Do renewables really matter?

Under the coconut trees of a South Pacific beach, the issue of climate change comes into stark relief talking to a young – and brave – Solomon Islander.

With all the debate around renewable energy policy, it can be easy to forget why it all matters so much. Here’s why it matters.

A few years ago I had the good fortune to be working in the Solomon Islands. While there, I ended up on a beach with Christina, a 14-year-old Solomon Islander. We sat under the coconut trees, watching the afternoon sun on the waves, and her two younger sisters giggling and splashing in the surf. 

We chatted about life, and what it was like to be a 14-year-old growing up in the Solomon Islands. The Solomons is one of the poorest countries in the world and most people are subsistence farmers, meaning that they eat what they grow. If there is a drought or they can’t catch enough fish, they go hungry. 

We chatted about school, her family and friends, and her hopes for the future. 

During the conversation, Christina asked me why I was in the Solomon Islands. They don’t get a lot of tourists in that part of the world. I said I was working on climate change and then paused. I asked her “have you heard about climate change?” She shook her head.

And so it was that I had to tell Christina about climate change. I had to tell her what it will mean for the Solomon Islands. I had to tell her what it will mean for her people, for her sisters, and for her.

And I had to tell her that it wasn’t caused by the Solomon Islands. 

I had to tell Christina that this problem was caused by my country, and all the other wealthy countries in the world. I had to tell her that we have the solutions, but we continue to choose not to implement them.

And I felt so ashamed. I felt ashamed because it simply isn’t fair for Australia to take away the future of other countries. I felt ashamed to be an Australian.

That’s why we all have a responsibility to solve this problem. That’s why I work on renewable energy. All the research done by myself and many others is telling us that renewable energy is an easy, cost effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to being a massive part of solving the climate change problem, shifting to renewable energy will be good for Australia. It will protect us against electricity price rises, stimulate our economy, create jobs and diversify incomes for farmers and remote communities.

Do you know what Christina did, after I talked to her? She wasn’t angry. She didn’t accuse or get upset. She just listened calmly, nodding.

Later that year I organised a competition for a scholarship to go to Canada, and Christina – the youngest entrant – won hands down. I’ve seen photos of this 14-year-old who had never left the tropical Solomon Islands before, dressed in a beanie and gloves, speaking to a rally of thousands of Canadians. Surrounded by a bizarre nest of microphones, she told them about what climate change means for her, and her country, in her quietly passionate way. 

Later that year I organised for a number of young people from the Solomon Islands to go to the United Nations meeting in Copenhagen, Christina among them. While at the UN, she was selected from among the hundreds of youth attending to speak to the UN assembly on behalf of the youth of the world. She said to the UN delegates, “You have been negotiating for my entire life. You cannot tell me you need more time.”

The review which was tabled on Friday recommends reductions to the Renewable Energy Target scheme. This is the most important policy mechanism driving investment in renewable energy in Australia. If it is reduced or removed, we are likely to see very little renewable investment in the coming decade. On the other hand, it’s an opportunity to expand and strengthen the scheme, to make sure we see ongoing vigorous growth.

We don’t need to be ashamed of our country. Renewables are ready right now ... and we know it’s better for us as well as better for the world.

Dr Jenny Riesz is a research associate at the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at the University of New South Wales. She does research on renewable energy and electricity markets.