Building just and resilient zero-carbon regions


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Australian and international successes highlight the key factors for accelerating just and well-managed regional energy transitions.

An increasingly large majority of Australians - apparently even the Business Council of Australia and News Corp - now clearly recognise the close alignment between the urgency of climate action and the opportunities arising from a well-managed transition to a just and prosperous zero-carbon economy.

Learning from recent Australian and international research, our new paper – Building Prosperous, Just and Resilient Zero-carbon Regions – highlights the potential for well-managed regional transition strategies to rapidly reduce green house Gas (GHG) emissions and maximise economic, employment, health and environmental benefits for regional communities.

Accelerating the transition to a zero-carbon economy

International pressure to reduce fossil fuel emissions combined with sharp falls in the price of renewable energy are creating significant challenges for Australian regional communities with a long history of reliance on fossil fuel mining and industries.

Accelerating the just, well-managed phase out of fossil fuel industries is an essential requirement for reducing GHG emissions at the speed required to meet the Paris Agreement global warming targets.

There is also increasing evidence that a well-managed, just transition to a zero-carbon economy can create huge economic and employment opportunities.

Australia’s vast solar and wind resources combined with well-planned, adequately funded investment in energy transmission, distribution and storage have the potential to rapidly expand Australia’s access to secure and affordable renewable energy.

Rapidly falling renewable energy costs also further strengthen the case for accelerating investment in Australian low emissions industries and community-driven renewable energy projects.

Broad public support for replacing fossil fuel industries with zero-carbon alternatives depends, however, on communities and workers being fully convinced that governments and business are genuinely committed to the creation of secure high-quality jobs and well co-ordinated, adequately resourced just transition policies.

From rhetoric to reality

The Paris Climate Agreement requires all government signatories to accelerate emission reductions ‘taking into account the imperatives of a Just Transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.’

While the goal of creating a ‘Just Transition’ - ‘leaving no workers and no communities behind’ - plays an increasingly central role in many climate action and regional transition strategies, the language and ideas of ‘Just Transition’ sometimes remain contested.

Some community and trade union critics, for example, argue that the term ‘Just Transition’ is too often used as a rhetorical smoke screen for the closure of fossil fuel industries with no genuine commitment to the long-term investment required to address the full extent of challenges facing impacted workers and communities.

As International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharon Burrow notes a “just transition will not happen by itself. It requires plans and policies.

Transformation is not only about phasing out polluting sectors, it is also about new jobs, new industries, new skills, new investment and the opportunity to create a more equal and resilient economy”.

Learning from recent Australian and international experience highlights the following key success factors for turning the rhetoric of ‘just transitions’ into reality:

  • Respectful and inclusive engagement with all impacted workers and communities.
  • Strong, proactive and well co-ordinated policy leadership from all levels of government.
  • Transition governance authorities providing national level co-ordination and enabling local engagement and accountability.
  • Well-planned, adequately funded re-employment, retraining and early retirement programs.
  • Economic renewal and diversification policies building on regional strengths and informed by local knowledge and experience.
  • Maximizing the creation of secure, high-quality jobs.
  • Expanding opportunities for all workers and community members, including Indigenous communities, young people, women, people with disabilities and other vulnerable and marginalized groups.
  • Adequately resourced plans for mine rehabilitation.
  • Ensuring government and business commitments to just transition goals and strategies are underpinned by detailed implementation plans and adequate long-term resourcing.

Building just an resilient zero-carbon regions in Australia

Recent Australian regional renewal and diversification initiatives illustrate many of the opportunities – and challenges – of accelerating just transitions.

In 2016, the South Australian communities of Port Augusta, Whyalla and Port Pirie were becoming increasingly concerned about employment prospects following the closure of Northern, South Australia’s last brown coal-fired power plant, the Leigh Creek coal mine and the Atrium steel mill.

While the path since then has not been entirely smooth, the determination of local workers and communities to explore and champion new enterprises and partnerships has played a key role in opening the door to projects with the potential to attract over $A5 billion in investment and create thousands of new jobs.

The $A500 million Port Augusta Renewable Energy Park, for example, is anticipated to create several hundred jobs during construction with 20 ongoing jobs once the project becomes operational.

While projects such as these will play a key role in helping South Australia achieve 100 percent renewable energy, progress in turning promising ideas into completed projects remains uneven.

Concerns about the extent to which renewable energy projects alone will generate large numbers of secure, high-quality jobs for local workers also further strengthens the case for national leadership in creating a broad range of regional economic and employment opportunities.

In Queensland, the energy transition debate has often been constrained by the difficulty of creating constructive conversations between workers and communities with sharply different experiences and perspectives.

The Central Queensland Energy Futures Summit, held in Gladstone in April 2021, provides a valuable example of processes for engaging diverse stakeholders in respectful discussion about energy transition challenges and opportunities.

The Gladstone Summit, hosted by The Next Economy, and attended by a wide range of community, trade union, Indigenous, government and industry groups provided an important forum for exploring Queensland’s potential to be a large-scale clean energy producer and exporter, generating thousands of new jobs in clean energy, green hydrogen, green manufacturing, minerals and metals processing industries.

In Victoria, the announcement  by French company Engie, on 2 November 2016, that the Hazelwood power station would close in five months came as a huge shock to workers and the community. While longer notice would clearly have made for a far smoother transition process, swift action to redeploy and assist retrenched workers; the Latrobe Valley Authority’s role in facilitating collaborative economic renewal planning; and strong state government infrastructure investment has meant that employment outcomes in the period since Hazelwood closed have been considerably better than many had expected.

As Latrobe Valley Authority CEO Karen Cain notes, the closure of Hazelwood is one more compelling example of the importance of proactive regional transition planning. ‘If we’d had more time, we could have been doing more early work on where job creation was occurring and understanding where the opportunities were for more direct links to the skills and experience of the workers.’

In New South Wales, the Hunter Jobs Alliance, a ‘community-union alliance grounded in the local’ is aiming to build a future for the Hunter region ‘with full employment, good union jobs, a thriving healthy living environment, an equitable society, a stable climate and renewable prosperity.’

The 2021 Alliance Report No Regrets: Planning for Economic Change in the Hunteridentifies a wide range of regional economic transition and renewal  priorities actions including anticipatory planning and community participation; public investment and investment attraction; supply chain diversification; worker support and training; and the creation of clear, commonly understood expectations for business in closure and retrenchment situations.

In the Northern Territory, which has some of the world’s best access to solar energy, there is growing recognition of the potential for swift expansion in renewable energy to generate employment, improve energy security, reduce energy costs and strengthen community resilience. As the recent Beyond Zero Emissions report, 10 Gigawatt Vision notes, a well co-ordinated NT renewable energy transition strategy could create over 8000 new jobs by 2030.

The Protect Country Alliance, a broad coalition of NT Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations calling for a ‘just transition to a safe climate future’ foregrounds the importance of ensuring that expanded public investment in renewable energy benefits all Territorians and that Indigenous communities are front and centre in the decision-making process.

These are just a few of the growing number of Australian examples highlighting the speed with which Australian regional economies are transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy-based industries.

The policies and strategies we choose now will determine whether Australia’s rapidly accelerating transition to a zero-carbon economy is fair and well-managed or chaotic and inequitable.

By Professor John Wiseman, University of Melbourne and Linda Wollersheim, Deakin University

Learn more about working with the University

First published on 22 October 2021.

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