Science says the switch to renewables needs to be fast but workers on the ground say it should also be fair. In the first of our explainer series Future Power, we ask, how did Germany do it? And could Australia really have a 'just transition' too?
The town where Wendy Farmer was born no longer exists. It was literally dug up for coal in the 1980s when mining in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley expanded. As a schoolkid, she took tours of the old power stations, of their towers belching out the planet-warming emissions that stripped the blue from the sky. "We were taught that it was just steam – and the power stations make the weather," Farmer says. "But it was Victoria’s backbone, it powered the whole state. There’s a lot of pride still in those old stations and mines."
Then 2014 came and the fire at the Hazelwood coal mine. It burned for 45 days, blanketing the valley in smoke and sending Farmer’s husband and other workers to the emergency room. Despite assurances by authorities at the time that the air was safe, multiple inquiries have now linked premature deaths in the local community to the haze. The fossil fuel industry was already known to be driving global warming but now longstanding health concerns hit home, too. "And I began to really see [our community] needs a future beyond coal," Farmer says. "It’s not good for us."
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, just changed from one form to another, says the First Law of Thermodynamics. The switch from powering the world with fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydrogen is already under way.
Renewables are now largely cheaper than these old power sources and that means more mines and legacy power stations will close in coming years. The question is: how fast and what happens to the workers when they do?
Almost everywhere industries have collapsed, workers have been left in the lurch, from manufacturing and coal today to the cotton mills of the previous century. But when Germany shuttered its black coal industry in 2018, it did it without sacking a single worker, under a model known as "just transition".