Former US Vice President Al Gore told Engineers Australia’s Climate Smart Engineering conference on Tuesday that he was disappointed by the lack of a new commitment from the Australian Government to reduce carbon emissions by 2030.
The remarks, made in his keynote address at the conference, could be seen as “undiplomatic”, Gore acknowledged, but he had reason for his blunt message.
“My purpose is to recruit you,” he told the audience, which had tuned in digitally. “We need you. This is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced and the engineers in Australia can lead the world in solving this crisis.”
Gore focused many of his remarks on the important role engineers would play in arresting the growth of carbon emissions, saying engineers were at the “ground floor of the sustainability revolution”.
“It is important for all of you — for engineers in Australia and around the world — to incorporate the climate solutions that we already have in hand, into your work now,” he said.
“With your help, we can drive the ubiquitous deployment of solar, wind, electric vehicles, batteries, hyper-efficiency. We must deploy these technologies with speed and at scale, but we must do so in a way that ensures reliability.
“So we need your expertise to proactively drive this transition in a way that also provides opportunities for those who ever relied upon the fossil fuel infrastructure for their jobs and their livelihoods. You can help bring the forward thinking to the infrastructure and construction projects that you’re working on right now, and those that you’ll soon be working on. I know many of you are constantly researching and finding new materials and supplies that will deliver the best results for your projects.”
Looking on the sunny side
Gore’s address was titled The Case for Optimism on the Climate Crisis, and while he did not underplay the extent of the challenges facing the world, he determinedly avoided predictions of doom.
“The talent and dedication of the global community of engineers like you — especially the young people who are joining this field — give me tremendous hope and optimism that we will rise to meet this moment,” he said.
“There’s an abundance of good news on the way and that’s because we are now in the early stages of a sustainability revolution, driven in part by machine learning, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, the astonishing advances in biotechnology.
“This is a revolution that has the potential to completely reshape the world for the better by transforming our relationship to businesses, the environment and to one another. And core to this revolution is engineering.”
And although climate change is a global problem that requires global solutions, Gore saw distinct opportunities for Australia in embracing this revolution.
“You have the highest renewable energy potential per person in the entire world,” he said. “Australia’s abundance of sunshine and wind will be a boon not only to its own citizens, but to your economy as well.”
One example he pointed to is the opportunity to generate solar and wind power in the Northern Territory.
“With the help of some diligent engineering work, there will soon be a 4000 km undersea cable connecting the power generated in northern Australia to Singapore because of a contract already to provide as much as 15 per cent of Singapore’s electricity needs with clean, renewable electricity,” he said.
“This market transformation in renewable energy means that in many geographies, the ever-increasing cost advantages of clean energy are leading to the replacement and early retirement of existing coal and gas facilities with decades of useful life remaining.
“Recently in Western Australia, the Bluewaters power plant, a $1.2 billion coal-fired power plant — Australia’s newest — was written off as completely worthless by its owners due to the cheaper competition from renewables.”
Gore pointed to other opportunities for technological gains, including electric cars and trucks that are becoming more cost-effective than those with internal combustion engines, green hydrogen, and changes in land-use practises in the agricultural sector.
“And civil engineering, as always, is a critical piece of the puzzle that must be solved,” he added.
“Many municipalities and regional governments are beginning to prioritise sustainability in urban design and architecture in a way that integrates public transit, mixed-use development, clean energy-generation, green spaces and more.”
The building and construction sector alone, Gore said, is responsible for 37 per cent of energy related to carbon emissions globally.
“In the developed world, we need to massively ramp up our retrofitting of existing buildings,” he said.
“It’s a win-win-win proposition: you cut your energy bills, you cut down on the pollution, you create more jobs that can’t be outsourced.”
Code red for humanity
Despite Gore’s case for optimism, he did not underplay the urgency of immediate action, pointing out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent assessment of the climate crisis deemed the problem a “code red for humanity”.
“According to the latest model, once we reach net-zero emissions, global temperatures could stop going up with a lag time of as little as three to five years,” Gore said.
“We have to have the intellectual courage, the moral determination and the creativity to draw on the skills of our engineers to say, okay, we’re gonna flip the switch.”
The achievements of COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that concluded in Glasgow earlier this week, demonstrated that the pressure exerted by that determination and creativity was working, he said.
And despite his criticism, he did see positives in Australia’s response too, pointing to the substantial uptake in rooftop solar power by the country’s homes and small businesses.
“I was glad to see Australia commit to net zero by 2050,” Gore said. “But I was disappointed that the 2030 target was not increased. I do think Australia should do more.”
He also said he was disappointed that Australia did not commit to a pledge to reduce methane emissions, to which more than 100 countries representing 70 per cent of the global economy committed.
Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans AM HonFIEAust CPEng told Gore she appreciated his reflection on COP26, and agreed it would be necessary to be more ambitious and urgent.
“I would say the engineers in Australia are up to the challenge and we want to be recruited,” she said.