As Australians ready for the next federal election, likely to be held this coming May, they will go to the polls in a world being reshaped by climate change.
Fire, flood and energy costs have been at the forefront of voters’ minds over the past three years, and the nation requires its leaders to undertake a bold policy response to prevent worsening impacts on communities and the environment.
But according to Engineers Australia National President, Dr Nick Fleming FIEAust CPEng, neither of the major parties is bringing to the election a policy suited to the scale of the challenge.
“I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that both parties need to do better,” Fleming told create.
“And I say that because the responses don’t match the scale of the challenge, nor indeed do they match the scale of the opportunity.”
Scott Morrison’s incumbent Liberal–National coalition has promised to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, a commitment the Labor opposition already had in place. Labor, however, is seeking to reduce carbon emissions by 43 per cent before 2030, while the Coalition seeks a 28 per cent reduction.
Fleming, however, said that we should be thinking about more than reaching net zero.
“Net-zero matters, but net zero is a rate. At ‘net zero’, what we’re emitting in greenhouse gases and what we’re taking out is about the same. So the net increase is zero,” he said.
“But the other fundamental piece of that equation is a carbon budget. There’s a total amount of emissions that we can emit before we get into some pretty scary territory. We could get to net zero over 50 years, but in the process emit much more than we have within this budget.”
Neither party’s policy confronts that reality, Fleming said.
“The fastest, best way to get there is to use existing technologies that work — that we can deploy at scale — and that’s renewable energy,” he said.
“Hope is not a strategy. Hoping for some technological intervention or market intervention without supporting government policy is at best naïve and at worst grossly irresponsible.”
Clarity and certainty
When considering what policies he would like to see the parties take to the election, Fleming urged incentives to deploy renewables and other technologies at pace and scale.
“Different departmental policy agendas need to join up and be coherent — aiming in a common direction,” he said. “Policy clarity and certainty is critical for investment certainty … The rate at which we get deployment matters and therefore it would be a better public value and public policy outcome to incentivise deployment and find that you’d overshot the mark than to do nothing hoping that the market will respond.”
While failing to address rising emissions has devastating environmental consequences, there are other potential consequences as well, such as energy poverty or — as shown by the disruption to energy markets caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine — national security risks.
“We, as a nation, no longer produce much in the way of liquid fuels. And we don’t have many refineries. I think we have two left that are now government-sponsored, so our sovereign production capability is limited,” Fleming explained.
“So we’re vulnerable from a national security perspective in terms of our fuel supplies. And if national security was the only motivation to grow renewables and electrify our network you’d be doing it now, because we are vulnerable. The fact that’s not occurring, to me signals, quite frankly, a bit of incompetence.”
Authenticity and integrity
Looking beyond the next election, Fleming believes that the country will need leaders willing to tell the public tough truths.
“I think authenticity and integrity matter enormously,” he said. “We need the ability for authentic leadership with integrity to deal with complex issues. We need to be prepared to say to the public, ‘We don’t have all the answers, but we’ll find them.’”
And that outlook is one that demands engineers. But when he looks at the profession as a whole, Fleming believes it can do better. He would like to see engineers take a greater role in leading the way in the response to climate change.
“I’ve been working on sustainability and climate change in different engineering sectors for effectively a generation — 30 years. I listen to the climate discussions and debates today, and it sorely tests my patience,” he said.
“While we, as a profession, have been very good at meeting the requirements of standards or codes for design and contractual requirements … have we always fulfilled our ethical or social responsibilities? I think no.”
But, as Fleming described, the challenges of climate change also present engineers with big opportunities. These include the chance to develop Australia’s abundant renewable energy resources, as well as technologies for green aluminium, green steel, and hydrogen for export.
It also presents organisations and systems with an incentive to reimagine their approach to problem solving and find new efficiencies rather than following familiar patterns in their work. This is yet another reason engineering skills will increasingly matter to the climate transition.
“The first set of skills we need is our core strength, the traditional engineering skills,” Fleming said.
“That is, how do we deliver a piece of technology to deliver an outcome? Whether it’s hydrogen or renewable energy, or the transmission infrastructure and gas pipelines, it’s the core engineering skills we need coupled with an extra challenge — to achieve commercial viability at scale in a compressed time frame.”
But Fleming also believes it’s important to implement policies to build ‘soft’ skills in collaboration and complex problem solving across the entire engineering team and value chain, including clients and consultancies.
“I think that requires leadership from our profession, including Engineers Australia. But, again, we need governments to lead as well,” he said.
“Getting the outcomes we want and need as a nation requires collaboration and coherence in action. For example, we need alignment of policy around energy, tax regimes, R&D tax incentives, and skills and education policy. What I’m talking about is getting our business and government ecosystem set up to work together, to get the maximum return from every precious dollar that’s spent.”
Getting out of the comfort zone
A lot of these changes will be uncomfortable for some people and require new ways of working. Fleming, however, said that this discomfort will be necessary.
“We have to start talking about it and we have to start talking about it more openly and more candidly,” he said.
“I think we can also talk about it from a place of positivity and encouragement because yes, it’s a challenge, but we are a wealthy nation and can be a clever nation. We have the raw potential to make big, profitable, sustainable steps forward. We just have to stop ignoring the problems, hoping someone else will fix them. It’s time to get over ourselves, pull together, and get on with the job.”