The global economy is embarking on a period of technological and social transformation. In Australia, this is manifesting in the evolution of energy systems, the emergence of circular economies and people moving into new fields of innovation and work.
The jobs of the future for regional areas will depend on the modification of existing industries and the development of new industries. While some opportunities will be localised, the emergence of other industries will have application across regional Australia.
The sectors that already sustain regional Australia—such as mining and power generation, agriculture, service industries and manufacturing—hold the key to unlocking new job opportunities. While current skill shortages in regional areas need to be addressed, new technologies and industries may offer the opportunity to create secure and stable local jobs that are well suited for regional areas.
Indeed, the enhancement of existing industries to make them more productive, efficient and/or meet new consumer expectations could be more effective than the creation of whole new industries in some regions. For example, Mr Adrian Price of the Ai Group Hunter Region noted:
We shouldn't put all our eggs in the new-industry basket and we must be mindful of the benefits that can be gained from an incremental investment and incentivisation of existing businesses, particularly where it aligns with the ambition and vision where we want business and industry to be as a nation.
Similarly, new industries and associated employment opportunities are likely to reflect the megatrends being experienced in Australia and worldwide—most notably the shift to a circular economy and the opportunities presented by digitisation and automation.
Dr Michael Askew from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute relayed his experience in examining regional transitions both domestically and internationally:
I guess I disagree with a lot of people's opinion that we don't have a crystal ball for the future. We don't know exactly what's going to happen, but we've got a good sense of what's going to happen and we've got a good sense of what jobs will look like into the future.
And the committee heard from stakeholders across the country that many regions are seeking to plan for the future by capitalising on existing regional strengths.
This chapter examines the potential opportunities associated with renewable energy generation and storage, industries that could benefit from low-cost renewable energy generation, energy export opportunities, manufacturing, heavy industry, waste management, and natural infrastructure.
Renewable energy generation and storage
Given the planned closure of a significant proportion of fossil-fuel electricity generation capacity, the development of renewable energy generation projects and storage capacity was of keen interest to many stakeholders.
This section outlines the investment that is forecast to be built over the next 10 years and the jobs that could flow from this activity, and considers how existing and new transmission infrastructure could shape expansion.
The Clean Energy Council estimates that, as of 1 November 2019, there were 82 large-scale renewable energy projects that had reached financial closure but were yet to be commissioned. This represented over 10.5 gigawatts (GW) of new clean generating capacity, $18.6 billion in investment and 12 240 jobs during construction. This work is in addition to the 23 projects that have been commissioned this year, representing a further 1.6 GW in capacity, $3.3 billion in investment and 2885 construction jobs.
There is considerable potential for renewable electricity generation to grow further as renewables comprise only 21 per cent of the generating capacity of Australia's stationary electricity sector.
Under the Australian Energy Market Operator's Integrated System Plan, the 'fast track' scenario predicts up to 42.9 GW of new renewable capacity will need to be built by 2029–30. The Australia Institute estimates that the number of construction jobs associated with the 'fast track' scenario is between 18 500 and 58 500, with ongoing employment of up to 12 500.
While there are many jobs associated with the construction of renewable energy facilities, fewer jobs are required for operation and maintenance of renewable energy generation. Regional Development Australia (RDA) Townsville and North Queensland noted that:
Our experience in the development of solar farms has been that is there's a sugar hit with the immediate construction jobs but employment in managing those facilities thereafter is very small.
However, the committee heard from The Next Economy that there are a variety of roles that could flow from greater investment in the renewable energy sector:
…jobs in the renewable energy sector extend beyond construction and installation. There are also opportunities in energy efficiency services, including the retrofitting of existing building stock; developing storage solutions; upgrading the grid infrastructure; developing the digital systems that we require to manage energy flow; manufacturing renewable energy parts and products, along with the minerals and metals and chemicals needed for that sector; electrifying the transport sector; and developing smaller-scale, community-owned, renewable energy projects, especially for remote areas, that actually keep money and jobs in those areas.
The committee also heard that heavy industries are considering how renewable energy can power their operations. For example, Mr Mark Scholem from the GFG Alliance outlined that:
Now that the chairman has announced that the 2030 vision for the new global Liberty Steel Group is to be carbon neutral by 2030—which he did yesterday, in Milan—that probably will have some impact on our thinking here in Australia…it underscores the options around renewable energy support, the electric arc furnace, green steel and the green steel model, and scrap steel and making steel from scrap with renewable energy.
Making use of existing grid infrastructure
Tapping into existing grid infrastructure could make investments more attractive in areas where coal-fired power stations or mines have closed and/or will close in the coming years. The Nature Conservation Council of NSW noted that storage and grid stability are logical industries for places that have already got good grid infrastructure.
Councillor Sarah Stanley from the Shire of Collie noted the benefits that might arise from existing electricity infrastructure in that area:
We're also the centre of Western Australia's electricity transmission network. At the moment, we are a large producer of electricity into the grid, but that infrastructure is an asset that remains in our community and could be repurposed to attract electricity-intensive industries in the future.
The Clean Energy Council highlighted the benefits that can arise from being near existing infrastructure:
What you'll tend to see increasingly are projects being located where there's a stronger grid—so where there's a stronger demand and a stronger customer load, but also where there's a strong grid to support the power from the project to the customer load.
A real strength of the transition, if you like, is the spare transmission infrastructure that's either already in existence, or about to be in existence, in those coal regions….We're seeing this with the Kidston project up in Queensland with the pumped hydro using some of the old mine resources. And I think there's another opportunity in the Bendigo region. It really is on a case-by-case basis. Certainly there is opportunity for large-scale solar in those coal communities, particularly to the north of Australia, and we've seen here in the Latrobe Valley a proposal around an offshore wind farm that would essentially tap into the transmission infrastructure. There's no 'one size fits all', but industry is focused on those areas where there are strong transmission backbones, and that does lend itself to those existing coal communities and regions.
The cost of transmission can make investments in renewable energy unattractive if they need to feed into the grid. Mayor Greg Williamson from the Mackay Regional Council provided a concrete example:
We could produce power at 8c a kilowatt hour, we've proven that, but it's still going to cost 20-odd cents a kilowatt hour to move it on the poles and wires via renting the system on the poles and wires, which is owned by Energex. So we're absolutely no better off for a $30 million investment in a solar farm unless we're living right next door to it.
Investing in new grid infrastructure
The development of new infrastructure has the potential to facilitate the development of renewable energy projects in other areas. For example, RDA Townsville and North Queensland highlighted that:
To help fuel confidence in the development of new energy projects in the region, especially energy generation projects, the proposed CopperString 2.0 transmission project connecting the Mount Isa corridor to the national electricity grid in North Queensland is a vital component. It would provide not only employment opportunities through construction but, importantly, opportunities for other renewable projects to connect to the grid, and enable other industries to source more reliable and competitively priced electricity.
Potential additional benefits of increased renewable energy generation
The potential benefits from renewable energy generation in regional areas can flow beyond the generation activity itself. This can include, for example, the creation of ongoing jobs in mineral processing, manufacturing and horticulture. Further, low-cost renewable energy generation can revitalise regions that will be affected by the closure of coal-fired power generation and reinvigorate existing energy intensive industries.
The Clean Energy Council (CEC) argued that:
The strong investment in renewable energy generation over the last few years has not only enabled a record number of direct and indirect jobs, but it is supporting the broader economic development of regional areas through the provision of lower-cost energy.
Value adding manufacturing
The advent of low-cost, off-grid electricity generation has the potential to enable competitive manufacturing in regional Australia and reinvigorate energy-intensive manufacturing.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union highlighted the key role that manufacturing plays in diversifying regional economies:
Manufacturing has long been the lifeblood of diverse and healthy regional economies across Australia. It has offered a complementary mix to these economies that have been traditionally dependent upon primary industries such as mining or agriculture. It has offered them meaningful, skilled, secure, well-paying jobs in regional communities, where these are often at a premium.
Indeed, the growth in renewable energy generation presents direct opportunities for increasing manufacturing activity:
Installation and construction employs large numbers of people for short periods of time, but a globally competitive renewables manufacturing industry creates jobs for decades. The Victorian state government has only scratched the surface of the opportunity for Australia in this space. They have reopened the Ford plant in Geelong and allowed Danish multinational Vestas to start assembling wind turbines, but there is also Keppel Prince in Portland and Wilson Transformers in Wodonga, who have also been involved in the renewables supply chain, creating high skilled, meaningful manufacturing jobs.
Beyond Zero Emissions noted that as the cost of renewable generation falls, new economic opportunities will open up:
There is significant value that Australia is leaving on the table at the moment because it can't do a lot of energy-intensive manufacturing, because it's not economical. The plummeting costs of renewables means that Australia can look at these energy-intensive industries for the first time. It will have a huge flow-on in terms of jobs and economic activity.
The Next Economy submitted that:
The experience of other OECD countries suggests that emerging digital technologies such as robotics and 3D printing combined with cheap renewable energy holds the potential to stimulate new, decentralised forms of processing and manufacturing in regional Australia. Examples of places such as Lille in France and Cleveland, Ohio are demonstrating how small-scale manufacturing is revitalising regional areas in other parts of the world.
The committee was provided with a number of examples of communities across Australia where local low-cost renewable energy was either powering or proposing to power industrial areas. For example, the Cradle Coast Authority outlined the industries that could be supported by locally situated renewable energy sources in that area:
Industrial parks located next to renewable energy sources can provide power for a range of large-scale energy using businesses such as shore-based aquaculture, hydroponic greenhouses, hydrogen production and export facilities. They can also support the large power needs of mineral processing which could increase the jobs provided from mines. These parks would also house energy storage capabilities. Remotely located energy parks provide an opportunity for urban renewal and population growth in the West Coast and Circular Head municipalities. This would be a significant economic stimulus for the Cradle Coast region that would broaden the current economic base of the region.
The Townsville City Council is also supporting the creation of an industrial precinct powered by local renewable energy sources not connected to the National Electricity Market. Mayor Jenny Hill told the committee that 'The only way for us to create an industrial precinct with affordable energy is to have it as a microenvironment'.
The committee heard that an industrial workshop in Mackay is already being primarily powered by renewable energy not attached to the traditional electricity grid.
Various stakeholders also advocated for Australia to increase the level of minerals processing, particularly those with strong growth potential such as lithium. Professor Ray Wills from Future Smart Technologies contended that:
We have to get past making big rocks into small rocks, get down the supply chain and turn those things into things that we want to use and actually add value to them.
The ANU Energy Change Institute submitted that:
The geographic combination of vast, cheap renewable energy and hydrogen generation with massive mineral resources provides a new opportunity for Australia to value-add and refine more of its abundant metal ores for export.
Indeed, stakeholders were keen to highlight the potential for lithium ore processing domestically. The Townsville City Council outlined the prospective development of a 18 gigawatt battery production facility outside Townsville:
It is a consortium called Imperium 3. It includes Boston Global, Magnis, who have the graphite—they are an Australian company—Siemens, Kodak Eastman and C4V. It is a mixture of Australian and American countries. They currently have a plant build in upstate New York. It is based on American technology, with the support of Magnis…they consider Australia as…a suitable place for manufacturing.
Participants at the Collie hearing also saw potential in the development of a battery manufacturing industry in that region to add value to the lithium being mined there.
But the enthusiasm for battery manufacturing might be tempered by the cost effectiveness of doing so when compare d to China. On this point, Dr Martin Anda argued for the development of manufacturing to cater for specialist battery applications:
Some of the drivers are going to be unique applications of batteries. While we won't be able to compete with a mass production of lithium-ion cells for cars and homes et cetera—for many years to come that will continue to be mass produced out of China. But when we start looking at other battery types as well, such as vanadium redox flow, we have Australian vanadium mining here. We have other types of redox flow battery manufacturing in Australia, even though it's at a small scale at the moment…There might be more stationary applications. We were looking at some fairly unique applications here in Collie even with Thomas Braunl at UWA. You've got interesting tourism applications here where new types of batteries could be developed for jet skis, tourism trails and facilities.
Another issue constraining the development of battery manufacturing facilities in Australia is access to the necessary materials. Dr Dilawar Singh from Sun Brilliance noted that:
Our precondition is that we have the raw material [lithium]. If there is no raw material, there is no project. What we have decided internally is that if we don't secure any material by the middle of next year we'll have to move to another project; we'll have to look for other opportunities somewhere else.
The CEC outlined how low-cost energy from a renewable energy generation and storage system in Stawell in Victoria had underpinned the development of a significant hydroponic vegetable producer. Together the energy facility and the vegetable producer will generate $560 million of investment and provide 1300 jobs during construction with almost 300 permanent jobs on completion and another 150 direct jobs in the region.
Per Capita outlined how clean-energy generation was supporting agriculture in regions where traditional farming was not viable:
Sundrop Farms in Port Augusta in South Australia is using cutting-edge desalination, renewable energy and aquaponics to grow 15 per cent of Australia's tomatoes in an area that is supposedly arid, barren and unable to produce this type of crop.
Regions with significant reliance on coal production
Given the rapid advances in renewable energy generation and associated declines in the cost of firmed renewable electricity generation being lower than existing wholesale prices, it is highly plausible that the forecast closures of coal-fired electricity generation in Australia will occur more rapidly than policy makers expect. This is consistent with the insights of futurist Professor Ray Wills from Future Smart Strategies, who said, 'We always say that the future will come faster than we think, and when we look back the future always came faster than we thought'.
In terms of individual regions, how best to address the forthcoming closures in coal-fired power generation depends somewhat on the quality of the coal resources and potential alternative markets for coal.
In low-quality thermal coal regions, such as the Latrobe Valley and Collie, it is unlikely that a new market for such coal will emerge. Therefore, coal production will likely be significantly reduced, if not ceased altogether. These regions need to focus on using existing infrastructure as a basis to develop new industries—for example, clean energy generation and relatively low-cost manufacturing.
Where high-quality thermal coal and/or metallurgical (coking) coal are produced, it is likely that export opportunities will continue and may even increase. For example, the committee heard in Mackay that metallurgical coal exports were going well. Similarly, the Port of Newcastle indicated that companies in the Hunter were exporting high-quality thermal coal to Indonesia and Vietnam, and this could increase in the future.
While the potential for Australia to export more coal may exist, Mr Tim Buckley from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis did not believe that this was going to occur:
One of the arguments that the IEA [International Energy Agency] has taken on board from the Minerals Council of Australia and from our Australian leading coal companies is that Australia's coal is better than everyone else's and therefore Australia will naturally gain market share as the market declines. Most people accept the market's declining but think Australia will gain market share. I think that is just delusional. I don't know too many industries where the market goes into terminal decline and where you win as a country by grabbing more market share.
Similar sentiments were shared by representatives of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.
Mr Buckley went on to discuss the prospects for other coal exporting nations and explained that with European demand for coal failing, Russia was building infrastructure to increase exports:
European coal consumption's down 23 per cent this year. Russia was the biggest supplier and exporter to Europe, beyond Poland. Russia are redirecting those exports to the Asian markets. They've got a huge railway line already built. They've built three or four major coal export ports. Russia has increased its exports by 10 per cent this year. Ours are flatlining. So I think the idea that Russia is going to lose market share to Australia is farcical, because Russia is the lowest cost producer in the world.
Defence service industries
The Resource Industry Network in Mackay is looking at outside-the-box solutions to utilise the existing skills of businesses to service other industries, such as defence:
If you look at the type of equipment that Defence uses, which is heavy industrial, it's very similar to what we are doing in mining services. It's trying to get the defence industry to see that as an opportunity as well.
Similarly, the AMWU-WA Branch highlighted the potential for businesses in the South West of Western Australia to bid for defence work.
Technological innovation in existing industries
Regions with energy-intensive value-adding industries also have the potential to adapt.
The committee heard from the GFG Alliance in Whyalla which is proposing to revitalise the steelworks and bring down the cost of production with a variety of innovative and technologically advanced initiatives. Depending on the final configuration, a portion of the energy used at the steelworks would be sourced from a 280 MW solar farm in the Whyalla region.
In Townsville, Sun Metals, a solar electricity generation farm, supplies the existing zinc refinery with about 30 per cent of its electricity needs. That refinery is expanding its zinc production and is looking to expand its portfolio of renewable generation assets to further reduce its exposure to volatile electricity grid prices.
Similarly, the development and commercialisation of the EnPot technology for aluminium smelting has the potential to redefine and expand the role of aluminium smelting in Australia as an electricity grid stabiliser as well as a value-adding base metal producer. As Mr Tim Buckley from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis explained:
…with the adoption of technology that will allow a smelter to be effectively a virtual battery—in other words, to be responsive to the price signal that our market already creates—smelters could become virtual batteries for our electricity grid and provide absolutely key firming capacity. So when demand is high they would turn their demand down by 25 per cent and when demand is weak and power prices going negative they could turn their power consumption up by 25 per cent.
Mr Buckley noted that the technology has been successfully deployed in Essen, Germany, over the past three years at commercial scale and has the potential to reinvigorate the Australian aluminium smelting industry:
Professor Garnaut has been saying for probably decades—he was way ahead of his time on it—that heavy industry can be reinvigorated in Australia, and that, rather than us progressively losing all of our smelters, we can actually become a smelter hub because we will have low-cost, low-emissions electricity. If you look at Alcoa, they are now ranking all of their smelters globally by emissions intensity. Unfortunately, the four Australian smelters are all at the top of the global list compared to Canada and Russia, for example, which are at the bottom, and so they are proposing closing them. This technology could reverse that and save our industry.
Given the location of Australia's aluminium smelters in Portland, Tomago, Gladstone, Collie and Bell Bay, there could be significant benefits to the companies involved and the electricity grid if it were possible to retrofit these smelters with the EnPot or similar technology and be powered by lower-cost renewables.
Energy export opportunities
In addition to renewable energy generation for domestic consumption, stakeholders highlighted the potential for Australia to develop a clean energy export industry. Recent comments by Mr Darren Miller from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency indicate that, at some point in the future, renewable generation capacity may be far in excess—by as much as 700 per cent—of Australia's total energy needs and any excess could be used for energy exports.
The ANU Energy Change Institute noted that:
The scale of the opportunity for renewable energy exports from Northern Australia is vast. Australia has in abundance the natural resources needed to become a major exporter of renewable energy and zero-carbon embedded energy products to the Indo-Pacific.
The ANU Energy Change Institute outlined the two areas where energy export opportunities could be realised:
export of zero-carbon electricity via high voltage direct current sub-sea cables (combining solar and wind farms with pumped hydro storage)
hydrogen generated by electrolysis using renewable energy.
The committee is aware of a proposal to export energy through high voltage direct current cables. For example, Beyond Zero Emissions outlined the Sun Cable project and its goal to build 10 GW of solar generation in Australia, partnered with a 20 GW battery, and a high-voltage direct current cable to Singapore, which was recently given major project status by the Northern Territory Government.
Several stakeholders also noted the potential for Australia to export hydrogen. For example, the Asian Renewable Energy Hub is planned for the Pilbara region of Western Australia and will have 15 GW of wind and solar energy capacity built with the energy generated used in local industries and to produce hydrogen for export.
The Clean Energy Council outlined the potential for an energy export industry in Australia, particularly given the potential demand for hydrogen from Asia.
However, several stakeholders raised concerns about the viability and competitiveness of exporting hydrogen, particularly in the short-term. Professor Ray Wills from Future Smart Technologies cautioned the committee about the potential for the hydrogen economy to be cost competitive even if the industry were to be developed to scale.
Similarly, in relation to the cost competitiveness of hydrogen exports, Mr Tim Buckley from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis argued that:
Half the delivered cost to Japan is transportation, because hydrogen is very hard to transport. My takeaway from that is: let's decarbonise domestic Australian industry first; and then once we've got the economies of scale, once we've got the cheap electricity, once we've got the technology all sorted out, then we become a key supplier of clean, green hydrogen to Korea, China and Japan—but once we've got the cost down.
Waste management – biofuels and recycling
The committee was provided with numerous examples of biofuel technologies that could be developed at scale in regional Australia and also assist with waste management.
Bioenergy Australia advocated for the development of industries based on the value extraction of organic and inorganic waste:
The beauty of Australia's bio-economy is that it is basically exclusively regional, so this is about jobs in the regions. It’s about investment in the regions…
So, effectively, it is around looking at fuel, heat gas, plastic replacements, electricity, nutraceuticals, chemicals—really anything at the moment that is coming from a fossil fuel base can come from an organic or inorganic waste stream and be converted into that. As you can imagine, the jobs that can be created through the creation of this entirely new industry that virtually doesn't exist in Australia [are] substantial.
In terms of specific examples, Bioenergy Australia cited Licella, an Australian pioneer in advanced bio-fuel manufacturing with an extensively tested and conservatively scaled up pilot plant on the Central Coast of New South Wales:
They have predicted that they would build 36 plants along the east coast of Australia, taking end-of-life plastics and turning that into crude. They are non-recyclable plastics that currently exist in the marketplace…So that would be producing a crude that could be used for roads, fuels and a whole range of different plastic replacements.
But Mayor Greg Williamson from the Mackay Regional Council noted that currently biodiesel production in Mackay was not cost competitive.
Bioenergy Australia also cited waste sawmill residue as another potential biofuel source:
…what we would advocate for is the utilisation of waste sawmill residue. That's looking at utilising what would otherwise be effectively a complete waste stream…Boral…run quite a large forestry operation. They're the second-largest fleet operators in terms of transportation. They are currently working on a project that…is taking their sawmill residues—the actual residue components—and converting those into renewable drop-in diesel, and that's a hundred per cent drop-in diesel that they can be utilising.
Bioenergy Australia also highlighted the potential to use existing gas transmission pipelines to distribute locally produced biogas from up to 90 000 units in regional Australia.
Dr Michael Askew from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute contended that there is enough biogas capacity in New South Wales to supply that state with its gas needs.
The committee heard several examples of facilities currently producing biogas:
Moxey Farms dairy have a massive anaerobic digester that has just gone live, about a month ago…There's an abattoir in Goulburn that went online two years ago. That has reduced their electricity costs for that particular facility by 50 per cent…
End-of-life tyres also have the potential to be transformed into fuel sources that do not require further processing:
We have a facility in Southern Queensland—Southern Oil Refining—this is taking end-of-life tyres, which are creating massive mounds all over the country, and turning that into a 100 per cent renewable drop-in diesel that can also be converted to jet fuel as well as lignocellulosic ethanol.
In response to concerns about crops being grown to fuel production, Bioenergy Australia contended that:
Ethanol production in Australia is a by-product of gluten production. So gluten is the predominant use of the crop and then the starch residue waste stream is converted into ethanol. That's what takes place in New South Wales. In Queensland, the waste stream from molasses production is utilised. So we are quite different than Brazil or the US in terms of the way we operate.
The Climate Change Cluster at UTS advocated for the development of bio-refineries and algae farms to produce carbohydrates, lipids and protein from which plastics, omega oils, feed and fuel could be made. In the United States, algae have recently been defined as a traditional crop and this has opened up opportunities for farmers.
In Australia, Venus Shell Systems in Bomaderry sequesters carbon dioxide into pools of algae to accelerate growth. The seaweed is then processed and added to food and pharmaceutical products at commercial scale. This technology is easily and readily scalable and could be an area for further development in Australia.
Much of the development of biofuel facilities will need to take place in regional areas because it does not make sense to create a facility anywhere further than 150 kilometres from where the waste is going to be.
Further, Dr Askew noted that:
…these new industries are perfectly suited to Australia because they're often smaller scale and they're decentralised. You can have a biogas plant that provides power for 25 farmers, and they can operate the plant themselves as a cooperative and generate income from offtake agreements—and all from the waste that they used to send to landfill or burn off, which they've had to pay for… So there is a lot of independence and energy security for regions and they can generate extra income from total value capture.
Similarly, the committee heard anecdotally that Mackay Sugar provides a third of Mackay's electricity needs and has done so for the past 20 years. Given there are many sugar mills along the coast of Queensland and Northern NSW, the potential for adopting such technology seems significant.
Whilst biogas and biofuels will undoubtedly play a prominent role in the Australian energy market of the future, it is the conversion of organic material into high-value chemicals and products that also offers considerable economic and regional development opportunities. 'Bio' food additives, plastic, pharmaceuticals, and other high-value products can be derived from bio-innovation processes and support new industries, transform existing businesses and drive new prosperity in local communities.
The committee heard that there was significant potential for recycling to provide additional jobs, particularly in regional areas.
The National Waste Recycling Industry Council (NWRIC) argued that currently 20 million tonnes of material are still going to landfill that could be recovered and made available for recycling. This could potentially create up to 12 000 additional jobs, many of which would be in regional areas.
The NWRIC noted recent national initiatives to increase resource recovery and manage waste and resources better:
That means that there is a real opportunity for us to start doing further processing and reprocessing of materials here in Australia. That requires new facilities and more employment opportunities. There is a real role for that to service regional areas, because, as you know, Australia is a big place.
Examples of options for greater recycling and reuse of materials in regional areas include organics, construction waste, tyres and glass:
Obviously, once you get into a regional area, the economics become a lot more challenging. One of the key opportunities there is a public-private partnership. There are examples of that where councils are working with organics composters to jointly build a facility, and jointly own and operate that. There are some interesting economic models that can make it more viable for commercial operators to work in partnership with local councils.
The NWRIC noted the importance of creating markets for those waste products, especially glass and construction materials, which are costly to transport and have limited residual value.
To reduce the cost of waste transportation and overcome reluctance to invest in fixed plant, research is currently being undertaken into developing small-scale, mobile recycling plants which can move between regions. The committee heard that:
There is development of container style systems that can be moved from place to place that can look at processing plastics. The University of New South Wales SMaRT centre has been looking at developing smaller scale processing units that can do that. There could be a situation in terms of having mobility for crushing and washing glass, for instance, which is what's needed to be able to get it to a form so that it can go back into local civil construction. So that could be possible. The question here is how do you make it commercially viable? How you fund it is really the challenge with that. There are technologies out there, and this is where I think the federal government can take great leadership in this to provide the right framework, and that will encourage regional councils to work with industry and coordinate.
The potential role for governments at all levels in helping to create markets for these products is explored in chapter 5.
Ecological services and natural infrastructure
Site rehabilitation and reef restoration
There is a significant role for natural environment rehabilitation to play in providing jobs in regional areas.
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis noted that there were 60 000 unrehabilitated, abandoned mine sites across Australia. Remediation effectively uses the same skills as those used when the holes were created. Given that Ecosure estimates that currently there are more than 10 000 employees in the ecological restoration industry in New South Wales, Victoria and south-east Queensland, the potential jobs associated with ecological restoration are significant.
Dr Michael Askew from the Monash Sustainable Development Institute noted that in the Hunter Region:
…environmental remediation is going to be one of the big employers in the area, and not just for mine sites; there are numerous contaminated sites across the region. As a former New South Wales EPA employee I know them all too well. They present a great challenge and an ongoing challenge, and some of them present a more imminent challenge now. That includes the full range of jobs in environmental remediation, and I think there will be a lot of people employed in that sector.
The Institute for Sustainable Futures noted the benefits that site remediation could have for employment in former coal-mining regions:
[S]ite remediation…is a very important source of jobs as both power stations and mines close down. It's making sure that bonds are properly in place and that the regulations ensure there is going to be proper remediation. That's quite important, because the skills required are quite complementary with the types of skills we have both in power stations and mining.
Ms Diane Lanyon from Ecosure described reef restoration as an emerging industry:
I believe that reef restoration is something that's on the horizon and we'll definitely be seeing more fins underwater doing some on-ground—some underwater—work. There are some really, really amazing things happening.
Mr Allen Grundy from Tourism Australia advocated to increase reef restoration activities in high tourism parts of the reef that had been affected by natural weather events:
This is why I want marine biologists and specialist people, because I want to be growing the coral and transplanting it in these high-use sites, because we can restore the environment when we've got economic and social backing behind us. We need the finance to do it, and we're working with GBRF [Great Barrier Reef Foundation] to try and get some of the funding. But we're seeing great results already. Eight months our coral gardens have been in…. The best thing is that we're bringing back the species and the varieties that were lost.
Land use management and carbon farming
Various stakeholders identified land use management as a sector that holds considerable potential for new job creation, including for Indigenous communities.
The Next Economy noted that:
Ramping up efforts to sequester carbon through tree planting and land restoration, protecting land from clearing, expanding agricultural practices that improve the rates of soil carbon, and trialling marine permaculture practices can not only reduce Australia's overall emissions but also create new jobs. It also creates significant employment opportunities for Indigenous communities engaged in ecosystem services, such as savanna burning, ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Area agreements as well as in enterprises in the areas of ecotourism, native foods and botanicals.
Professor David Lindenmayer emphasised the jobs associated with the management of native forests for carbon storage:
There are many things to do as part of managing that asset. For example, there are substantial parts of the forests that haven't been regenerated, after fire or after logging, that would need to be regenerated to regrow the stock, and then you also need to protect the stock from issues such as invasive species. We know that in south-eastern Australia, particularly in the last 10 years, there's been an explosion of animals such as sambar deer and other introduced pest species, and that has a big impact on regenerating forests.
Professor Lindenmayer outlined the range of opportunities that could arise from reconsidering the use of native forests in Victoria:
So we can have one of these rare outcomes where we have a win in the plantation sector, a win in the native forest sector, through that resource as a carbon stock, and a win in the tourism sector. So it creates more diversity, more wealth and more opportunities, and it really is an exciting prospect here.
The National Rural Health Alliance advocated for the expansion of investments in ecological services as a way of increasing wellbeing in regional communities, particularly Indigenous land management initiatives and regenerative farming practices.