Climate Council urges bigger push towards community energy

The Climate Council has said a growing trend of rural communities setting up their own wind and solar farms could generate thousands of jobs in regional Australia.

The council’s latest report on the impact of climate change on rural Australia says rural communities will continue to be affected by worsening extreme weather events such as bushfires and drought.

But the report’s co-author, Will Steffen, said community-owned energy was one way to adapt.

“You have to have some leaders in your community that can actually get on top of the issue and say, ‘look, forget about federal politics or whatever side you’re on, this is good for our community’,” he said.

There are currently 20 community energy projects operating across the country.

On the Frontline: Climate Change & Rural Communities report finds the increase in extreme weather events is disproportionately affecting those in rural areas, with many agricultural businesses using financial reserves or taking on increased debt in response to extreme weather events.

“But the positive news is that tackling climate change provides an unrivalled opportunity to attract jobs and investment back to these communities,” the Climate Council’s Professor Lesley Hughes said.

“Rural areas receive about 30-40 per cent of investment in renewables in Australia, valued at $1-2 billion per year.”

The report also found:

  • Australia’s rural and regional population is falling and in 2011, there were nearly 20,000 fewer farmers than in 2006. Climate change threatens to exacerbate this urban migration trend.
  • Climate change is reducing water availability in areas of the Murray-Darling Basin, posing a major risk to regional livelihoods.
  • Many agricultural industries have made changes to adapt to the changing climate, such as changing sowing and harvesting dates or switching to new breeds of livestock. But there is a limit to how much farmers can adapt – and it can be expensive and difficult.
  • Farmers are adding additional revenue streams to their properties from renewable energy. About $20.6 million is paid annually in lease payments to farmers and landholders hosting wind turbines.
  • Renewable energy can attract jobs back into rural and regional areas. More than 28,000 jobs that will be created nationally if Australia sources half of its energy from renewables by 2030 and large-scale projects tend to be located outside urban areas.
  • Renewable energy can reduce electricity costs for rural and remote communities, who traditionally pay much higher prices than their urban counterparts.

Co-author Dr Lauren Rickards said the risks posed by climate change threatened exacerbate many of the social, health and economic challenges already being experienced by those in regional areas.

“In addition to affecting agricultural production, climate change affects rural communities in many far-reaching ways, increasing the cost of essential goods and services, devaluing community assets and degrading places we love. Rural and regional communities are often poorly equipped to deal with the health impacts of higher temperatures,” she said.

“While all Australians will be affected by these challenges, those living in rural communities will be worst affected.”

Climate Council chief councillor Tim Flannery said strong climate action was required to protect those living rural and regional areas from worsening impacts.

“Rural and regional communities are living on the frontline of impacts of worsening extreme weather but they are also on the frontline of the solutions,” he said.

“The new projects in renewable power provides enormous opportunities for new income streams and real prospects for energy self-sufficiency, particularly for those in the bush.

“People in the bush look after themselves and each other and they’re already getting on with the job in adapting farming practices and implementing solutions for climate change.

“Now it’s time for our political leaders to match their effort and take the action we need to tackle climate change.”