Feature

A post-carbon Australia

Green Lifestyle magazine

Life in an imagined post-carbon Australia is pretty sweet. You get more leisure time, eat fresh local food and enjoy the benefits of service-based organisations. We talk to the experts who say this vision could certainly become reality.

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Cast your mind forward to a not-so-distant future. Australia has led the world in its rapid transition to a post-carbon economy in which we no longer dig up fossil fuels just to burn them (which now seems like a ridiculous idea). Emissions are low, and we’re on track to our zero-carbon future. Believe it or not, the world continues to turn and life goes on. So how does it look? What’s changed? And how do I charge my iPad? We’ve consulted three experts whose work in predicting how a post-carbon economy would work has helped to paint a picture of life beyond fossil fuels.

Cast your mind forward to a not-so-distant future. Australia has led the world in its rapid transition to a post-carbon economy in which we no longer dig up fossil fuels just to burn them (which now seems like a ridiculous idea). Emissions are low, and we’re on track to our zero-carbon future. Believe it or not, the world continues to turn and life goes on. So how does it look? What’s changed? And how do I charge my iPad? We’ve consulted three experts whose work in predicting how a post-carbon economy would work has helped to paint a picture of life beyond fossil fuels.

John Wiseman from the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne, and co-author of the report Post-Carbon Pathways, says, “The first thing to realise about a low- or post-carbon future is it’s definitely possible. The technological and efficiency solutions exist; this is not a pipedream or fantasy.”

Michael Trudgeon, deputy director of Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, says the era will be characterised by distributed systems: “Lots of intelligently interconnected smaller source points rather than centralised long-supply-chain delivery. This thinking can be applied to all the critical areas: food, water, transport, job creation. When you start to think like that you can literally cut a lot of the carbon out of the economy.”

Bianca Nogrady, co-author of The Sixth Wave: How to Succeed in a Resource Limited World, says, “It’s a major shift towards everything local: back to the notion that everything you need should be within easy transport distance, from food to entertainment to local production.”

Powered up in 2030

The lights did not simply flicker out as Australia evolved into a post-carbon economy. It took just ten years for the nation to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, as outlined in the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan, by think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions, in 2010. Today, the combined energy needs of industry, residents and our electricity-based transport systems are met mostly with Australia’s enviable solar and wind resources, backed up by some biofuels and other energy sources such as geothermal. This combination provides ample energy, all year round. Gone are the days when lone power stations dispersed electricity over great distances. Energy production is now more localised and tailored to a region’s main resource. Homes and businesses contribute to the grid rather than just receiving energy. Water is similarly managed, with smaller, local catchments supplemented by waste-water treatment plants, plus individual roof harvesting.

Service please

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice about post-carbon Australia is the enormous reduction in private vehicles. It’s not that cars don’t have a place in this new world, but the way we use them has changed. In this era of enlightened consumption, it simply doesn’t make sense to own and maintain a vehicle you only use occasionally. Instead, you tap into a reliable, easy-to-use network of shared electric or bio-hybrid cars, available any time you need one. This shift from a product-based economy to a service-based one enables Australians to have everything they want, without the associated waste. “Say you’re into scuba diving,” says Trudgeon. “Rather than buying all the stuff you need, you subscribe to a service where you get access to better gear than you could afford to buy, which you upgrade after a period of time.” In a time of collaborative consumption, service is king and goods are built to last.

Make mine local

If you’re still wondering how you’re going to get anywhere without a car, take a good look around. These days, we tend to live close to where we work. Our kids walk or cycle to school, and recreation takes place closer to home. No longer the “ride of last resort”, public transport is efficient and is the easiest way to get around.

In today’s Australia, everyone’s a locavore. The urban food movement expanded as the cost of transporting perishables spiralled, and we are back to a situation where lightweight luxuries will go the distance, but most of our food is grown nearby. Backyard gardens will flourish, but don’t panic if you’re not a green-thumb – local schools or businesses will happily maintain your vegie patch in exchange for access to your land for education or profit. Meanwhile, local manufacturing is back on the agenda, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an Italian-designed pepper grinder or a dress by your favourite overseas designer. Advances in 3D printing, for example, allow us to continue to buy imported goods without having to actually import them – instead, local manufacturers pay for the design of a product, then make it here in Australia.

Simply high-tech

Although there has been a significant return to what’s described as the “simple life”, with home-cooking, sewing, carpentry and other practical skills high on the agenda, the post-carbon world is most definitely high-tech. “Connectivity has taken the place of fuel-based transportation,” says Nogrady. “It’s now more socially acceptable to work from home or conduct meetings remotely, and this allows us to reduce our energy needs.” Thanks to technological advances, we’re actually consuming far less energy than in the past. On the surface, however, our homes don’t look that much different. Much of the innovation is invisible: clever plumbing that recycles water within your home; intelligent devices that communicate with the grid to limit incoming power when they’re not in use; improved insulation and less energy-hungry building materials are some examples.

The lucky country

In post-carbon Australia, there are inevitably some losses – oil-based plastics and chemical fertilisers, for instance, and also international travel, which is prohibitively expensive for most – but there are many gains that are impossible to put a price on. Wiseman says one of the most valuable gains is time. To those who have lived in the previous carbon-based economy, he would say, “It’s worth thinking about what we value. Do we care about earning and having more, or do we value being able to spend more time with the people we care about?” In addition to improved health from less air pollution and fewer chemicals in our food, modern-day Aussies get more exercise from walking, cycling and gardening, and can use their spare time to pursue fulfilling, useful hobbies. There are plenty of jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurs who can adapt to the service-based business model. Our city streets are lined with plantings and bike lanes, and we’re better connected with our communities. In post-carbon Australia, life continues to be good.

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For more information, visit Post carbon pathways, Zero carbon Australia and The Sixth Wave.