With Australia's coal-fired power stations set to close in the next two to three decades, Australia has the potential and opportunity to become a renewable energy superpower. But this depends in no small degree on the financial support and backing of business. 

Increased collaboration between business and local communities would help create employment opportunities, modernise infrastructure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a panel of experts recently speaking as part of the Future-Proofing Business Series hosted by UNSW Business School's Responsible Business Program. 

The speakers included Ursula Hogben, Co-Founder and Company Secretary at Zero Emissions Sydney North, Dr Jennifer Kent from City of Sydney Council, Dr Paul Twomey, Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets UNSW Sydney, and Peter Sheldon, Professor in the School of Management and Director of the Industrial Relations Research Centre at UNSW Business School. 

The panel discussed three ways businesses can take the lead in managing climate risk in the short and long term, supporting local communities to create a better future for all.  

1. Support community-led initiatives 

Dr Kent said businesses need to look at flattening the 'unsustainability curve' – the acceleration of unsustainable practices around the world, and the existential challenges faced as a result. 

Communities across Australia are in the best position to understand precisely what those communities need, explained Ursula Hogben. “So, with community-led initiatives, we've got, ideally, local skills and local jobs meeting local needs now and in the future.” 

Examples of successful, localised cooperation in Australia were seen earlier in the year when devastating fires destroyed lives, communities, wildlife and infrastructure. With flooding and storms then adding to the damage, hundreds of properties were running diesel generators and faced lengthy delays before regular services resumed. 

During this time, the Resilient Energy Collective – a collaborative effort funded by the family office of Mike and Annie Cannon-Brookes – installed solar systems provided by 5B and battery solutions provided by Tesla in communities unable to access energy via the grid, Ms Hogben said. 

“Very swiftly, there was a significant issue with rural and remote communities having access to power. So in Tobago, they [the Resilient Energy Collective] helped with 24-hour electricity to man the emergency power of the emergency community towers – and that was for the police, fire services and emergency crews communication,” Ms Hogben explained.  

Another example is the transformation of the Newcastle and Hunter Valley region from a coal energy hub to a renewable energy hub, Ms Hogben said.  

“That's a considerable supplier of jobs in the area which is now looking at being part of the green steel revolution, which is important from a business perspective, low emissions perspective, and a community perspective in terms of the environment and also the economy,” said Ms Hogben. 

2. Create employment by modernising infrastructure 

Prof. Sheldon said business must act quickly to support job growth in areas where they are desperately needed – for example, in the process of closing down the 23 coal-fired power plants in Australia that are nearing the end of their lives.

The shutting down of these power plants could be utilised as an opportunity for job creation and reskilling the current workforce. "Every time you decommission a coal-fired power station or a coal mine there is work for 10-15 years just in the remediation and potential rehabilitation of the site,” Prof. Sheldon said. 

“These are similar jobs in terms of skills in the coal mines, or in the petrol stations that are operating heavy machinery. There's no reason why they shouldn't pay the same amount or any reason why they shouldn't provide the same job security or access to training and development,” he said. 

“I think it's more important to start with what we can easily do and where we can get consensus relatively quickly.” 

3. Business must back a reduction in carbon emissions 

At this extraordinary time, with massive stimulus spending, there's a real opportunity to create resilience and sustainability within communities by supporting renewable energy businesses in manufacturing, regenerative farming, regenerating mining land, planting trees and land restoration, added Ms Hogben. 

"Businesses can help by offering finance… by making an ideological shift to more financing of renewable and sustainable projects,” she said. 

Ending the session, Dr Paul Twomey reminded the audience that while there are several encouraging stories of industries moving towards sustainability, an important question to ask is ‘Are we achieving success at the speed and scale required?’ 

“It's not clear to me that it is,” said Dr Twomey, who added the change would require more in-depth thinking about capitalism, democracy and sustainability.