The shrinking window of opportunity to transition

Regional Australia shows appetite for a greener economy

Environment
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I was asked to write an article for Future Focus on regional opportunities in the green economy. That was before 'the fires'. I can't write that article now.

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Not after I watched the fires engulf communities, places and wildlife. Not after I learned former fire chiefs were ignored when they requested a meeting with the government early last year. Not once I heard of the cuts to the rural fire service in the federal budget, despite warnings from fire experts and scientists. Not since the Energy Minister went to the Paris Climate Talks to wheedle our way out of emission targets. Not since the Prime Minister stubbornly announced, while the country sweltered, that there would be "no change to Australia's climate policy".

The article I planned to write is on hold.

It's not that I doubt that technical solutions and know-how are ready to underpin the green economy. I can see the abundance of Australia's renewable resources and investment potential. I believe that a national strategy to drastically reduce emissions is the only way to protect us from climate risk and deliver a prosperous national and global economy.

No, I don't doubt the solutions.

I've witnessed the start of the green transition in Goulburn, the economic and cultural hub of the NSW Southern Tablelands. It is a fine place to call home, a creative blend of tradition, country friendliness, practical can-do and openness to opportunity.

It is a tolerant place by and large, conservative and progressive at the same time. It's economy is diversifying now that Australia no longer rides on the sheep's back. The natural landscape is enchanting.

Over the last decade I've watched the region shift it's fortunes. Fine merinos, corriedales and dorpers graze alongside wind turbines and solar arrays. It's a place where renewable energy projects deliver millions of dollars annually to the regional economy, drought proofing farms, stimulating business, delivering jobs and substantial social and environmental projects. A place with a bioreactor fuelled by Sydney's landfill waste and an abattoir run on it's own biogas.

It's the place Tesla chose to install the first and biggest regional supercharger on the national electric highway. The place where, ten years on, a small local rooftop solar industry has grown a skilled workforce to keep pace with demand for domestic and commercial solar and battery systems. The place where a large earthmoving company recycles building and green waste and has hybrid excavators in the fleet.

Goulburn is the place where community energy has inspired locals to work tirelessly to build NSW's first community owned solar farm with battery storage. The place where a dedicated Landcare group has transformed an abandoned brick pit into a wetland and woodland oasis. A place where a year twelve school girl led two local rallies last year to support the student climate strikes and was awarded Goulburn's Young Citizen of the Year.

I can see the steady appetite for change here in Goulburn and across regional Australia. It reverberates through café conversations, letters to the editor and community forums. Topics like: clean energy, the latest IPCC Report, electric vehicles, pumped hydro, the circular economy, backyard biodiversity. Even ecological grief.

It's in the public art, music and theatre that challenge people to think seriously about what's going on. It's in the determination to capture, conserve and recycle water as the second prolonged drought in twenty years bites hard.

Despite this steady shift, I can't write with confidence about the green economy. But it is not the fires or the devastation that prevent me from making the case for opportunity.

Many of the changes I've witnessed have been shaped by local people with the smarts and grit to fight for a better regional future. Farmers, business owners and communities who want economic independence for the tough times, not handouts.

In my part of the world it seems that improved regional resilience has come about despite government. This is no cause for celebration. We could have achieved so much more if government had played its part.

In my region state and federal MPs are on record for dismissing the significance of renewable energy projects for the local economy, fuelling the social anxieties about change and creating economic uncertainty. All this despite the vast wind and solar resources and economic benefits within the electorate. Let's not skirt around the truth. This political drag on change is morally and fiscally bankrupt and does nothing to build regional or national resilience.

Of course local communities and business have a critical part to play in the transition story. At the moment, they are punching above their weight. But without the policy levers in Canberra, there will be no investment certainty for new technologies and Australia will not transition fast enough to secure a livable future, let alone maximise the benefits of the green economy.

Despite Canberra's rhetoric to "let the market decide", government interference continues to prop up the fossil fuel paradigm and squander the ever shrinking window of opportunity for transition. The sooner Australians understand the tragedy of this, the better.

Only a government informed by science and prepared to lead the climate mitigation and adaptation effort in concert with business and communities, will take us to the green economy at home and abroad.

This would be a great national story and something worth writing about!

Mhairi Fraser

About Mhairi

Mhairi has a 40 year career in human services, small business and community organising. She has worked in the maelstrom of wind farm controversy, advocating for shared benefits for landholders and more substantial enhancement funds for regional communities. Mhairi is a founding member of Community Energy for Goulburn which is now ready to build a 1.2 MW community owned solar farm with battery storage in Goulburn city.

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