It has been a summer like no other. We have seen loss of life and unprecedented destruction across NSW and much of the rest of the country. Australia has been the hottest place on the planet and Sydney’s air quality has at times ranked as the worst in the world. Climate change is unfolding before our eyes.

At the same time, we’ve seen the best of Australians: bravery in the face of tragedy, and communities working together to support each other. This moment holds both crisis and opportunity. Our future depends on how we respond.

Australia’s cities will be central to the work ahead. As the locus of the future economy, they will be providing the financial resources to help the country adapt. As the place where most people live, they have a key role in eliminating carbon pollution from daily life.

In 2020, we need to see a shift in rhetoric and action. It will take years for fire-ravaged communities to recover, but it will take longer for Australia’s international reputation to recover — and this will only happen if the country changes its direction on climate policy.

Major news outlets across the Western world, including CNN, BBC and The New York Times, have vented their frustration at Australia’s lack of leadership on climate change. A report at the end of last year ranked Australia 57 out of 57 countries with regard to its climate policies.

Australia’s reputation on climate has been identified as a key trouble spot. Meanwhile, some of our city’s key strengths – our incredible landscape and proximity to nature – have turned into weaknesses, as shared across news bulletins globally. We can expect the images of fire coupled with Australia’s reputation for not being a leader on the global climate stage to damage our reputation and economy.

Australia, threatened by extreme heat and sea level rise, faces an existential threat from climate change. We should be the leader of the world, fighting for binding international agreements to cut emissions, because our survival depends on it.

We are committed to ramping up our work in proportion to the new urgency of the climate resilience problem. We propose three broad areas that require a coordinated government response:

  1. Reducing our emissions

The biggest sources of carbon emissions in Australia are electricity generation, transport, industry, and agriculture. The only one of these that’s relatively straight-forward is electricity generation, where the technology for net zero is already well proven and the policy levers to deliver the change are well understood. Transport will take more work, because of half a century of building cities in sprawling patterns that make sustainable forms of mobility difficult. But again, we know what we need to do – the technologies of sustainable transport are well developed and the policy levers are clear. Industry and agriculture will be harder to solve, requiring new techniques and approaches. Having a real plan to get to net zero emissions is a step taken by countries like the UK and US states like California. Our land area, sunshine, and hydro resources position us to have an easier time reducing our emissions than most other countries.

  1. Transitioning our economy

Opponents of taking rapid or costly steps toward carbon neutrality correctly point out that Australia represents a small amount of global annual emissions. By contrast, Australia’s coal deposits represent a huge proportion of the worlds’ remaining carbon budget to limit warming to significantly less than 2 degrees. Because of this fact, we know that sooner or later, Australia’s thermal coal industry is going to decline. We should approach this certainty with a sense of agency by undertaking our own proactive strategy for transitioning the economy and supporting coal-dependent communities as the world changes.

Pushing to open new coal mines is simply not a forward-looking economic development strategy for the modern world.

We need an economic transition plan that is similar in scale to the post-War campaign to turn Australia into an industrial country, or the reforms in the 1980s to open Australia’s economy to the world. This should be the great economic project of our generation. And while we shouldn’t be naïve about how difficult this transition will be, it also represents and enormous opportunity for Australia to create new jobs and new industries that will position the country for the future.

  1. Investing in adaptation

Finally, we have to acknowledge that the impacts of climate change are now baked in. If humans stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, the earth will continue to warm for decades and the seas will continue to rise for centuries. Australia’s climate is permanently hotter. No one knows how far these trends will go; the science is not that precise, and in any case we don’t yet know how much longer before the major carbon polluters will be stopped.

But we know that we will have to undertake a retrofit of our cities and our life support systems to adapt to the new climate: raising parts of our cities above the rising seas, developing new sources of drinking water, managing the landscape to become less burnable, relocating infrastructure out of harm’s way, and many other investments along these lines. Sydney is at the forefront of this. Millions of our citizens already live in areas of extreme heat, and millions more will as we grow.

We will face excruciating choices about what we save and what we give up. We will face heavy funding burdens to protect and rebuild our infrastructure. And we will have to live differently. But Australia is a resilient, wealthy country, with the capacity to change, to learn from other places, and to pull together for a shared purpose. The commitment of thousands of rural fire service personnel has been profound, as has the generosity of many Australians who have helped those in need. The time is now to show similar courage to take real action to make Australia a leader on climate change.

It is time to face the climate crisis with the urgency that it requires. The easy work has mostly already been done. But we have all of the tools we need to undertake this work if we decide to do it. The world is watching us.

Gabriel Metcalf is chief executive officer of the Committee for Sydney.

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