Climate action as an economic imperative: Our chat with Beyond Zero Emissions’ Eytan Lenko

Less than three months ago, Australia suffered its most devastating round of bushfires in its history. That event, now a distant memory thanks to the global outbreak of COVID-19, set the country up for a year of debating the effects of climate change on our lives and economy.
May 25, 2020
Giant Leap

Less than three months ago, Australia suffered its most devastating round of bushfires in its history. That event, now a distant memory thanks to the global outbreak of COVID-19, set the country up for a year of debating the effects of climate change on our lives and economy.

Eytan Lenko

There were fears the pandemic would shift the focus away from this much-needed discussion. But according to Eytan Lenko, Chair of Beyond Zero Emissions, it’s instead being held with renewed vigour from industry, and further intrigue from politicians.

The reason, Lenko says, is that the argument for investing in renewables and climate action has finally become an economic imperative rather than a moral issue. Compounding this, the stimulus required to keep the country afloat during the pandemic has forced a hard reset on Australia’s fiscal policy position and created demand for plans on how to drive a faster and sustained economic recovery.

Lenko spoke at and attended the Smart Energy Council Stimulus Summit, attended by a staggering 2,000 other people. The star-studded line-up included most state government energy ministers, the federal energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio and business leaders such as Innes Willox from the Australian Industry Group.

We chatted to Lenko about the event, this shift in the climate debate and his thoughts about Australia’s future.

QUESTION: Tell us about the summit. How did it go?

EYTAN: It went really well. I think it’s set the scene for more events like this in the future. With over 2,000 people on the call, I’d argue it was the largest online gathering of its kind in Australia. If that event had been run in either Sydney or Melbourne, I think they would have been lucky to get over 200 people. It was a really inclusive event, and I think it really speaks to the potential of this webinar event format going forward.

Another unexpected bonus of holding an online event, is you can garner more participation from senior business leaders and politicians. Chasing this calibre of speaker for these events can be tough, as you need to convince them to almost give up an entire day to talk at the event. With a webinar, you’re only really asking for 20 minutes of their time, and that led to this event having one of the best line-up of speakers I’ve seen for this topic.

QUESTION: One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it’s forcing a rethink on a lot of key issues including climate action and renewable energy. Is there a silver lining to the COVID-19 period for this issue?

EYTAN: Yes, I think there is. First, I just want to talk about there being a silver lining to COVID-19, and then I’ll loop back to the first part of the question. My wife is a doctor. Telehealth is something we’ve been talking about for a while, but it’s never really taken off due to the way Medicare was structured. Now, within weeks, it’s mainstream. There are so many unexpected benefits to telehealth. Say, for instance, you have a doctor doing an autism assessment. Before, you could only talk to the patient and then go away and make the assessment. With telehealth, you can invite the teacher onto the call or other people to help make that assessment, which is incredibly useful for doctors.

Back to climate: I think this period and talk about an economic recovery has made policymakers more open broadly to any idea that will provide ongoing jobs and future growth for Australia. Most state energy ministers have been bullish on the idea of a renewables-led economy for a while now, but we’re starting to see that filter up the chain. A good example of that is Annastacia Palaszczuk finding time amid everything else that’s going on to present on Queensland’s plan for renewables during the webinar.

QUESTION: On paper, steering a country rife with sun and wind to become a renewable -led economy seems like a no brainer. But, where is the hesitation coming from?

I agree, the paradigm has changed. Renewables became the cheapest form of energy in Australia a few years ago, but it takes time for that information to trickle out and become common knowledge.

This hesitation is coming from misinformation. Up until a few years back, we’ve really just had scientists flying the flag for economic-led action on climate. And while scientists are great at uncovering new things, they aren’t the best communicators. Opposing them are companies and bodies who have ample experience in convincing the public on their point of view. So it’s no wonder misinformation has been rife.

A common one is that solar panels only work when there’s sun. This is true. But thanks to technology, this isn’t an issue. You can easily compensate for this by modernising our grid. Old coal power stations are actually less reliable than renewables.

Luckily, this is starting to clear up. That illusion that Australia’s greatest strength lies in exporting fossil fuels and that they are tied to our economic destiny has been irreparably damaged by COVID-19. As anyone who has invested in them now knows, they are not a safe bet, and are incredibly susceptible to change and will provide diminishing returns going forward.

We now need a new strength, something that gives us global clout in the economy. To stick to fossil fuel exports as the defining attribute of our national identity is like being a proud manufacturer of typewriters beyond the turn of this century. It just makes us look backwards.

We have an opportunity to lead the global economy with a renewables-led economy that allows us to cheaply take on more intensive, high-end manufacturing, among other things. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

QUESTION: What’s your view on where we will be in 10 years time?

So, in 2030? Well, that’s a one million jobs question. I’m a terrible optimist. I think we will make this transition to a renewables-led economy sooner rather than later. It’s a totally obvious move, as the entry cost is lowering each year, and the benefits are increasing.

Any new future investment in coal and gas will increasingly look like a bad decision. It’s like investing in DVDs as an industry as we all adopt streaming platforms. The world won’t go backwards here. Recent history shows once something goes from being analog to digital, it never switches back.

So I think the transition will happen. The real question is how fast it will happen, and I want it to be as quickly as possible. I hope that by 2030, this isn’t even a discussion and we are well into reaping the rewards of a renewables-led economy.

Eytan Lenko is the chair of Beyond Zero Emissions, an internationally recognised climate change think tank, steering the pivot towards a renewables led economy. He is currently a mentor for the 2020 Startmate climate cohort and an advisor to the Giant Leap Fund.

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