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The Transition To Clean Energy Will Get Dirty If We Leave It To The Markets

Australian workers are right to remain skeptical.

16/11/2016 10:14 AM AEDT | Updated 16/11/2016 10:14 AM AEDT
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Donald Trump's election as the next U.S. President has highlighted to the rest of the world the importance of not leaving people behind through structural economic change. That's a conclusion not only highlighted by a raft of pundits, but also conceded by Prime Minister Turnbull.

One of the greatest structural economic changes the world's global economy will ever face is the transition to clean energy.

As well as being obviously important to avoid dangerous climate change, clean energy also presents massive benefits; less pollution, more competitive and efficient industry, huge jobs growth, new areas of competitive advantage for Australia, and of course, our position as a potential renewable energy superpower.

But like all economic transitions, if left only to the markets, there is the risk that the responsibilities for clean energy will fall mostly on only some groups and regional communities without a fair share of the benefits and opportunities.

We are already seeing this with the closure this year of two power stations in Port Augusta, and the announcement earlier this month of Hazelwood's closure early next year. These closures are devastating for the workers and communities involved, but that impact can be softened.

Rather than simply waiting for the details of closures to be determined in foreign board rooms, with no plan for those communities and workers, Australia needs what has come to be known as a plan for Just Transition.

Just Transition has affected workers and communities at its centre. It means industry, workers and governments coming together and doing what's needed to ensure no one is left unemployed and without support. It can include initiatives like pooled redundancies and redeployments, so young workers in a closing plant can take up jobs from workers willing to retire early from other plants. It can include investment incentives to create new jobs, infrastructure investment to boost regional competitiveness, and education and training so workers can transition to new careers.

But central to any Just Transition is a cooperative and collaborative approach between workers and their unions, industry and government, regardless of party affiliation. Labor has long been a supporter of a Just Transition to a clean energy economy, but we're not the only ones.

The Australian Conservative Foundation's Leadership Forum, made up of prominent business leaders, academics, environmentalists and others, including former Governor General Quentin Bryce, this month presented a plan for energy sector modernisation to the Government. At its centre was a call for a Just Transition for communities and workers.

Workers themselves are calling for a Just Transition. The ACTU, working with several unions, last week produced a policy paper on a Just Transition for coal-fired power generation workers and communities.

Indeed, developing a plan for a Just Transition is an obligation under the Paris Climate Change Agreement -- which, as of last Thursday, Australia has ratified.

The good news is that a plan is possible and achievable.

Countries around the world are all facing similar challenges, and have been for decades. Germany decided in the late 1990s to transition away from coal mining, but with a Just Transition for coal miners. They tackled the problem head on with a guiding principle that no workers would be left behind.

Their model included industry wide planning, early voluntary retirements, pooled redeployments, training through work-to-work programs and industry policy to grow new jobs. In an achievement that many here would think impossible, they phased out black coal mining, without leaving unemployed coal workers behind. The German transition is an example of what's possible when all relevant stakeholders are committed and focused on a common goal.

If the Turnbull Government is serious about learning a lesson from Donald Trump's election of "don't leave people behind", then the Prime Minister needs to embrace the same leadership and the same collaborative approach. But to date, his Energy Minister has refused to even meet with Hazelwood workers, let alone provide the leadership they're crying out for.

Workers will be left to fend for themselves unless the Turnbull Government announces a plan to transition to clean, renewable energy, including managing inevitable closures, support for renewable investment, modernisation of electricity market rules, and, crucially, a Just Transition plan which includes regional pooled redundancy and redeployment schemes.

Maybe last week's events really have taught Prime Minister Turnbull the importance of not leaving anyone behind through structural change. But Australian workers are right to remain skeptical until they see action for a Just Transition, not just finely worded platitudes.

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