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We can close coal-fired plants without job losses – Germany did

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In the last 10 years of the decline, it ramped up its community and social infrastructure efforts. It built modern infrastructure, tertiary institutes, cultural and leisure industries. It played to the region’s logistical strengths, building up packaging and transport industries, developing environmental jobs and eco-tourism.

Despite good intentions, Australia risks going down the Appalachia trail, losing billions in the process.

In Appalachia, in the US, when mines started to close in the 1980s, communities were left stranded. Money was spent on subsidising mines, prolonging the inevitable. Some local communities tried to revive their economies but floundered without a single authority focusing its efforts.

Appalachia was partly a victim of its own geography. Despite hugging close to some of the country’s richest cities, its mines sprawled over 13 states. This made it hard to shift workers around. Spending was largely too localised to have a regional impact. President Donald Trump is now resurrecting Appalachia’s coal mining. It is hard to see it providing more than a temporary reprieve with no plan for what comes next.

Australia has some of the tools and assets to emulate Germany rather than Appalachia.

Like Germany, our coal industry is clustered – mostly in the Hunter Valley, the Rockhampton-Gladstone strip and in the Latrobe Valley – and we have a safety net for the unemployed.

We also have time. Hazelwood closed in 2017, Yallourn will follow and Loy Yang much later, Liddell in the Hunter Valley will close in 2023. The industry will dwindle slowly over the next 20 to 30 years.

But, like Appalachia, we have no national, coordinated focus.

The Global Compact Network Australia today calls on the federal government to establish the Just Transition Authority. We are the Australian contact point for the UN Global Compact Network, whose 13,500 business and organisation members globally want to advance corporate sustainability and the private sector’s contribution to sustainable development.

We need a national authority to manage this industry’s decline, and others disrupted by technology and low carbon policies. Communities, business, unions, local and state governments are crying out for federal leadership, for clear, bipartisan policies, and a knowledge base of solutions.

We already have a federal template in Infrastructure Australia. It took the politics out of national infrastructure, drawing in experts to assess and prioritise projects.

A similar authority would provide policy certainty so communities and business can forward plan and invest.

Without one, we risk billions in well-intentioned support for vulnerable communities.

Hazelwood is a good example. The Victorian government set up the Latrobe Valley Authority to manage its $266 million support package. It has had some success reducing unemployment. Yet, less than half of the Hazelwood workers who sought the authority’s help have found full-time employment.

A Just Transition Authority could answer: why isn’t $266 million enough? What kinds of jobs are needed? Does spending on community infrastructure improve an area’s prosperity? The Latrobe Valley Authority had just five months to set up. If it had set up 10 years ago, would we have noticed Hazelwood closing at all?

A federal authority could focus attention on luring a tertiary institute or fresh businesses to support AGL as it looks to bolster its community and repurpose the Liddell plant. It could also assist the Queensland government’s Just Transition Group, which is still in its infancy after nearly a year.

This authority would give business, communities, unions and governments the confidence they need to face low carbon decisions and to plan large-scale structural change in the coming decades.

Most importantly, we risk the trust of the communities we are trying to protect. They need to hear of stable, long-term plans with strong levels of multilateral cooperation. They don’t need ad hoc, short-term reactive solutions.

Inaction is not an option. We need courage and the right people in the room to face the mounting uncertainty confronting this industry and others. These are treacherous, untested waters. We need a captain at the wheel and full crew to steer this ship to safer waters.

Corinne Schoch is senior adviser to the Global Compact Network Australia.

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