It was touted as a forum where people would put aside their vested interests and think about the future of our country — not the future of their company. In Kevin Rudd’s opening speech he encouraged all Summiteers to be bold, saying "there is no such thing as a bad idea." But the coal industry and their allies would argue otherwise: transitioning away from coal was, in their minds, a very bad idea.
The first surprise came when delegates were divided into streams within our broader portfolio and I found myself in the climate stream with representatives of coal mining companies including Xstrata and Shell, yet not a single person from an environmental NGO. No-one from Friends of the Earth, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, Climate Action Network Australia or any of the State Conservation Councils.
These are the organisations who were campaigning on climate change decades before Al Gore’s film and decades before it became a popular political issue. These are the organisations — the movement — who put climate change on the agenda, and who did all the groundwork to make last year’s election the world’s first climate election. Why would the coal industry be represented but not the climate movement, in the "climate" stream of 2020? This was remedied on the second day, by abolishing the issue-based streams and coming together as a large group — but the damage had been done.
I was there as a representative of the Australian Youth Climate Change Coalition with the simple message that we are running out of time to act on climate change. We must make fundamental changes to our economy now and we urgently need to do whatever is most effective to safeguard our climate and our future.
So I came to the Summit willing to listen to new ideas and creatively brainstorm around a few I’d been thinking about — a personal carbon allocation scheme and a nation-wide green job creation scheme. We could design a massive green job program that would inspire Australians to get involved, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and make Australia a world leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency.
These were just two of my ideas; I was excited to hear what others had come up with.
However, it became clear at the start of the Summit that members of the coal industry and their "business as usual" allies had pre-determined their position and approach and it was one that aggressively pushed so-called "clean coal" and argued for more subsidies to the coal industry for them to build clean coal plants. At one point a delegate argued against reducing Australia’s carbon footprint (ostensibly because we have a "special place in the world" and could provide energy for the rest of the world — I was unsure why we couldn’t still do this while reducing our emissions if we move to renewables).
Peter Coates, from the giant coal mining company Xstrata (recently found to be Australia’s biggest polluter), even argued to abolish the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target. This is also the position of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network who are focusing all their efforts this year on undermining the emissions trading scheme by proposing free permits to coal-fired power generators.
One of the coal industry participants stated that he wanted a level playing field for "clean coal" and that the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target is unfair. This is laughable considering that the fossil fuel industry in Australia already receives $9 billion in Federal subsidies each year — 28 times more than what is spent on renewable energy.
The day before the Summit, 20 twenty-year-olds representing all major Australian youth organisations presented a statement calling for urgent and immediate action on climate change to Minister for Youth, Kate Ellis, in Canberra. The statement urges the Government to give young Australians a real chance of a safe future by urgently adopting much deeper greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The organisations call on the Government to make Australia a world leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy which would create thousands of jobs for young Australians.
At the end of the Summit, youth delegates re-grouped and voiced our frustration and disappointment at the way the coal industry had hijacked the climate agenda. They did not act in good faith but rather pushed their business agenda, meaning a small minority silenced the majority of people in the room who pushed for a statement calling for no new coal-fired power stations in Australia (unless or until carbon capture and storage was proven to work, proven safe, efficient and commercially viable — which it is not at this stage, and the majority of the climate movement believe it never will be).
We believe that the sense of urgency — it is our future that is at stake — was lost. We released a statement to the media congratulating the Rudd Government for their willingness to hear our ideas, but condemning the coal lobby for their intervention which obstructed discussion of some really new ideas.
I certainly don’t blame Penny Wong or Kevin Rudd for the weak outcomes on climate change from 2020. I was excited to be involved and thought the idea of an ideas-generating summit was excellent. The coal industry, however, used the Summit to push their agenda through an organised attempt — strategically, in the lead-up to the Federal budget — to position "clean coal" as the solution to climate change and one in need of more Federal subsidies. We do not need new coal in Australia. We can deploy energy efficiency and renewable energy, and fundamentally change our society and economy — for example through distributed energy systems rather than the centralised grid. And we could do it tomorrow, long before "clean coal" has been proved or disproved.
My generation expected — and needed — better outcomes from the 2020 Summit for our climate, and our future. As Friday’s youth statement reads, "We have one climate, one future, and one chance to save it."