As Australians began their lengthy hibernation under lockdown, a crisis briefly forgotten was beginning to show signs of alleviation.
The swift shutdown of the world economy had caused global greenhouse gas emissions to fall by 17 percent resulting in impressive air pollutant drops in areas such as Wuhan and the North-East United States.
A reduction of human traffic also saw a return of wildlife to areas typically nature-free, as deer began grazing London lawns and pumas strolled through downtown Santiago.
Australians watched, through the screens in their lounge rooms, the changing world beyond their doors. A planet temporarily relieved of the slog of industry and travel.
The lockdown was quickly seen by many the world over as a chance to ‘build back better’ and address the climate crisis by transitioning to a sustainable economy.
A number of Governments were quick to respond by implementing forward-thinking economic and climate policies for their post-pandemic recovery.
South Korea introduced their Green New Deal. The EU launched its €750 billion COVID-19 recovery package which emphasised climate action. Even leaders in Saudi Arabia have begun talks on adjusting their oil reliant economy to better fit the global trends of sustainability.
Australia stood out like a sore green thumb when our proposed recovery strategy was revealed to be a largely gas-centric approach.
Photo by Patrick Hendry, Unsplash.
This was hardly a shock though, nearly half of the National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board – the board that devised the approach – was made up of gas executives and directors with close ties to the gas industry.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the establishment of the Board in March with Neville Power, Deputy Chair of Strike Energy, as its head.
In discussions last week with the Senate committee overseeing the Morrison Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Power confirmed he had proposed the Government use tax-payer funds to increase the capacity of gas infrastructure.
Mr Power said a manufacturing renaissance would be Australia’s best option to rebuild the economy, and gas – as a feedstock and energy source – would play an essential role in making that happen.
With a growth in demand for gas in the manufacturing industry, Mr Power said gas infrastructure would need to be “future proofed”. A task that could only be facilitated by Government investment.
Few would deny that a manufacturing boost would offer tremendous benefits to the Australian economy, creating jobs and allowing us to take full advantage of the commodities mined at home. It’s the emphasis on the role of gas in manufacturing that’s strikingly ill-conceived.
Hydrogen, a plausible substitute to gas, is commonly used in industrial processes with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Its potential in other areas like transportation and utilities make it attractive on multiple fronts.
When asked if the Advisory Board had proposed anything on the renewables sector’s shortcomings, Mr Power replied, “we haven’t looked at energy in that context”.
He said, “there is going to be needed some considerable time” to introduce renewables and that gas would be necessary as a firming fuel to initiate that transition.
The dismissal of renewables in the proposal indicates a clear disconnect between the board and global trends. A decision that may leave Australia fighting for a hopeless industry when it could be benefiting from the favourable tides of the renewables sector.
President of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Mara Bún, concedes that gas playing a role in a transition to renewables “is probably realistic, but that level of gas already exists”.
Because the advisory board has the mindset of “very large businesses that have export scale and mega-infrastructure requirements, their only thought is how to create very big things that last a long time”.
If Australia does stick to its commitments on climate change, we will be left with extensive gas infrastructure rendered useless soon after its construction.
What little life the gas industry has left will be artificially lengthened by ‘guaranteed off-take’, whereby the Government would ensure demand for gas is stimulated. And leaving our economy lagging behind other markets in renewable transition.
Ms Bún said this kind of prioritisation of fossil fuels will brand Australia as a “pariah state”.
For now, Ms Bún’s hope lies in the businesses, unions, academic leaders and other Australians that are pushing their country towards a green recovery.
While there is genuine groundswell and concrete steps are being made, what happens in the decades following COVID-19 may hinge on the interests that comprise this advisory board.
When our doors reopen to a pandemic free world and polluted air, once again, graces our lungs, let’s hope the nation we step into is not the antiquated one we left but one of transformation.