GALLERY: Transitioning to renewable energy

I was lucky enough to be in the audience at last Wednesday’s public forum on transitioning to renewable energy. The forum, organised by the Diocesan Social Justice Council, included enlightened insights from five notable experts on climate change, especially in how climate change affects the Hunter region. Importantly, the focus was on how we can transition justly and wisely to renewable energy – practical solutions for the future health of our region and the world.

Bishop Bill Wright welcomed the 120 audience members and commented that climate change was “one of the big issues for humanity”.

Thea Ormerod, President of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC), emphasised the need for us to take action now on climate change, “before it’s too late”. She stated that we need to use an “ethical imagination” to make this happen and spoke of her hope that Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, due for release on Thursday evening, will “blow a breath of fresh air into the Catholic Church around the world and see local Catholic communities really take up climate change issues as a priority”. Thea gave examples of Catholic parishes and schools around Australia who are already taking real action on climate change through measures such as solar panels on buildings, energy efficient lighting, seminars and advocacy.

Pictured above L-R: Thea Ormerod, Dr Mark Diesendorf, Dr Alan Rai, Daniel Wallace, Prof. Peter Sainsbury, John L Hayes (Social Justice Council), Lawrie Hallinan (Master of Ceremonies).

Dr Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, has spent years researching how the energy needs of Australia could be run sustainably, via ecologically sustainable and renewable sources. Dr Diesendorf pointed out the hard evidence of climate change occuring around the world right now. He said that we are already in a position to have a sustainable, energy efficient future. One of the most important points of the night was made when Dr Diesendorf explained that there are absolutely no technological barriers to running the Australian electricity system on renewable energy. And the fact is that these technologies are far more job-creating than coal. Dr Diesendorf called for an end to subsidies for fossil fuel production and for it to be illegal for energy retailers to be able to refuse to accept renewable energy back into the grid. He claimed that there is no good reason for any political party to not support renewable energy and encouraged everyone to push for this transition.

Dr Alan Rai, Principal Economist at the Hunter Research Foundation, spoke about the mining downturn and potential ways forward for the Hunter economy. He encouraged a “think globally, act locally” mindset. Currently in the Hunter, there is weak business confidence and high unemployment. He emphasised the need for Australia to take climate change and renewable energy seriously since that is what our major trading partners are doing. He said that it was important that the region focus on customised, niche products with a high-end value and manufacturing needs to be more advanced and specialised (the point was also made that manufacturing opportunities in the renewable energy sector would support this economic rationale). As Dr Rai said, “We have mega trends confronting us, but we’re not investing in them. Hunter businesses are not thinking globally and acting locally”.

Professor Peter Sainsbury, Director of Climate and Health Alliance, Visiting Professor, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW and Associate Professor, School of Public Health, University of Sydney, spoke specifically about the recent report Coal and Health in the Hunter: Lessons from one valley for the world. The goal of the report was to highlight the effects of climate change on human health and the results were frightening. The health costs of coal mining in the Singleton/Muswellbrook region were estimated as $65.3 million per year and in Newcastle $32.4 million per year. The global health costs of coal mined in the Hunter were estimated at around $50 billion per year. Professor Sainsbury said, “If you know something’s bad you should stop making it worse”. He said that climate change is a very real threat to the existence of humanity, but feels that it is inevitable that we will eventually stop coal mining, “otherwise humanity will be wiped out”. Professor Sainsbury also pointed out that while coal is presented as a cheap energy option it is not in fact cheap at all as the production is heavily subsidised and the cost does not reflect the health and environmental damage of coal production and distribution. He is a great believer in promoting the negative health effects of coal as a way to encourage a transition to renewable energy since the health implications “is a great mobiliser for action”.

Daniel Wallace, Secretary of the Newcastle Trades Hall Council and Lake Macquarie City Councillor, spoke about the need for a just transition for miners and mine contractors in the Hunter Valley. He said that there are now 66,000 workers represented by the Trades Hall Council and 15,000 of these are employed in the mining sector. The mission of the Trades Hall Council is the wellbeing and best interests of its workers. The Council is focusing on education and job security.

There was much to take out of the forum and as Professor Sainsbury pointed out there is a “clear momentum and recognition that climate change is a very serious problem”. Unfortunately, as highlighted in comments made by the Prime Minister late last week in relation to wind turbines, our government is “in a time warp”. It is up to all of us to lobby our local, State and Federal members, to ensure that they are under no illusion as to the feelings of a very concerned electorate. As Pope Francis said last year, “I think a question that we are not asking ourselves is: isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature? Safeguard creation because, if we destroy it, it will destroy us. Never forget this”.

To access the speakers’ presentations from the forum please visit

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Joanne Isaac

Joanne is a Communications Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and a regular columnist for Aurora Magazine.

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