Originally produced content by Guardian Labs Australia to a brief agreed with and paid for by WWF.

It’s time to rebuild. Australia is uniquely placed to emerge from this year’s crises as a clean energy superpower and transform its manufacturing industry in the process.

Australia is still reeling from the dual impact of bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic. This unprecedented confluence of events has delivered an opportunity to put an end to our reliance on fossil fuels to power our lives and industry, and in doing so, future-proof both our economy and the environment. And this pivot to renewables could just transform and revitalise manufacturing at the same time.

The Australian manufacturing industry has shed more than 200,000 jobs since the global financial crisis. On top of that, this year of local and global crises could see our economy tumble by more than $30 billion.

Yet, as 2020 trade and travel restrictions have highlighted, Australian manufacturing has the capacity not just to deliver vital products and services domestically, but to be a global leader in exporting manufactured goods. This is a pivotal moment. We have a choice to make: return to our energy status quo, investing in a declining coal industry and a gas industry that is in trouble; or invest in emerging value-add industries that generate jobs and economic growth.

Nicky Ison, WWF Australia’s energy transition manager, says WWF research shows 69% of Australians agree we have the potential to be a renewable energy superpower. “There’s a real appetite within the community to hear a positive message of the opportunities associated with a move towards renewables”. Plentiful natural resources and public appetite give Australia an unparalleled advantage across all renewables. “There are few places in the world that have our abundance of land, sunshine, hydro, wave, and wind resources as well as a stable democracy, strong trading relationships and a highly skilled workforce,” Ison says. 

In addition, we already have a strong reputation as a leader in innovation. “We lead the world in rooftop solar,” Ison says, with more than 2 million of the nation’s 13 million homes fitted with panels. “We have everything we need to make Australia a leader in clean energy.”

Economist Ross Garnaut agrees. In his recent book, Super-Power: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, Garnaut says Australia is uniquely placed. “We have unparalleled renewable energy resources. We also have the necessary scientific skills. Australia could be the natural home for an increasing proportion of global industry.” We have an opportunity to capitalise. A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be just one benefit of a shift to renewable energy.

As we emerge from Covid-19, such a move could also grow our economy, enhance industry development and create jobs.The Australian Alliance to Save Energy (A2SE) estimates that if Australia doubled energy productivity by 2030, this would result in a 2.8% increase in real GDP ($2000 per capita), a $30 billion saving in energy spend and a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a demonstrated willingness to invest in renewables within Australia. A recent survey of Australian and New Zealand investors (representing $1.3 trillion) found they have an increasing appetite for climate-aligned investment. “We’re talking about transport and industry as well as electricity – total energy,” Ison says. “Most countries will have enough renewable energy to power their current electricity needs. But some of our strongest trading partners – like South Korea, Japan and Singapore – won’t have enough clean energy to power all of their needs. “That’s when we start to think about full decarbonisation and the role that renewables can play beyond the electricity sector, and Australia’s unique advantage. If we played a role in supporting our Asia Pacific neighbours to rapidly transition to clean energy, there would be a whole range of benefits to us and our region.

The opportunities are expansive and interconnected, capable of delivering real impact to Australia’s bottom line, in the form of new jobs, lower power prices, and energy to power industry as a whole. Our export markets would grow through a mix of electrons and infrastructure, including renewable hydrogen, high-voltage direct current (HVDC), embodied renewable energy, expertise, and technical and software capability.

WWF proposes Commonwealth stimulus spending across five targeted areas – modernising critical manufacturing, battery manufacturing, electric bus manufacturing, solar and renewable hydrogen – to create up to 100,0000 jobs.

“What we’re talking about here is future-proofing Australia against climate change and industry threats,” Ison says. “With the conversation at the moment about the importance of having more reliable supply chains in the face of global crises, it makes sense to make them more resilient locally. That means playing a more proactive role in the manufacturing space.” She uses the example of electric bus manufacturing: “We have a medium-sized bus manufacturing sector in Australia, employing around 10,000 people. To future-proof that industry, we can pivot to electric buses that have real-world application. We’ve seen the first electric bus assembled and trialled in Victoria this year, and we want to see that turbocharged. Using state government procurement processes to do that makes a whole lot of sense.” 

Global demand for electric buses is set to grow. Today, there are around 425,000 electric buses worldwide. 

This illustrates how crucial government support is in cementing Australia’s position as a global renewables powerhouse. “Multinational companies that are wanting to decarbonise are looking around the world at where they are going to set up new factories or operations,” Ison says. “Given our abundant renewable resources and land, Australia is a good location. But we don’t have the policy support to back that up at the moment. We’re missing out on both global and local economic opportunities.” Ison says we need to indicate to the world that we’re serious about acting on climate change. “We need to show we have policies to back up our renewable powerhouse potential and are actively advocating for the types of advances that would make us a renewable superpower at both climate negotiations and within our trade talks.”

Australia has shown itself to be ahead of the curve in its crisis response. Now, we must capitalise on our clean energy potential. “Scott Morrison said, what we do in the next five years will set us up for the next 30 years and open up a new generation of opportunities. We absolutely agree – and we think the biggest opportunities for us as a nation are associated with abundant renewable energy resources.”

Ison is optimistic about the next step. “The overwhelming sense that people have is this is something we feel proud about – Australia can do this. It’s an uplifting and hopeful message.”

Find out more on how we can secure Australia’s future through a renewables led recovery to COVID-19.