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The regional Australia advantage when it comes to the transition

26 March 2024

Net zero. Whether you love it, are wary of it, or ambivalent to it, it’s here. Both in Australia and across the globe, the transition to low-carbon economies is underway. This transformation from a fossil-fuel driven world, to one of renewables, is unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetime and it will affect each and every one of us. In order to meet the targets that have been set, every job, every industry, every region will have to adapt, so we must be curious and seek the knowledge we need.

Government certainly has a significant role to play in setting up the frameworks and policies that will help guide that transition over the coming decades. Big companies and corporations will no doubt take a leading role too, using their power and influence to enable change.  But the biggest role of all is really reserved for rural and regional communities. They should be ‘front and centre’ in how the transition occurs in Australia – because much of the new infrastructure associated with the low-carbon economy and the jobs that will support it, will be based in the regions. For the first time in many years, decentralising power production from a few select regions to many more, is a reality.

At the Regional Australia Institute’s Regions Rising South Australia event yesterday, I had the immense pleasure of launching our latest suite of research: The Towards Net Zero series. Over four reports in 2024, the RAI will look deeply into how the net zero transition will affect regional Australia. To date, most of the research into this topic has focused (and rightly so) on our nation’s main fossil fuel producing regions. But the desired timely transition won’t occur if changes aren’t also happening in the regions thousands of kilometres from the nearest coal-fired power station. And this is why this research is so important, because for this change to occur, we need knowledge. We need accurate data, thorough analysis, and real-world examples to assist our regional communities on this unprecedented journey.

The two reports we’ve released this week shine a light on what will need to occur in key regional industries to decarbonise, and the pathways regional communities will have to carve out to meet net zero.  It’s evident from this work that exciting innovations, collaborations, and structures are already in place, and many communities are on the path to self-determining their own future. This was demonstrated at Regions Rising yesterday, through Jeremy Maslin from Katanning Energy.  Katanning, a regional Western Australia community of 4000, is featured in our Towards Net Zero: Transition Pathways in Regional Australia report.  It has a clear vision for its transition and through Katanning Energy’s work on solar and battery installation, the community is on its way to potentially removing itself from the standard electricity grid. Katanning’s self-reliance is commendable and a shining example to other regional communities across Australia.

The RAI’s focus on net zero in 2024 is indicative of how important this issue is for regional Australia, and the more people who understand that the better. I genuinely believe these reports, based on fact, will play a critical role in enabling regional communities to make the decisions they need to, to help them thrive in a low-carbon economy. Later this year, we’ll look at fossil fuel consumption under a regional lens and what can be done to support regional communities through their transition.  

My trip to the stunning Adelaide Hills also offered me the opportunity to talk about the RAI’s Regionalisation Ambition.  This 10-year, 20-goal framework for Regional Australia is our north-star.  It helps to shape every decision we make at the RAI, and in South Australia the dial is certainly being turned to ensure the divide between metropolitan and regional residents is closing.

South Australia has recorded some impressive gains when it comes to the school attainment rate amongst its young people, increasing from 83% in 2020 to 85% in 2021. Across regional Australia as a whole, it sits at 71.4% and the state’s nearest competitor, Queensland had a school attainment rate of 77.8% in 2021. Like most targets though, there is still room for improvement with the metropolitan school attainment rate in SA sitting at 96%.

South Australia is also only one of three states across the country that has increased its share in national employment in renewable energy, up from 0.8% in 2016 to 2.0% in 2021. Whilst it’s only a small portion, the increase is perhaps a strong sign that the transition to net zero has well and truly started in SA in recent years and as this progresses, it will be interesting to watch the metrics when it comes to employment in this sector.  By all accounts, according to those I spoke with in South Australia this week, this state sees itself as a leader in the net zero transition.

Finally, another very special gathering I had the privilege of hosting last week – the RAI’s Regions Leading Their Own Development – Executive Education program.  In beautiful Launceston, the RAI team had the pleasure of immersing ourselves into the practice of regional development with 22 executives from across regional Australia. We all know how rare it is to carve out this time to concentrate on personal development and to prosecute the very real challenges we face through a systemic and shared learning experience. Personally, I’ve come away reinvigorated and with many new partnerships and ideas, and I know the participants are feeling the same.  It’s important to remind ourselves that we work in the service of others, and this is humbling but equally compelling.  The collective learning was immensely powerful, and I know it will be the beginning of a lasting legacy. 

It was a fitting end to the first quarter of 2024 and has me excited for the challenges and opportunities this next part of the year will deliver.

Liz Ritchie

Faces of the Regional Australia Institute - Amanda Barwick

Informed by both research and ongoing conversations with the community, the Regional Australia Institute develops policy solutions and advocates for change to build a stronger economy and better quality of life in regional Australia – for the benefit of all Australians. This cannot be done without a dedicated and enthusiastic team and through the ‘Faces of the RAI’ series, we want to introduce you to the people undertaking this work. They all share a strong commitment to regional Australia and many are regional residents themselves.

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