Life after coal: leadership needed for a fair transition

NEW COURSE: The Hunter is no stranger to change, and now it has to ensure there is a supported transition away from coal, the author says. Photo: Simone De PeakThis week the new chair of the Port of Newcastle, Roy Green, began his tenure talking about the need for the port to diversify away from coal. As he said; “Clearly the long term outlook for coal is a threat to the Port and Hunter region, but it is also a huge opportunity”.

Professor Green’s statements were based on solid evidence. On Tuesday the International Energy Agency released data showing global coal consumption falling. In the past two years there has been the greatest fall in demand, in absolute terms, since the agency began recording data.

In that time there has been a massive global shift away from coal by financiers, investors and insurers. Just in the past week AXA, ING, BNP Paribas, the NAB and the World Bank have moved money away from fossil fuels such as coal. In the Hunter, AGL recommitted to closing the Liddell Power Station and replacing that capacity mainly with renewables while restating its commitment to never invest in coal again.

So why is Australia interested? 350 Australia is a national charity focused on educating and informing people about climate change and its impacts. We are deeply connected in the Australian community and have 70,000 active supporters. 350 Australia wants to see a transition from coal to renewable energy sources. But we want that transition to occur fairly. This “just transition” needs to become a priority for our governments, federal, state and local.

Professor Green was in Newcastle during the transition from steelmaking in the 1980s and 90s, as was I. That is still considered a successful approach delivered by government, business and the community. Over about 15 years we saw the steelmaking workforce decline significantly and the rest of the regional economy grow. By the time the steelworks closed the region was predominantly a services economy led by the health and education sectors.

For many, the loss of the steelworks seemed inconceivable in 1980. Yet, from today’s perspective, it was a natural evolution. The same will occur with the decline of coal in the Hunter.

For a good transition to occur we need positive leadership, more vision and a collaborative approach. This is about people and looking after them and their families.

Here is the reality. The shift from coal is global and being facilitated by the incredible rise of cheaper renewable energy and the urgent need to clean the air in cities in China and India. Commitments to the Paris Agreement are also part of this shift, but the real drivers are price and pollution. We cannot close our eyes to these facts or we will be left behind. That helps no-one.

It is time for us to get together and chart a fair transition. Let’s promote those sustainable industries that are strong and growing. Let’s invest in opportunities like a big renewable energy sector in the Hunter. Let’s invest in our people, providing training and career advice for those who will be directly affected by the transition.

The Hunter has done this before and can do it again.

And, the Hunter can help provide the template for the transition that will be going on in many other parts of Australia and the world. Australia is keen to work with the Port of Newcastle and the people of the Hunter to ensure there is a fair, supported transition away from coal, to be active participants in an exciting future.

Glen Klatovsky is deputy CEO of Australia. He lived in Newcastle in the 1990s and has family there still.

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