The tens of thousands of people who currently rely on the coal industry in the Upper Hunter for their livelihoods deserve much better than what happened at the recent by-election.

The major political parties fell over themselves to champion coal, but none committed to what people really need: a secure economic future for the region. 

The only responsible choice is to make a plan for a fair transition to the jobs of the future, which are powered by renewable energy. 

The Upper Hunter is at a crossroads. The recent by-election result exposed the gulf between reality and politics for locals. 

The reality is the era of coal-fired power is coming to an end. Solar and wind energy are now the least-cost source of new electricity generation in two-thirds of the world and are growing rapidly at the expense of coal power.

The world is transitioning away from burning coal and gas because it is destroying our climate. Australia must do the same.  

Economic and job security for the Upper Hunter and other coal and gas regions now depends on governments and businesses putting people and planet first, not their own political self-interest. 

The question is no longer ‘if’ there will be a transition from coal and gas to renewable energy but ‘when’ and ‘how’.

For coal and gas producing countries such as Australia, the challenge is how to avoid a disruptive transition with social and economic dislocation in coal and gas regions, while at the same time positioning ourselves to maximise the economic opportunities. 

A wave of coal power stations and mine closures is coming. Without advance planning and investment, there will be devastating social and economic impacts in the Upper Hunter and other regional communities like Gladstone in Queensland, the Latrobe Valley in Victoria and Collie in Western Australia. 

These communities have provided the electricity that has powered our nation for decades. 

Instead of burying their heads in the sand on the diminishing future of fossil fuels, good governments will support these communities with a clear, long term plan and investment in the jobs of the future. 

Local councils from the Upper Hunter through to the coast – as well as the NSW government – have shown they are planning for the future, but the major parties at a federal level remain locked in internal disputes and are sending mixed messages. 

While the Hunter region gears itself to transition to renewables, the Morrison government remains steadfast in its support of fossil fuels, with $600 million of taxpayers’ money put towards a gas plant proposed for Kurri Kurri. 

If – and it’s a big if – the gas plant goes ahead, local communities face the real risk of a boom then bust situation. The gas plant’s construction may create jobs in the short term. But the plant will only employ ten people in the long-term.   

And, like coal, gas is a fossil fuel. The world is racing towards renewable energy, while demand for fossil fuels is quickly declining.

Compare this to the security on offer through cheap renewable energy, a resource that never goes away and stands to be our next export boom. 

Australia’s first ‘hydrogen valley’ is planned for the Hunter Valley and will run entirely on renewable energy under a $2bn proposal by a consortium of businesses. Investment like this happens when governments create confidence with strong policies.  

The NSW Coalition government has done this with its creation of Renewable Energy Zones in the Hunter and other regions.  

The plan involves harnessing wind and solar energy to producing green hydrogen and use it as a feedstock for mining, transport and industrial users in the Hunter. 

A second stage would pipe hydrogen to Newcastle, where it could be used to help run a clean energy industrial precinct. It could provide zero emissions feedstock for chemical manufacturing and allow the development of green ammonia for export, to send our clean energy to the world. 

Meanwhile plans proceed for a $1.2 billion Liverpool Range windfarm of 1000 megawatts, expected to be completed by 2022-23, and a 500-megawatt lithium-ion battery array set to be operational by 2021-22. 

We can and must have a climate positive plan that secures and creates millions of good, clean jobs, cuts pollution and protects Australians from climate damage. 

Kelly O’Shanassy is Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Conservation Foundation

This piece was first published by the Newcastle Herald

Kelly O’Shanassy

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.