Listening to some folks you’d think we have to strike a bargain with the devil that intensifies the destruction of nature and wildlife to solve the climate crisis. We don’t and we mustn’t.

Things are getting real. The other day I heard the United Nations Secretary-General tell the world the era of global warming was over. Awesome, I thought. Then he went on to say we now live in the era of global boiling and that “the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable”. Damn.

I’m not going to list all the catastrophic consequences of global boiling for nature, our country, your family and mine. It’s massive, devastating and it’s a bloody mess. But we can still pull ourselves out of us this hole.

First, we have to accept that we can't save the climate by destroying nature. Nature is part of the solution.

There’s absolutely no need on our over-cleared continent to knock down even more rainforests or destroy more threatened species' habitats for renewable energy projects. We’ve done enough of that already. There are more than 52 million hectares of severely degraded land in Australia. Now's the time to make some of that land part of the climate solution.

Left: Australian bush. Right: Bird's eye view of  masssive forest clearing

Nature isn’t just a victim here – it can be a powerful climate solution.

Nature destruction is fuelling Australia’s extinction crisis. But nature isn’t just a victim here – it can be a powerful climate solution. Our task isn’t just to stop pollution, we have to draw down the pollution already created by Elvis Presley, Adele, my Aunty Evelyn and billions of others. Healthy forests, oceans, wetlands and mangroves store carbon and help limit climate damage, as well as being home to the wildlife we love.

Protecting nature should inspire and guide our creation of a renewable-powered Australia.

There are more than 52 million hectares of severely degraded land in Australia. Now's the time to make some of that land part of the climate solution.

Second, the energy transition has to be made good for people and nature. Even with Australia’s modest renewable energy build, we’re seeing some conflict emerging between projects and communities concerned about their potential impacts on valued natural places and species, agricultural land and a multitude of other issues.

First Nations Peoples must be given the opportunity to grant their consent (or refusal) and they should directly benefit from projects built on their Country. Folks like the First Nations Clean Energy Network are already doing great work on this. Local communities should benefit from affordable energy and jobs from renewable energy development in the region. People need to be treated fairly and with respect.

Gladstone local Jaclyn McCosker and an ETU worker

Communities like Gladstone in rural Queensland will be relied on to power the transition to renewables. It's critical that everyone in the town's community benefits from the transition. Photo: Tom Kinsman.

Third, we’re going to need heaps more renewable energy generation, storage and distribution networks, and we're going to need them fast to replace coal and gas and their climate-wrecking pollution.

It's a massive job and energy experts tell us that to achieve a net zero Australia and exports, we require many times the electricity that is generated today, all of which must be renewable or zero emissions. So yes, we don’t just have to just slash pollution in the land of Oz, we have to stop the export of coal and gas.

Australia's exports of coal and gas generate about two and a half times more pollution than is generated in Australia. No matter where Australia’s exported gas and coal are burnt, it’ll come back to bite us and contribute to bleaching the Great Barrier and Ningaloo reefs, drying out the Murray Darling Basin, turning our cities into furnaces and harming people. 

The good news is that we have sound solutions ready to go. ACF’s Sunshot report demonstrated that renewable-powered exports can cut our exported emissions, unlock hundreds of thousands of jobs and pump $89 billion into our economy by 2040.

No matter where Australia’s exported gas and coal are burnt, it’ll come back to bite us.

Fourth, the Australian Government needs to lead, plan and act.

Our national government and the parliament must lift their games. They need to give Australia the best possible chance to have an orderly, fair and awesome transition into a better, renewable-powered country.

A decade of national governments dithering, denying and debasing climate action now means the speed and ambition of action must be greater. The Albanese Government can create a national plan that sets a higher climate action ambition and plan, laying out how between now and 2030 the renewable transition can minimise negative impacts and maximise benefits for people and nature.

Rooftop solar in urban neighbourhood.

As renewable projects are built to slash pollution for a safer climate future, our elected representatives must ensure nature is protected. Photo: Damien Goodman.

What would be in this plan? Things like this:

  • It’s a no-brainer that new energy projects should be built on already disturbed or cleared land, close to metropolitan and regional infrastructure hubs.
  • New energy projects should be built away from precious wildlife habitats and protected parks and reserves.
  • Government investment in generating the data on environmental values needed to inform good decisions early would make a huge difference.

Read ACF's full list of principles for an energy transition that is good for nature & people.

These steps won’t avoid all impacts on habitat and wildlife, and it’s critical new nature laws are passed to lift the rigour and environmental integrity of all new development.

As the new renewable projects are built, our elected representatives should make sure nature is protected. That should be the case for all projects. We’ve been campaigning for a decade to reform Australia’s outdated national laws. If we’re successful, new nature laws will be created along with Australia’s first national Environmental Protection Agency administering a system where it's much clearer what needs to be protected. This will dramatically improve the protection of nature.

It’s critical new nature laws are passed to lift the rigour and environmental integrity of all new development.

Finally, we all need to get out of our personalised holes and do something good with someone else.

I’m one of those folks who think the history of past economic and social transformations teaches us that the greater good, justice and fairness are only served if people get up out of their individual holes and demand it together.

This means ACF and our community of more than half a million people will need to become ever more active as champions advocating for solutions and delivering those outcomes. This advocacy is critical. Ultimately renewables will destroy coal and gas companies. Rather than evolving, some coal and gas companies are doubling down, trying to slow down, constrain and undermine community support for the energy transition. We can’t allow those companies to succeed.

Our governments and businesses have to make decisions that are good for nature and people. They – and we – have to act with greater urgency and higher ambitions if we’re to stop, then draw down the climate and nature-wrecking pollution being generated by the coal and gas sector. There’s no other sane choice.

Seven principles for energy that is good for nature & people

  1. Urgently replace coal and gas with renewables and zero emissions energy infrastructure to help solve the climate crisis.
  2. No project should harm Australia’s high-value ecosystems and habitats.
  3. All projects should avoid harmful impacts to nature, and where impacts are unavoidable, deliver sustainable and durable gains for nature.
  4. Minimise damage to nature by placing energy infrastructure on already disturbed ecosystems, close to cities and regional industrial precincts.
  5. Maximise energy productivity to minimise energy generation and transmission needs.
  6. Free, prior and informed consent of Traditional Custodians should be attained, and First Nations Peoples should benefit from developments on their Country.
  7. Communities, particularly local communities or affected communities should benefit.

Read ACF's full position statement.

Paul Sinclair

Campaigns Director at the Australian Conservation Foundation.