A Just and fair transition from fossil fuels in Australia

In a new report published in December by the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, author Jim Stanford argues that Australia’s labour market could transition away from fossil fuel jobs without involuntary layoffs or severe disruption to communities—if governments plan a fair transition which includes: a clear, long-term timeline, measures to facilitate inter-industry mobility and voluntary severance as fossil fuels are phased-out, and generous retraining and diversification policies. Fossil fuel jobs, though only 1% of jobs in Australia, have higher than average compensation, so in order to be attractive, alternative jobs must have decent compensation, stable hours and tenure, and collective representation.  Employment aspects of the transition from fossil fuels in Australia echoes a recent New York Times article about the career disappointment of young oil and gas workers, with this: 

“Far from being ‘supportive’ of fossil fuel workers by attempting to disrupt and delay appropriate climate transitions, in fact is does them a great disservice to pretend that these industries have a long-term viable future. It seems a cruel hoax to encourage young workers to begin their careers in industries with an inevitably short time horizon. It would be more compassionate and honest to give fossil fuel workers (both current and prospective) fair notice of the changes coming, and support them in building careers in occupations and industries that are ultimately more promising.”    

 Author Jim Stanford, formerly with Canada’s Unifor union, now splits his time between Canada and Sydney, where he is director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work. He and the Centre are profiled in “The People’s Economist” in the Australian magazine In the Black. This research was commissioned by Australian health care industry super fund HESTA.

Closure of Australia’s Hazelwood coal-fired station: a case study 3 years after

After the Hazelwood coal fired power station closure: Latrobe Valley regional transition policies and outcomes 2017-2020  is a Working Paper published in November by the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, in Australia . Although the paper is a detailed case study, the findings are summarized by the authors thus: “Prior to its sudden closure in March 2017, Hazelwood was the most carbon-intensive electricity generator in Australia. The debate over the future of Hazelwood became an icon in the nation’s ongoing political struggle over climate and energy policy. Employment and economic outcomes in the three years since closure indicate promising initial progress in creating the foundations required to facilitate an equitable transition to a more prosperous and sustainable regional economy. The Hazelwood case study provides support for a number of propositions about successful regional energy transition including that well managed, just transitions to a prosperous zero-carbon economy are likely to be strengthened by proactive, well integrated industry policy and regional renewal strategies; respectful and inclusive engagement with workers and communities; and adequately funded, well-coordinated public investment in economic and community strategies, tailored to regional strengths and informed by local experience.”

Corresponding author John Wiseman, along with co-author Frank Jotzo, previously wrote Coal transition in Australia: an overview of issues ( 2018). Jotzo was also a co-author on Closures of coal-fired power stations in Australia: local unemployment effects (2018).  Their latest 2020 Working paper offers a thorough list of references to Australia’s Just Transition literature.

The toll of Australia’s Black Summer of bushfires

Australia’s Summer of Crisis  was published by the Climate Council of Australia in March, describing the economic and climate change impacts of the bushfires of 2019/20. Although the bushfires were widespread, the report focuses on the two most severely affected areas of the country:  New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. It estimates that there was a 10-20 percent drop in international visitors, so that the tourism sector alone will lose at least $4.5 billion.  Bushfire-related insurance claims in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria totalled an estimated value of $1.9 billion.  The report also estimates the unprecedented climate impacts – between 650 million and 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere ( Australia’s annual emissions are around 531 million tonnes). The report states that the hot dry conditions which fuelled the fires will only worsen, and calls urgently for an end to fossil fuel production and export, and a plan to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions to net zero.

Health impacts

Unprecedented smoke‐related health burden associated with the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Australia”, published in the Medical Journal of Australia (March 12) estimated that bushfire smoke was responsible for more deaths than the fires, and extraordinary health impacts. The researchers estimate there were  417 excess deaths, 1124 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems and 2027 for respiratory problems, and 1305 presentations to emergency departments with asthma.  The article is summarized by The Guardian here  , which also reports that the authors have obtained funding for follow-up studies through the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research (CAR), funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council .  The CAR website offers fact sheets and research summaries about bushfire impacts.

 

New climate change research network launches, saying climate won’t wait for the pandemic to end

A new network of university researchers launched on April 2: the International Universities Climate Alliance (IUCA) .  The  network will  showcase climate change research from 40 universities in 18 countries , with a wide range of disciplinary expertise, including engineering, economics, law, social science and planning, as well as climate science.

With a website tag line, “Collaborating for Climate Impact”, the IUCA states in its  official press release :

“Alliance members are to work together to identify the most effective ways to communicate research-based facts related to climate change to the public. Members will engage in work across climate change science, impact, mitigation strategies and adaptation.”

The network is spearheaded by the University of New South Wales,Sydney, and also includes the California Institute of Technology, Cornell University, the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, the Sorbonne, and from Australia, University of Melbourne and Monash University as well as the UNSW. From Canada, only McGill University in Montreal is included so far in the full list of member universities, here .  A deliberate strategy was to include universities from emerging economies in the group.

The decision to launch now, amidst the “information saturation” of Covid-19 was explained in a press release from the University of New South Wales:

“This new platform is needed now more than ever as the world grapples with providing a coordinated approach to tackling climate change. …Notwithstanding current urgencies around the COVID-19 pandemic, the alliance members decided not to delay the formation of the alliance due to the pressing and ongoing need to accelerate climate change mitigation and improve decision making.”

That theme is expanded in  a related  press release on April 1, titled simply: Climate change mitigation can’t wait for Covid-19 to play out.

An expanding role for experts

The experts in the new International Universities Climate Alliance (IUCA) may benefit from the important and highly visible role of scientific experts in the fight against the pandemic.  Lesson #1 in Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood’s blog,  6 lessons for climate action from Canada’s COVID-19 response is “Listen to scientists.”  He argues: “At every stage of this pandemic, the public narrative and the associated policy response has largely been guided by epidemiologists and public health officials. ….Yet climate scientists are still sidelined in the public discourse and climate policy is still guided more by short-term political considerations than physical evidence. The climate crisis demands a more central role for climate science.”

Another  recent comment  in After the Coronavirus, Two Sharply Divergent Paths on Climate”  from Yale350 (April 7)  states: “Some policy experts are optimistic that victory over the coronavirus will instill greater appreciation for what government, science, and business can do to tackle climate change. But others believe the economic damage caused by the virus will set back climate efforts for years to come.” The article outlines the two approaches, with a general view that the politics of the U.S. may continue to conspire against informed fight against climate change, while the EU will continue to follow a more evidence-driven path. 

Australia Senate Committee Report shows a green economy is possible

Flag_of_Australia.svgOn 31 July 2019, the Australian Senate established a Select Committee into the Jobs for the Future in Regional Areas, with a mandate to inquire and report on new industries and employment opportunities that can be created in regions and rural areas. The terms of reference were broad and included “lessons learned from structural adjustments in the automotive, manufacturing and forestry industries and energy privatisation ; the importance of long-term planning ; measures to guide the transition into new industries and employment; and the role of vocational education providers, in enabling reskilling and retraining.”

Public consultations were conducted in seven locations and 174 submissions were received from academics, policy experts, government representatives and unions, between July and September.  The Report of the Select Committee was released in early December 2019, but because Senators were unable to set aside politics and arrive at consensus recommendations, the report consists mostly of excerpts from the submissions heard.  There are 14 recommendations made by the Chair , and separate recommendations by Labor members and by Government Senators, who said: “The word ‘transition’ is a loaded term which necessarily involves preconceptions around the direction of the Australian economy. The issue surrounding the definition of ‘transition’ is one of the reasons why the committee could not reach agreement on recommendations.”

Neverthess, the report and submissions are a valuable record of the current situation in Australia because they discuss examples of the technological innovations in current industry, and future job opportunities in renewable energy, biofuel, mining, lithium-ion battery manufacture, waste management, hydrogen energy export to Asia, and ecological services and natural infrastructure (including site rehabilitation and reef restoration).

Some excerpts:

“… the growth in renewable energy generation presents direct opportunities for increasing manufacturing activity: Installation and construction employs large numbers of people for short periods of time, but a globally competitive renewables manufacturing industry creates jobs for decades. The Victorian state government has only scratched the surface of the opportunity for Australia in this space. They have reopened the Ford plant in Geelong and allowed Danish multinational Vestas to start assembling wind turbines, but there is also Keppel Prince in Portland and Wilson Transformers in Wodonga, who have also been involved in the renewables supply chain, creating high skilled, meaningful manufacturing jobs.”

“…. the GFG Alliance in Whyalla which is proposing to revitalise the steelworks and bring down the cost of production with a variety of innovative and technologically advanced initiatives. Depending on the final configuration, a portion of the energy used at the steelworks would be sourced from a 280 MW solar farm in the Whyalla region….. Sun Metals, a solar electricity generation farm, supplies the existing zinc refinery with about 30 per cent of its electricity needs. That refinery is expanding its zinc production and is looking to expand its portfolio of renewable generation assets to further reduce its exposure to volatile electricity grid prices. Similarly, the development and commercialisation of the EnPot technology for aluminium smelting has the potential to redefine and expand the role of aluminium smelting in Australia as an electricity grid stabiliser as well as a value-adding base metal producer.”

Regarding future skills and labour market concerns:

The Centre for Policy Futures characterized the role of industry skills councils as critical to ensure that training matches the available jobs.  “… These councils must be part of the community consultation process; work with the public authority to identify what future employment opportunities might look like; and determine the future employment, reskilling and retaining opportunities that might be available.”

Concerns about the skill differences between workers currently employed in coal mines and power-stations were highlighted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures: “The nature of the workforce in coalmining means that the transition there is going to be more challenging than it is in power generation. Power generation has a lot of trades, technicians and professionals. One in two coalminers is a truck driver or a machine operator—the second-lowest skill category. So it is going to be a lot more challenging than power generation, where you’ve got a relatively skilled workforce.”…. Regional Development Australia South West noted that: Average wages here in the mining sector are $137,000. Average wages in tourism are $49,000. You can’t replace those mining jobs with tourism jobs.”

Regarding Transition Planning :

Several submissions supported the creation of a National Transition Authority, with responsibility for planning and collaboration, but  not replacing the need for local transition planning bodies.

The Next Economy (Submission #16 here ) put forward a model for a national Transition Authority which would : 1.  oversee funding and coordination of transition planning at both a national and regional level 2.  coordinate with other authorities and government agencies to ensure that the scale, type and pace of the transition will enable us to meet international climate obligations to reduce emissions 3.  coordinate an industry-wide, multi-employer redeployment scheme to provide retrenched workers with the opportunity to transfer to other power generators 4.  ensure companies meet their responsibilities to workers in terms of redundancy payments and entitlements, retraining opportunities, and generating jobs through full decommissioning and rehabilitation of sites .

Sadly, these recommendations and examples hold little sway with the current government of Australia, as Prime Minister Morrison continues to support the development of new coal projects.  The Senators’ Comments in the Select Committee Report are a catalogue of government positions, summed up by this :

“In the view of the Government Senators, the majority report (approved by the Greens and the ALP Committee members) inadequately highlights the importance of jobs associated with coal mining and oil and gas production to the Australia’s economy.”