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Imagine there’s no fossil fuels: What world looks like in 2033

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Imagine it is October 2, 2033. We live in a world in which the transition to a healthy, just and sustainable post-carbon future is well underway, and there is now real hope that catastrophic climate change has been avoided.

It might sound like a line from a transcendental meditation CD – especially considering Australia’s current political climate – but hey, that’s kind of what the Festival of Ideas is all about. An annual event hosted by the University of Melbourne, it calls for mass meditation on ideas – all ideas, big and small, obvious and obscure, seemingly impossible and infinitely doable – to help solve some of society’s biggest problems. Like climate change.

Today, it is about imagining life on this planet in 20 years’ time, as described above, and imagining how we might have got there; what the key obstacles were, how they were overcome.

An optimistic starting point, says Jason Clarke, from the Centre of Sustainable Leadership – one of the key speakers invited to help fuel ideas by writing a sort of history of the future – is to note that 2033 is six whole governments from now. So, he adds, we can imagine a more enlightened political environment, not one where ideas are not welcome – which says “it’s been done, or it’s never been done; either way the answer is no.”

He also notes that in 2033, we are most likely going to have to collect our own water, generate our own electricity and grow our own food – and “share, if you will.”

“Just because we did it between the wars doesn’t mean we can’t do it now,” he says.

Author and environmentalist, Anna Rose, meanwhile, imagines a world where we have removed the social and economic licence of the fossil fuel industry. A shift that happened when “ordinary people got angry and then they got involved,” she says. A shift punctuated by a Wall Street Carbon Crash – when all investors realised at once they needed to offload their fossil fuel assets.

Miriam Lyons, the executive Director for the Centre for Policy Development, imagines an Australia where newly formed political parties like the Electric Motoring Enthusiasts Party, are helping to fund an upgrade to the smart grid.

While Professor Chris Ryan, the director of the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, imagines an Australia that glided past its 2020 20 per cent renewable energy target, and where the generation costs of solar energy dropped below those of coal and gas almost exactly in line with the predictions of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

And most importantly, Ryan says, in 2033 we look back on $4 billion of investment a new energy system – residential rooftop solar – that did not come from capital markets but from individuals investing in new energy – an economic shift the importance of which was “completely ignored” back in 2013, but which we now understand.

Eventually, he adds, even the Abbott government grew to understand the significance of the involvement of the people in making future energy decisions.

Finally, we hear from Simon McKeon AO, chair of the CSIRO. In his 2033, we’re in a rapidly developing era of renewable energy, with “sophisticated grids.”

The problem of baseload energy, he says, has long since been overcome, mostly thanks to tidal energy, with its predictable, four times a day, resource. Most of Victoria’s baseload energy, he imagines, comes from the Port Phillip heads.

McKeon is not so optimistic about an awakening of the current government, describing the decade between 2013-2023 as “lost years.”

“People kept working on the grid, clean energy, energy efficiency,” he said. But the world didn’t wake up to reality until on October 2, 2023, a massive cyclone ravaged the Bay of Bengal, killing half a million people, and leaving five million displaced and seeking refuge.

That “changed the world’s attitude,” he said. “Apathy shifted into action, angst converted into agreement. India, China, US signed legally binding emissions reduction treaty, and the EU and rest of the world quickly fell into line.”

The commercial world, he adds, responded very quickly. And by 2033, we all looked back and said “why was it all so hard?”

On a note from reality, on October 2 in 2013, McKeon urged the promotion of “a culture of rational expectation” that this transition can and will occur.”We need to have that hope, that expectation, that actually, this nut can be cracked.”  

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