Aurecon’s global managing director of its energy, resources & water business, Paul Gleeson, explains how lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic can be applied to the climate change challenge.

Very few voices have argued for ignoring the COVID-19 pandemic: they might want a quicker shutdown, or a faster re-opening of the economy; they might argue over the human cost compared to the costs of shutting down businesses. But there are few heads completely in the sand.

Readers may have seen the meme advising that climate change needs to hire coronavirus’ publicist. The political communication around COVID-19 has been overwhelmingly on the side of caution and action, with detailed cost-benefit descriptions of what has to be sacrificed economically in order to mitigate public health risks. Compare this to the constant wranglings, denials and arguments over climate action.

The COVID-19 and climate crises have something in common that many of us do not want to talk about. The need for a global transport system – for freight and people – and the emissions that come with it are already responsible for almost one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The first thing to be shut down by governments in the COVID-19 pandemic was international arrivals at airports. We all accepted this instinctively, very quickly.

By comparison, the climate change threat is unlikely to ever see a shut down in global transport and travel. Indeed, transport – air travel in particular – has been a ‘hands-off’ zone for many when it comes to deep decarbonisation.

Interestingly, one likely shift post pandemic will be more local manufacturing as countries look to secure their own supply chains. Again, the climate may be an unintended beneficiary, given commercial international freight has been one of the fastest growing sources of emissions in the past decade.

 The next phase

There is much to be learned from the coronavirus responses, but perhaps governments dealing with this can also learn from climate strategists. As governments roll out wage subsidy packages and low-risk business loans, the next phase – the economic reconstruction phase – is going to entail a lot of stimulus spending. It is important that amidst the inevitable construction of roads and freeways, the infrastructure build-out includes the assets required of the decarbonising world.

In a country like Australia, where more than 70% of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels, this stimulus-construction phase might be the once-in-a-generation chance to build what would otherwise be put-off.

New interconnectors between South Australia and New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria to enable the deployment of more utility scale wind, solar and pumped hydro; kickstarting the hydrogen industry with a focus not just on production facilities but also the transport and industrial applications which will provide the demand; distributed energy resources like residential batteries and energy management systems that mean we have to produce less power at source during peak times. To name a few.

Perhaps this is where COVID-19 and climate change can crossover? One is immediate while the other is incremental. If we have to stimulate our economy out of hibernation, why not build the infrastructure that gives both our communities and the planet a fighting chance in the long term?

Credit: This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog.

About the Author: Paul Gleeson is global managing director of Aurecon’s energy, resources & water business. He is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia and Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He holds a Certificate in Design Led Innovation from Stanford University and a Bachelor of Engineering from the Queensland University of Technology.


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