‘Thinking big’ the only thing standing between Australia and a green future

Australia has everything it needs to become a green superpower except big thinking, leading economist Ross Garnaut has told business leaders.

May 22, 2023, updated May 22, 2023
Ross Garnaut has suggested a modern-day version of the Bradfield Scheme. (Photo: Australian Renewable Energy Agency).

Ross Garnaut has suggested a modern-day version of the Bradfield Scheme. (Photo: Australian Renewable Energy Agency).

Professor Garnaut says the nation’s aspirations to be a global provider of things that will wean the world off fossil fuels needs the kind of quality leadership seen during Australia’s post-war reconstruction era.

But he said that had been “the exception rather than the rule” in Australia’s economic development.

“We will only build the superpower with business innovation and competitive response to opportunity above the practice that has delivered dismal productivity performance so far in the 21st century,” he told a Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) climate and energy forum in Brisbane on Friday.

He said Australia’s potential to become a superpower in the net-zero transition had gradually entered public policy discussions over the past few years.

He noted the prime minister mentioned it during his election night speech. And the treasurer twice referenced Australia’s future as a renewable energy superpower in his budget speech last week.

State premiers were beating the drum too.

“But our thinking about the future has not yet absorbed the scale of the change that is necessary,” he warned.

“Our progress will stop if we do not shift to much bigger thinking within a few years.”

He said Australia will need – within a few decades – 50 times more power generation and transmission capacity than it currently has.

“We are not yet thinking that big.”

By way of example, he politely served up some heavy criticisms of Queensland government’s energy and jobs plan, as the state’s Deputy Premier Steven Miles sat in the audience.

Prof Garnaut called it “an excellent document” but it only defined a path to the decarbonisation of the existing power system.

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“It does not set out to supply the immense increases in supplies of power that are required to deliver announced ambitions for zero-carbon industrial growth along the central and northern coast between Gladstone and Townsville.

“And fulfilment of announced ambitions would provide only a small proportion of the power required to meet central and northern Queensland’s disproportionate share of the superpower opportunity.”

Prof Garnaut said there were powerful lessons to be learned from looking back in history to the two periods when Australia got the settings right for true economic evolution.

“One was post-war reconstruction, where we thought differently about everything.”

The result was a quarter of a century of strong employment growth, a growing population, rising incomes, low inflation and low unemployment.

Australia got it right again during the reform era of the 1980s and 90s.

“This is a historic opportunity for Australia. Using it well will underpin more than a generation of economic expansion, through a period when Australia will need economic strength in a troubled world.

“Using it well can play a large role in the world’s timely achievement of net-zero emissions. Thinking big will be worth the effort.”

This story first appeared in our sister publication InQueensland.

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