. Psychological studies reveal that, influenced by those with vested interests in the status quo, humans have demonstrated an extraordinary ability to deny the evidence on climate change and its imperative for action.30 A new national ‘narrative’ is needed that will enable people to feel optimistic about the future, confident in the solutions, and convinced that change will not only address current and future risk, but will actively contribute to the establishment of future societies that are better for all of us. As many organisations are beginning to appreciate, changing the way we do business is necessary to ensure that we continue to have access to the ecosystem services on which we depend. Shifting Australia’s economy from one that depends on exploitation of finite natural resources to one that is underpinned by infinite and clean resources is both a challenge and an opportunity. But the emerging evidence is that, not only is it possible, it will bring with it unparalleled economic gains – with the creation of jobs and industries that will make us internationally competitive and economically secure, with better health and more connected communities.31

How do we do it? Transforming energy, transport and land use to make Australia cleaner, healthier, safer, wealthier and more responsible

There is a great need to considerably broaden the policy discussion in Australia on climate change. To date, policies and programs have been developed that are inadequate in scale (Solar Flagships); ill-conceived (the Renewable Energy Target, otherwise known as RET and net feed-in tariff); fail to take account of the science (low emissions reduction targets); illogical (inclusion of native forest biomass and coal mine waste gas as eligible renewable energy sources in the RET); and poorly administered (insulation). Other policies, also insufficient in magnitude but nonetheless effective (Remote Renewables Program), have been abandoned.

Many of these policies have been developed in isolation from one another, when in reality, comprehensive, whole-of-government (let’s face it, whole-of-society) responses are needed.

There are three main strategies necessary to effectively address climate change. These are:

  • reducing the production and emission of greenhouse gases from all sources – starting our New Industrial Revolution
  • removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere – restoring the balance for land, air and sea, and
  • providing for the review and monitoring of a range of techniques for direct cooling of the climate – ensuring safety in climate interventions.

Starting our New Industrial Revolution. Reducing emissions and removing CO2 from the atmosphere requires moving away from the use of fossil fuels in the energy and transport sectors. The changes needed are technically possible, economically feasible and will lead to significant long-term reductions in future energy costs, improvements to population health, and increased agricultural productivity. This will bring about substantial changes to the way we use natural resources but we will be healthier, safer, and facing a more secure economic and foreign policy future as a result. Policy options must include strategies that will achieve a rapid transition to zero emissions technologies, reduction in energy demand and reduced emissions from non-energy related sources.32

Restoring the balance – for land, air and sea. The drawing down of legacy emissions (those already in the atmosphere) is also needed to restore a safe climate zone of atmospheric CO2. At present the main option for this is that of biosequestration. Australia has enormous potential to sequester large quantities (potentially billions of tonnes) of CO2 in soils and forests.33 We need to begin to account for our ‘natural capital’ and stop cutting down our native forests, degrading our waterways and, mindful of the need to secure quality land for food production, increase the use of biochar and undertake substantial reafforestation of our ‘wide brown’ land. Where possible, policy makers must take into account the value of ecosystem services and reflect that value in the establishment of price signals and regulatory measures.34

Ensuring safety in planned climate interventions. Providing for the review and monitoring of a range of techniques for direct cooling of the climate in legislation is necessary to ensure that Australia is aware of, and remains engaged in developing governance frameworks for any technologies being explored to directly alter global or regional climates. This approach acknowledges that while the utmost priority should be placed on eliminating emissions and drawing down excess, should the Earth’s climate suddenly deteriorate, it may be necessary to consider a range of options to protect the Earth’s systems while natural safe climate conditions are restored.

The Policy ToolboxAustralia’s next term climate policy goal: Smarter, greener, fairer, healthier

Implementation of the strategies above requires the development of broad national climate change legislation encompassing a suite of policy responses35 to reduce emissions, draw down carbon and ensure sound governance of climate cooling techniques. This should be accompanied by commitments at the COAG level for state and territory legislation that supports and assists the goals of national initiatives.

The legislation must include the following key elements:

  1. Specific targets for emissions reductions and draw down of emissions – these must have a timeframe attached for regular review (e.g. annually, according to advice from an expert climate scientific advisory committee)
  2. Meaningful financial incentives e.g. a price on carbon that is set at a level that will prevent financing of any new coal fired power generation (unless it can safely capture and store 100 per cent of its GHG emissions) and make clean renewable energy cost competitive with fossil fuels
  3. Energy efficiency standards, fuel consumption standards and greenhouse gas emissions standards that encourage significant reductions in energy use (of fossil fuels in particular) and create disincentives for inefficient energy use in building, transport, and appliance technologies 36
  4. Programs and incentives to discourage deforestation, encourage reafforestation and improve land use to deliver emissions reductions and promote biosequestration 37
  5. Investment in: national energy transmission infrastructure, zero emissions energy technology development and deployment, and zero emissions transport infrastructure 38 and
  6. Removal of the perverse incentives that exist in current policy, such as the current subsidies to fossil fuel industries.39

The legislation must make use of these top climate tools:

  1. Carbon tax - the revenue from which should be used to offset the increase in energy costs for low income and disadvantaged households, assist workers who are disadvantaged during the transition, and to fund the renewable energy transformation
  2. Gross feed-in tariff, for a guaranteed period and tiered according to technology – this is needed to expand renewable energy technologies that are not currently cost competitive under the RET e.g. solar thermal with storage, wave, geothermal; it should be established initially to operate alongside the RET but over time the RET should be phased out
  3. Mandatory standards for emissions and energy efficiency – to drive emissions abatement and to reduce energy use
  4. Progressive taxation policies that encourage the rapid deployment of zero emissions technologies and conservation of natural capital – e.g. tax relief for renewable energy technologies through accelerated depreciation rates; tax breaks and other incentives for landholders/communities to undertake reafforestation projects/reduce deforestation and improve biosequestration
  5. Public financing to upgrade and expand national energy transmission and public transport infrastructure;
  6. Funding to support capital investment for renewable energy technology and the development and deployment of technologies for biosequestration and improving soil quality e.g. biochar – through the provision of low interest loans or loan guarantees
  7. Removal of subsidies for those industries that cause us harm e.g. fossil fuels and intensive agriculture – these should then be applied to renewables and organic farming
  8. Transition and adaptation support for communities – undertaking comprehensive regional climate risk assessments that evaluate economic, health, social and environmental risk and developing action plans to address risk;
  9. Comprehensive education programs to improve climate literacy in all communities;
  10. Investing in research – this is needed to monitor climate change in order to respond effectively; for further development of zero emissions technologies; to improve our understanding and capability for drawdown and transition strategies; and to improve our understanding of climate cooling techniques
  11. Investment in education and training of the skilled workforce needed to manufacture, install, operate and maintain new technologies; and retraining of workers in high emissions industries to enable them to participate in the new green economy, and
  12. A sustainable population policy – recognising the environmental impact of our high per capita emissions and the effect of the human population on our fragile ecosystem.

Why choose these tools?


In his landmark report on the economics of climate change back in 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern identified a price on carbon as a key element to cutting emissions. Nothing has changed; only the urgency of its application has increased. A carbon tax provides a better choice than emissions trading because it:

  • creates an economy-wide incentive to reduce emissions 40
  • is simpler and more transparent than emissions trading 41
  • provides a reward for more long-term (and higher cost) structural changes, while an ETS just encourages low-cost reductions 42
  • provides a steady flow of revenue for governments to direct towards emissions abatement 43
  • provides more price certainty for business than the volatile market of emissions trading 44
  • can be adjusted according to a jurisdiction’s emissions profile 45
  • sets no upper limit on emissions, unlike an ETS, which creates a ceiling (beyond which emissions will not occur) and a floor for emissions reductions 46
  • doesn’t discourage voluntary action 47 and
  • since there are no “rights to pollute” with a carbon tax, it is less likely to generate the compensation claims and buyback costs associated with an emissions trading scheme.48

And a tax will be more efficient economically. A 2008 study from the US Congressional Budget Office found that on economic efficiency measures, the net benefits of a tax were roughly five times that of a cap-and-trade (emissions trading scheme), with reductions achieved at a fraction of the cost.49

Feed-in tariffs

The choice to implement net, rather than gross, feed-in tariffs in some Australian jurisdictions has been a mistake; the rewards for net feed-in tariffs are minimal and quite insufficient to drive investment in large scale renewable energy technology.50 In contrast, a gross feed-in tariff has been used effectively in Germany, where it provides investment security, has created hundreds of thousands of jobs and saved billions of Euros in avoided expenditure on fossil fuels.51

The story is similar in Spain where, in addition to an EU renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020, a gross feed-in tariff is responsible for delivering the Government’s 2010 target of 20 GW of installed wind capacity,52 and driving a surge in investment in the cheapest form of solar power – concentrated solar thermal (CST).53 A guaranteed long term tariff rate at a high enough level to cover costs, coupled with a specific target for CST is responsible for Spain currently boasting the largest global share of solar thermal projects under construction.54

Standards and targets

It’s time to move beyond voluntary standards – these have been in place in some jurisdictions for decades and emissions have continued to rise. Relentless increases in energy consumption in Australia (predicted to rise 35 per cent by 2030),55 need to be addressed through aggressive and continually improving mandatory standards and targets for energy efficiency to reduce energy demand. There is huge potential for emissions reductions from improving energy efficiency: according to a 2008 McKinsey and Co report, about 25 per cent of potential emission reductions could be achieved through energy efficiency measures alone, and what’s more, they are cost-positive (i.e. they save money). To make these standards effective, it is also vital to increase the incentive for emissions reductions by electricity and gas utilities through decoupling the link between revenue and volume of energy sold – in other words, to shift from the current incentive to sell more energy, to less.56 Australian transport emission standards also require considerable strengthening if the health costs (see above) and emissions abatement needed are to be achieved. The transition away from fossil fuels will also require direct investment in the production of clean renewable energy powered vehicles.


Immediate and major investment in zero emissions public transport is necessary to encourage a shift away from private cars to public transport and bicycles in metropolitan areas, increased use of and investment in electrified rail to replace much of the heavy haulage of road transport, and development of a national fast electric rail network to reduce emissions from domestic aviation. To facilitate the contribution of decentralised renewable power generation, a nationally integrated ‘intelligent’ grid for electricity distribution is needed – for which public investment is required.

Removal of fossil fuel subsidies

Achieving effective emissions reductions requires the removal of existing perverse incentives that work in opposition to this goal. Around $10 billion is currently provided in public subsidies to the fossil fuel industries in Australia every year via a range of state, territory and federal programs.57 Decarbonising the economy requires that these subsidies are instead applied to the development and deployment of zero emission technologies.

These policies and others listed above are not an exhaustive list of all the options available for inclusion in a comprehensive climate ‘policy suite’, but are certainly some of the key ingredients. Other important options include, for example, the establishment of a national climate change commission to oversee, monitor and report on the implementation of policy. It is clear, however, in the time remaining to effectively act on climate change, no single policy will be enough, and a range of options must be urgently employed.

What is the evidence that the New Industrial Revolution is possible?

It is not only possible – it can be achieved in relatively short time frames, as the technology is already available and resources are abundant. All that is missing is political will.

A new report from Melbourne consultancy Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) supports the findings of international studies which demonstrate that the world’s energy requirements could be met from renewables within 10-30 years – with aggressive policy action.58 The BZE report (released July 2010) suggests it is possible for Australia to undergo an energy transformation and move to 100 per cent renewable energy for its stationary energy supply by 2020. This could be achieved using fully scaled commercially available technology (wind and solar thermal power with storage) to provide 24 hour dispatchable power from geographically dispersed energy-rich sites across the country.59

The use of these two technologies directly addresses the claims of naysayers who assert that renewable technology is not yet up to the task of large-scale national power generation. The distribution of generating systems overcomes the variability of wind and, combined with the availability of power storage with solar thermal (up to 16 hours), also lays waste to the argument that only fossil fuel and nuclear sources can provide baseload power. Combined with energy efficiency gains, the use of biofuels from agricultural waste, and upgrades to transmission infrastructure, the rollout of these two technologies could achieve massive emissions reductions from the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia – fossil fuel power generation. It would also generate 75,000 jobs during construction and 80,000 ongoing jobs in operations, maintenance and manufacturing – well in excess of those currently employed in the fossil fuel energy supply workforce.60 The required investment for the implementation of this plan is estimated at around 3-3.5 per cent of gross domestic product over 10 years, or AU$35-40 billion per year for 10 years. When the loss of irreplaceable natural capital (i.e. currently unaccounted for ‘externalities’) is accounted for, this may seem like a very prudent investment indeed.

Other recent modelling supports these predictions of national jobs growth from strong policy action through investments in renewable energy, with regional areas in particular set to gain from an energy transformation.61 The National Institute of Economic and Industry Research estimates 770,000 extra jobs could be created by 2030 across Australia if a suite of policy measures to reduce emissions is implemented.62 As well as contributing to Australia’s competitive advantages by creating a strong and resilient domestic renewable energy industry, this type of action will also help to reduce our long term energy costs, build national capital and improve health outcomes.63

The renewable energy revolution is not only possible – it’s happening already. Investment in renewable energy is generating more jobs per dollar invested and more jobs per megawatt hour than fossil fuel generation.64 Global employment in renewable energy is already outstripping direct employment in the oil and gas industries.65 Since 2005, global investment in renewable energy has increased 230 per cent,66 and is expected to total A$185 billion in 2010.67 And, far from being a laggard, China is leading the world, with investments in renewable energy of $US34 billion in 2009.68


It is both possible and necessary for Australia to develop effective climate policy to contribute its fair share to the global task of emissions reduction and to ensure its own secure economic future, while protecting the wellbeing of its citizens.

Policy makers must realise that by taking responsibility for effective action, Australian leadership and action would send a strong signal and influence the response of other nations. As a ‘middle power’, the most effective act of diplomacy open to us is to prove by our own example that it’s possible to go from heavy polluter to climate problem-solver. Australia urgently needs other countries to believe in that possibility, because as a ‘land of droughts and flooding rains’ we have more to lose from climate change than most.

To build public support for effective policy, it is vital that policy makers communicate the scale and urgency of the problem to the community. Voters cannot be expected to support policies they don’t understand or comprehend the need for. The demonstrable disrespect for science that has pervaded political discussions in Australia threatens us all. It is time our political leaders defended climate scientists and made it clear that we do face grave risks, and that it is therefore necessary to develop policies that reflect the scientific evidence. It is also important that the benefits of taking action are made clear to ensure there is a sense of optimism about the future and to encourage innovation in the development of solutions. Overcoming domestic resistance by those with vested interests requires that governments enlist the support of the ordinary citizens – by communicating the benefits of actions as well as the risks. Many people may be unaware that effective mitigation is possible – and entreating the community to join in a national exercise that offers optimism and hope for the future may just be a successful political act.

Ultimately, whether or not we respond effectively will be a test of democracy that will determine our future as a species. Right now, it’s not going so well. Major corporations have greater sovereign power (and bigger balance sheets in some cases) than many nations – and this is reflected in global, and in particular Australian, responses to climate change. At present it is those who have a vested interest in the status quo who are dictating policy. If, as citizens, we choose to deny them this influence, we will need to make our voices much, much louder than they are at present. The time is ripe for a revitalisation of democracy to ensure our political leaders respond. This may be the most important project we can ever undertake.

The risks of not acting are enormous, but the benefits, if we are successful, may be profound. As Al Gore said: “We have at our fingertips all of the tools we need to solve the climate crisis.” Here in Australia we have abundant energy sources, relative wealth, an educated population, and a history of good global citizenry. It’s time we applied all these to a new national project – addressing climate change.

Photo Credit, Michael Gorey,


  1. Hansen, J. et al. (2008) ‘Target Atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?’ The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2: 217-231; The Royal Society (2009) ‘The Coral Reef Crisis: Scientific justification for critical CO threshold levels of < 350ppm’, Output of the technical working group meeting, London; Rockström, J. et al. (2009) ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity’, Ecology and Society, 14; Safe Climate Australia (2009), ‘The Australian Safe Climate Transition Plan Strategic Framework’. Available online:
  2. Beyond Zero Emissions (2010) Zero Carbon Australia 2020 – Stationary Energy Plan. Available online:
  3. ibid.
  4. . Zero Carbon Britain (2010) Zero Carbon Britain 2030: A New Energy Strategy. Available online:
  5. Vivid Economics (2009) G20 low carbon competitiveness, Report for The Climate Institute and E3G. Available online:
  6. McNeil, B. (2009) The Clean Industrial Revolution, Sydney, Allen & Unwin; Kamalick, J. (2010) ‘New climate bill set in US Senate, draws fire and support’, ICIS News. Available online:; Honk Kong Trade Development Council (2010) ‘Italy joins France in calls for carbon border tax on imports entering EU’, World Energy Media. Available online:
  7. Wit, E. et. al. (2010) ‘From known unknowns to unknown unknowns – the postponement of the CPRS’, Norton Rose. Available online:; Vivid Economics, op. cit.
  8. Stern, N. (2006) Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, London, HM Treasury UK; Garnaut, R. (2008) The Garnaut Climate Change Review, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press; Vivid Economics, op. cit.
  9. See Hardt, M.J. and C. Safina (2010) ‘Threatening Ocean Life’, Scientific American, 52-59.
  10. The Royal Society, op. cit.
  11. German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) (2009) Solving the climate dilemma: The budget approach, Summary for policy-makers. Available online:; Brahic, C. (2009) ‘Humanity’s carbon budget set at one trillion tonnes’, New Scientist. Available online:; Hansen, et al., op. cit.; Copenhagen Climate Congress (2009) Climate Change: Global risks, challenges and decisions, Synthesis Report, Denmark. Available online:
  12. Melbourne School of Land and Environment (2008) ‘Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture’, The University of Melbourne. Available online:
  13. Rockström, J. et al., op. cit.
  14. Townsend, A. R. & Howarth, R. W. (2010) ‘Fixing the global nitrogen problem’, Scientific American, pp.64-71.
  15. Bennett, J. (2003) The economic value of biodiversity: a scoping paper, Asia Pacific School of Economics and Government, The Australian National University. Available online:
  16. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) (2009) The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for National and International Policy Makers – Summary: Responding to the Value of Nature, Part iv. Available online:
  17. McBurney, I. (2008) ‘State of the planet’, Live Ecological. Available online:
  18. Department of Climate Change (2009) Australia’s biodiversity and climate change, Summary of a report to the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council, Australian Government. Available online:
  19. Garnaut, R., op. cit.
  20. Centre for Full Employment and Equity (2008) A just transition to a renewable energy economy in the Hunter region, Australia, The University of Newcastle. Available online:; The Climate Institute (2009) Clean Energy Jobs and Investment in Regional Australia. Available online:; Kammen, D., Patadia, S. & Wei, M. (2010) Putting renewables and energy efficiency to work: How many jobs can the clean energy industry generate in the U. S.? , Energy Policy, 38, 919-931.
  21. Greenpeace (2008) The True Cost of Coal. Available online:
  22. Selvey, L. and Sheridan, J. (2002) The Health Benefits of Mitigating Global Warming in Australia, Climate Action Network Australia. Available online:
  23. Friel, S. et al. (2009) ‘Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: food and agriculture’, The Lancet, 374: 2016-2025.
  24. Rockström, J. et al., op. cit.; United Nations Environment Program (2010) Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials. Available online:
  25. Physicians for Social Responsibility (2009) Coal’s Assault on Human Health. Available online:
  26. Biegler, T. (2009) The hidden costs of electricity: Externalities of power generation in Australia, Report for the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE). Available online:
  27. ibid.
  28. ibid.
  29. ibid.
  30. Frantz, C. and Mayer, F.S. (2009) ‘The Emergency of Climate Change: Why are we failing to take action?’, Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 9(1): 205-222.
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AUTHORS(S): Fiona Armstrong