Ecocity2017: There might have been plenty of talent and unexpected insights on offer, but, let’s face it, Al Gore was the climate action superstar that everyone wanted to see – at least on the Thursday morning segment of the three-day mega global Ecocity World Summit that alighted in Melbourne this week.
Predictably there were no spare seats to be seen in the plenary auditorium at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. The official figures were 2300.
Predictably too there was plenty of fanfare in the media and around the political traps, at least from those who wanted to align their message with Gore.
Gore thanked the team effort that brought him to Melbourne, his “dear friend” Don Henry, former long-term head of the Australian Conservation Foundation and now at the University of Melbourne; his colleague Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute director Brendan Gleeson; and Western Sydney University.
The night before most of the 900 conference delegates attended a reception at Melbourne Town Hall given by lord mayor Robert Doyle.
The Victorian state government also jumped in on the act and used Gore’s visit to announce Renewable Energy Action Plan, with $146 million in funding.
In a charming gimmick the plan was announced by Gore and minister for energy, environment and climate change Lily D’Ambrosio after riding on one of Melbourne’s trams all promised to soon be solar powered.
The spotlight was on Melbourne but Gore was generously inclusive and acknowledged the states and cities around Australia making increasingly ambitious commitments to zero emissions.
The latest and most impressive, Queensland, certainly in terms of what it means for how that state begins to sort out what “its other hand” is doing by backing the Adani coal mine. The latter of course is looking increasingly like an in-joke given recent news that the costs of solar energy in India had dropped significantly below the costs of coal fired power.
Gore’s message for the big part of his marathon presentation was dire, though gripping. A full one-and-a-half hours of horror, the likes of which would make Hollywood envious in the extreme. Except that the footage was real. There were lingering helicopter views over vast crumbling ice and snow walls in the Arctic.
“I’ll let you watch a bit more of that,” he said, without drama. He didn’t need emphasis.
We’d just heard new words and phrases come into the lexicon – such as rain bombs and atmospheric rivers to describe dumping storms with the intensity of a swimming pool of water suddenly dumped on a house. We’d seen the emerging regularity of floods, mudslides, droughts and intense bushfires “nothing like the fires your grandfather fought”, but intense. Evil.
The graphs of rising emissions and temperatures in the time of fossil fuels were dramatic. And sadly familiar.
Gore had started with the heart wrenching first photo of Earth from space in 1968. From that moment he said people started to realise the fragility of our poor, small planet – a magical thing floating in space.
“Within 18 months we had the first Earth day.”
The next big take home message from space was the wispy thin layer of haze hovering over the plant, our atmosphere.
Right now we’re releasing the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima bombs every single day, Gore said.
It was downhill from there, with stark footage of human and ecological devastation. Syria’s severe drought in 2010 sent 1.5 million climate refugees in to the towns where they confronted 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq war. A recipe for hell, he said.
Australia is already a prime victim of the impact. Sydney had 47°C this summer, but Pakistan had 54°C and there were scores of people unable to walk across the road because their shoes were sinking into the tarmac. In Kuwait trucks were stuck, their tyres buried half way in bitumen. Turkey had temperatures of 57°C. Each year hotter than the last.
Right now there are 20 million people on the verge of starvation, from drought, he said, and 400 farmers recently suicided in India.
The bad news stretches on and on, beyond heat and into health with outbreaks of Zika virus and other contagious diseases spreading north and south of the equator.
The good news
But after this lie of the land, Gore came into his own, calling on his native political skills to build an argument, a case for hope and action. He inspired.
He’d asked three questions at the start: do we need to change? Can we change? And will we change?
Yes, yes and yes were the answers.
Gore doesn’t know if we’ll make it but here’s what he does know: the sustainability and renewable energy industries are growing like mad.
The good news is abundant and lucrative.
Wind capacity and solar are now being deployed at a rapid rate, Gore said.
And just as the rate of climate deterioration had grown faster than expected, so had this response.
Costs are coming down faster than most people predicted.
“Wind farms are now the cheapest form of energy, along with solar,” Gore said.
And in a growing list of countries wind is starting to become a dominant source of energy in a growing number of days.
The growth of batteries by “bold” friends such as Elon Musk are fast tracking what could previously not have been imagined.
“We are in the early stage of a sustainability revolution with the magnitude of the industrial revolution and the speed of the digital.”
Imagine the business opportunities this creates, he challenged, pointing to the need to swap old lights for LEDs, the retrofitting of buildings for insulation, sustainability and energy efficiency. With costs plunging.
In cars, Volvo has said it will no longer make combustion cars after 2019. India says all cars and trucks will be electric by 2030. China is going the same way.
Estimates of solar rollouts 15 years ago were surpassed by a magnitude of 17 times in 2010 and by 75 times last year.
“The revolution is picking up speed.”
And why? Because cost is coming down exponentially.
One utility in the US, Gore said, has signed for solar at significantly less per kilowatt-hour than the cost of coal energy, and in Chile and Abu Dhabi the cost of solar is less than half that of fossil fuels.
“The trend is to grid parity.”
So what’s the significance of that? The same as the difference of one degree to ice.
“Far more significant than one degree”.
Heat ice by one degree and it changes its nature entirely; it becomes water, Gore said.
It’s the same with what’s happening with solar. Make it cheaper and suddenly there is a massive flow of capital going to clean energy.
Somehow government subsidies for renewables haven’t caught up. Renewables are subsidised to the tune of US$27 billion globally and fossil fuels US$699 billion.
“China is leading the world on solar; India has done a U-turn”.
Gore also made special note of the astounding performance and turnaround in India on renewable power since the Paris Climate Accord of 2015 (when just a year ago it seems, the country was attracting the new-found sympathy of the coal industry worried about alleviating poverty by selling it coal).
It was also great to see the G20 the other day double down on its commitment to climate action (well 19 of the members anyway, sparking reminders of Chris Ullman’s report on a lonely and isolated president Trump knocking around the G20 room on his own, backs turned pretty much against him).
In the US mayors and city councils are “ignoring who’s in the White House” and competing to go 100 per cent renewable, Gore said.
Among them was a most conservative Republican mayor in Texas, he said, who, though his state might be swimming in oil, chooses to save money instead.
And there’s more incentive than savings. Private businesses are setting their own targets in a “powerful signal to investors”.
“They know they need a licence to operate.”
And with that Gore left the room with even more notes of hope.
From Nelson Mandela, “It’s always impossible until it happens.”
And a reminder that all the great moral movements of history – the elimination of slavery, women’s rights, civil rights and now climate action – all have the same thing in common: they’re met with ferocious resistance but then generate great momentum.
“Things take longer than you think and then they happen much quicker than you thought.
“That’s the inflexion point we are at now.”