Gary Gray: Australia can work with Ireland to help shape better policy on climate change

The future of our ‘pale blue dot’ depends on the ambition and resources we put towards its safety

‘Australia and Ireland’s electricity grid operators, AEMO and EirGrid, are already working together.’ Picture: Getty

Today nearly every country in the world acknowledges the changing climate and the need for urgent action. Public opinion and resolve to limit the impact of climate change is clear and this resolve is not just about our families and communities, it is about the planet itself and holding the global impact of humanity at a manageable scale.

Following the publication of Ireland’s landmark Climate Bill earlier this year, I was impressed by how thoughtful and broadly ambitious many of its goals were.

Though sometimes not recognised internationally, the past 15 years have seen a remarkable change in Australian public opinion and public policy regarding climate change also. Indeed, our Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently reaffirmed our commitment to bring carbon emissions to net zero as soon as possible and preferably by 2050. If achieved, we will match both Ireland and the EU in this ambition. This change in Australian policy has been seismic and one that we now share with much of the developed world.

Importantly, Australia is on track to meet its 2030 Paris target because of significant government investment which has meant on a per capita basis, Australia is investing in renewables faster than any other country on planet Earth.

Solar energy is an important part of this investment and Australia has the world’s highest uptake of household or rooftop solar (one in four homes) with March 2021 setting a new national record for units installed.

The Island of Ireland does not have the same solar exposure or land mass to take advantage of the Sun; this is an Australian natural advantage. This places limits on the contribution of solar power in Ireland however as island nations we both benefit enormously from wind and waves. Ireland has almost limitless wind resources, particularly offshore, and has been comparatively quick in its uptake of energy generated from this Irish resource.

Ireland’s Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan estimates there is a resource of more than 12.5 gigawatts of wave energy off the Irish coast, more than twice the Irish peak electricity demand and this, paired with the considerable potential of wind energy, means both Ireland and Australia can move quickly towards a cleaner energy future. Working together to add these technologies to our national grids will be expensive but is essential to reduce the reliance on imported fuels and make our countries safer and less polluted.

Indeed, Australia and Ireland’s electricity grid operators, AEMO and EirGrid, are already working together as part of the Global Power System Transformation Consortium (established in 2019) sharing best practice, support and knowledge infusion for system operators; pursuing clean energy transitions. This cooperation is much more than broad strategy though and includes technical learning on a bi-weekly basis on systems management between engineers on both sides. Australia welcomes this association and will continue to do all that it can to facilitate it and other ventures in the years ahead. From little things big things can and must grow.

To date, Australia has seen these technologies as secondary to solar energy but with ten offshore wind farm projects in our national policy pipeline, they will play an essential role in climate targets for 2050. Equally if Ireland is to meet the ambitious targets in its Climate Bill harnessing wind and wave energy to supplement the national grid will be a key element of success.

None of this is easy, in Australia the political process has taken a great deal of punishment in the pursuit of a national pathway to low and to net zero emissions. Both Ireland and Australia are sophisticated, industrialised nations. Roads, bridges and electricity networks are made from raw materials like iron ore and Australia’s role in the global resource industry is something of which we are proud. This is not at all a negative association and our globally dominant mining industry has much to be proud of, by safely providing the energy, Iron, Copper, Lithium and aluminium to rapidly industrialising nations. Indeed, 54 per cent of all Lithium used for batteries today comes from Australia. This essential work will continue as we transition to a more sustainable economic model. Our role in this area includes our significant trading partnership with China, where Australian iron ore, gas and coal has been used over the past twenty years to lift over 400 million people out of poverty, providing the raw materials for China’s roads, houses, sewerage systems, schools and hospitals.

Climate change is about social justice also and many resource intensive developments like those above will remain essential. The importance of acknowledging these different industries’ needs is reflected in Ireland’s new Climate Bill clearly stating for the “government to decide on the trajectories for different sectors” within the framework of the legislation. This is not an attempt to bypass or assuage certain industries but instead appreciates the technologies currently available to us at time of writing will most benefit certain sectors. It would not be sound to assume for example that steel or concrete manufacturing is going to move to a carbon neutral model in the next ten years or that we can enforce a radical change in private transport vehicles in the next five. These industries will change, as we all will but our carbon footprint has to be seen in its entirety, not sector by sector.

Hydrogen and battery metals and minerals will play a big part in this as will the most sustainable mining, industrial metals production processes.

Australia’s, emissions have been driven down by 19 per cent from 2005 levels and while climate statistics can sometimes be difficult to visualise, these results per capita, put Australia’s rate of declining emissions greater than the world’s big economies (as measured by OECD and G20 averages). It feels good to say that, because recent bush fires have shown why we needed to change and why we need to keep changing. It is not easy, its expensive and its pioneering work but our international commitments on climate are an essential part of Australia’s identity as an outward looking and responsible nation.

These developments represent a growing body of policy and capability in both Ireland and Australia directed at addressing our contribution to global climate change and not just to build better communities now but to protect our planet for future generations. The future of our “pale blue dot” as astronomer, Carl Sagan famously coined it, will not be decided by the mistakes and misstarts we have made in our past, but rather the ambition and resources we put to its safety going forward, strong, science based well-funded measures that have real effect and economies that house and support healthy lives.

In this desire, we share deeply in the values illustrated by the Irish government and the people of Ireland. It is not going to be easy, but we can create better Global climate policy and by working together our people, our nations and our little blue planet will do better.

Gary Gray is Australia's Ambassador in Ireland and a former Labor Minister for Energy and Resources in Australia