Feature: Skilling up for a low carbon future
In Australia, as hundreds of millions of federal dollars are poured into training and education to fill skills gaps across areas such as mining, construction and IT, demand for sustainable products and services is also growing across many sectors, often outstripping supply.
For example, the federal commitment to reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent from 2000 levels by 2050 has triggered a raft of measures, from home household insulation, solar energy and solar hot water initiatives through to green loans, wind farms, industrial energy efficiency initiatives and carbon auditing and reporting, to name a few.
As forecast in a 2008 report by CSIRO to the Dusseldorf Skills Forum1, transitioning to a low-carbon sustainable economy will require a massive mobilisation of skills and training for 3 million workers employed in jobs that affect our environmental footprint.
Mixed results from the rollout of the recent programs mentioned above highlight the need for significant capacity building from planning through to implementation.
The greenhouse gas mitigation challenge exemplifies the complex nature of capacity building. As shown in the graph, stabilising greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this century (in this example, to 550 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent), could involve many options. All involve stopping the increase in tons of greenhouse gasses emitted – or peaking – in the short-term, then consistently reducing – or tailing – the amount of emissions to reach the desired long-term target. Furthermore, earlier and lower peaking strategies can result in reduced longer term tailing costs, but require more upfront commitment and action.
Such peaking and tailing scenarios can involve different short and long-term strategies. For example, under the shorter term peaking scenario, capacity building needs to focus on identifying the knowledge and skills required to respond to energy efficiency opportunities, such as undertaking energy efficiency audits, installing solar hot water and energy systems, and understanding the energy performance and retrofitting opportunities for domestic appliances and industry equipment. Implementation might involve ‘just-in-time’ style postgraduate education such as certificates, diplomas and masters programs, alongside professional development seminars and short courses.
In the longer term, a sustained reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will involve further energy efficiency improvements, as well as a large scale transition to low-emissions energy sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal and tidal power. This would require capacity building at the undergraduate level, with a focus on areas such as whole-system design, resource productivity and transformational improvements. It is worth noting that such a transition also needs to begin immediately, as the pool of qualified graduates needs to be ready to fill senior decision making positions in 15–20 years.
Capacity building will also be critical in conserving Australia’s biodiversity and protecting environmental ‘hotspots’ – such as the Murray–Darling Basin, the Great Barrier Reef and South East Queensland.
Spread over 4 states and with 85 per cent of its land used for agriculture (including rice, oranges, pigs, apples and wheat), the Murray–Darling Basin contributes around 40 per cent of the total value of Australia’s agricultural commodities.
However, the region is in rapid decline due to over-allocation of water resources, salinity and reduced runoff. Water use from the Basin has increased 5-fold in less than a century, resulting in degraded land in most of the Basin’s valleys2. The Basin is also under pressure from introduced species, recreational and commercial fishing, diseases and parasites that attack native fish, and declining water quality.
Addressing these issues requires the diverse users of the Basin’s resources – mainly farmers, industry and government at all levels – to rapidly learn, educate and otherwise share key information with each other on issues such as covering open channels, greywater reuse, large scale rainwater harvesting, soil improvements, crop modification and irrigation innovations.
As climate change effects intensify, pressure on the system may increase, with changes in rainfall and temperature patterns likely to further impact river flows and ecosystem health3.
Future practitioners and decision-makers – in areas such as aquaculture, farming, fisheries, tourism, residential and commercial development, water and wastewater treatment – will need a ‘whole systems’, interdisciplinary understanding of the Basin to identify opportunities for ecosystem restoration and ensure the Basin’s continued contribution to the national economy.
Priorities will likely include restoration of river health and biodiversity in the Basin’s three major tributaries, salt intrusion management, and a shift to low-pesticide, low-herbicide, more sustainable agricultural practices.
Great Barrier Reef
The immediate environmental challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef are coral dieback and algae outbreaks from polluted catchment runoff and warmer ocean temperatures due to climate change, and longer term loss of species and habitat from urban development, fishing and poaching.
Building capacity for short-term management of this ecosystem should ensure that existing urban development and agricultural practices do not further impact upon reef health, through effective catchment management and pollution control.
Over the longer term, reef managers and communities will need to maintain or improve reef resilience to fluctuations in ocean temperature and acidity. This will require capacity building across disciplines such as engineering and town planning, and will also involve large-scale collaborative action across the fisheries, tourism, border security and agricultural sectors, for Australia to continue benefiting economically from a healthy reef.
South East Queensland
As Australia’s fastest growing metropolitan region,
South East Queensland’s population is predicted to expand over the next
two decades from 2.8 to 4.4 million. At the same time, the region needs
to manage current water and energy supply issues stemming from recent
droughts, and develop longer term infrastructure solutions. The time lag
associated with infrastructure development for transport, water and
energy are such that the region needs to begin addressing these issues
as soon as possible.
For example, a recent report into Queensland’s
transport systems found that by 2020, Brisbane’s congestion woes will
cost the city around $3 billion per annum, with congestion doubling or
even tripling by 2055.
Managing this growth effectively requires new
thinking and new skills to ensure that the population and economic
growth are properly ‘decoupled’ from traditionally correlated trends,
such as increased congestion, and water and energy shortages.
Significant capacity building is required within built environment
professions and associated trades in the short-term, to help
construction and trade industries retrofit and build new infrastructure
that is water, energy and materials efficient.
In the longer term, climate change may lead to
rising sea levels, storm surges and flooding over the next several
decades. The region will need the capacity to cost effectively supply
and maintain buildings, transportation systems, food security, water and
energy supplies, health services and waste management that are
resilient to such change.
These three examples highlight how short and
long-term strategies will require different capacity building responses.
The message is that, to achieve sustainable development in the decades
to come, Australia as a nation must begin building the capacity now to
create a pool of future professionals and decision makers who can help
us build a low carbon economy where pollution levels continue to fall
while the population’s well-being is maintained or improved.
Please visit here for the full article with graphs and the section from individual innovation to education.
The authors are from The Natural Edge Project (TNEP), an Australian
‘engineering for sustainability’ working group, hosted by Griffith
University and collaborating with other universities in Australia and
internationally. This is the first of three articles from TNEP exploring
the capacity building challenges facing our education sector.
1 Hatfield-Dodds, S., Turner, G., Schandl, H., and Doss, T. (2008). Growing the green collar economy: skills and labour challenges in reducing our greenhouse emissions and national environmental footprint. Report to the Dusseldorp Skills Forum, June 2008. Canberra: CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems.
2 Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (2010) Restoring the Balance in the Murray–Darling Basin, Water for the Future, Australian Government.
3 Jones R. N., Whetton P. H., Walsh K. J. E. & Page C. M. (2002) Future Impacts of Climate Variability, Climate Change and Landuse Change on Water Resources in the Murray–Darling Basin: Overview and Draft Program of Research, Canberra, ACT: Murray–Darling Basin Commission CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research, Aspendale, Victoria