Can we still ‘save the world’? Environmental expert Greg Morrison discusses climate action, the role of scientists and the challenges we face.
The Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature rise to 2oC above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, came into force three years ago. Since then, there have been some doubts as to whether this target can be achieved and, in response, a global youth movement has emerged to demand more action.
In this episode, Professor Greg Morrison, from the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, gives Jess and David an overview of the current state of climate action and the role scientists are playing to ‘save the world’.
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You can read the full transcript for the episode here.
Jess: This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better. I'm Jessica Morrison...
David: And I'm David Blayney.
Jess: Today, we're talking with Professor Greg Morrison, the Director of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, about the future of climate action. The Paris Agreement, which aims to limit the global temperature rise to two degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, came into force three years ago. Professor Morrison, are we on track to save the world?
Professor Greg Morrison: I think we have every possibility to do that. Some of the research we have been doing at our institute has for many years been aiming to save the world, if you like, and to make sure that we keep within the planetary boundaries, within the limits that we should be living within. However, that said, I think there's been a big change in the way that we've been looking at the environment and climate.
Professor Greg Morrison: I'd like to step back a little bit, to when I was a 15-year-old boy. I was at a library in Kent and I saw a little notice up on the board and it was from a local preservation society. I called them up and I started going along to meetings. This was really on the back of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the environmental movements that resulted in the 1972 Stockholm Conference, a lot about acid rain and the issues of that time. That was what environment was: it was about understanding how we're affecting our ecosystems and the large-scale use of pesticides. I found that very interesting. Eventually moved into university, lived in Sweden for 30 years and I've worked with environmental issues, particularly about sustainable development.
Professor Greg Morrison: More recently, we've had another 15-year-old person come along in Sweden, a young lady called Greta Thunberg, who sat outside the Swedish government for a number of weeks, a Friday every week, and carried out a climate strike. The interesting part of this was that she had, although she has learning difficulties, she'd gone in and looked at everything about climate change and tried to set herself into it. She really has one very key question: if we know so much about it, then why have we done nothing about it? Or not enough about it?
Professor Greg Morrison: I think the interesting part of this story is that she's raised an awareness amongst the 15 year olds and above, a generation that has quite a different way of looking at environment from what I did. They are concerned that we're just not doing enough. At this present time, there are about 16 national governments that have declared an environment and climate emergency. First out was Britain, a government that has spent three years not agreeing on Brexit is suddenly able to make an agreement very, very quickly that there is an environment and climate emergency. Here in Perth, Fremantle have taken a stance on this issue. So there's a movement there that is very important for the next generation. Then the question is: 'What are we doing about that?' And I think that's where we are today; we're trying to make sure that we're taking sufficient action.
Jess: Are we? What are we doing?
Professor Greg Morrison: We've got two areas that we're taking action. The first one is by looking at actual cities themselves and saying that cities is where most of us live in the world, today, and urban living will continue to be the big issue. I'm involved in an organisation called the Climate-KIC, which is a knowledge innovation community. It exists across Australia. It also started and exists in Europe, has some of the best universities in the world involved in it and has quite a lot of funding behind it from the European Union. Here in Australia, we find other sources of funding, but we're working very hard with it. The interesting thing is that, pushed on by this environment and climate emergency, or enabled by it, we are starting to redefine the way we look at the research we do. We're doing a lot of good research in the White Gum Valley, looking at solar battery storage. We are doing a lot of good research in terms of creating living labs, working with companies. But the question is: 'Is that enough?' So, what we're starting to look at now is how we take that research and turn it into a very tangible transformation process.
Jess: I suppose that's for people listening to this podcast. Some may appreciate and understand the concern that we are looking to the future of the climate, but think, 'Oh, what can I do really?' What can they do tangibly at home or in the workplace to actually improve these outcomes?
Professor Greg Morrison: There's a lot we can do at home in terms of recycling and in terms of energy use and water use. The reason we're starting to look at Perth at a much bigger scale is because of the difficulties of just doing it at home. We know that Perth as a city, it has some real benefits. It's very sunny and the people in Perth have put in a lot of solar energy on their roofs and have done an awful lot in pushing in that direction. That creates all sorts of problems in terms of the grid, in terms of the energy services. But, Perth is one of the first places in the world to really be moving towards a renewable future. So there are things that people are already doing today, but it's not enough to expect everybody to take individual action. The scaling we are planning to do with the European cities, and this is where it starts getting interesting, because European cities have their own characteristics. So Copenhagen, which has a lot of cycling, which is a different type of society, differs greatly from Perth, which has lots of driving. The city looks quite different in terms of transport, but also it has a resource space, which has a substantial carbon footprint. I think what we need to do is put a positive frame onto this and say: 'How do we transform the city of Perth, together with 10 other cities in Europe, which are being selected at the moment, together with Sydney, and how do create for 2030 a prosperous, inclusive climate resilient, net zero emissions?' I think that's the type of response scale that we can give to the next generation. Because if we don't do that, it won't happen.
Jess: It's so great to hear you speaking about it in such a positive tone because I think far too often when we hear in the media about the climate, it's very doomsday. It's very bleak and obviously, you know, if we don't take action it is; I just think it's very refreshing that you're speaking about the future because I think, as you said, we need to encourage the future generation, being those 15 year olds now, to take action.
Professor Greg Morrison: I think that the thing for me is that I see much more potential in this. What we're planning to do now, just to give a little bit of idea of how we're going to do this, is we're going to start a Curtin. We're going to start going through all the research we do that meets that vision that I just mentioned in terms of Perth. We're going to gather together the researchers. Universities are co-operative places, but often academics are working in their own little rooms and we need to pull together over a bigger vision. We're going to work in across Curtin to gather together our capacity, start to bring the other universities into this, start to look at it in terms of the actual money we put into this type of research already, which I think is starting to look at $500-million-to-billion and starting to say: 'Well how do we lift that together with companies, together with the state government and the LGAs (local government authorities). How do we create that into a much bigger projects?' This will be done in the European cities, 10 of them, and in Sydney at the same time. In my career I've been involved in a couple of quite similar projects and it's surprising how this type of idea gains traction and I think it's what the universities are there for. They're there to provide the ideas, the understanding, the contemporary knowledge, to be able to meet this challenge.
David: How much time do we have left to prepare ourselves for more adverse weather events and more importantly to prevent climate change from getting worse?
Professor Greg Morrison: Well, it depends. That depends on who you speak with, about the optimists and the pessimists. I would say that part of that vision for the future is climate resilience. There's two aspects to this. Mitigation. Of course we have to continue to look at the way we're going to reduce CO2 emissions. We've also got to realize that this is a very challenged place on earth and we have to make sure the resilience of the city is sufficient. A lot of this comes down to the people with less money. It can live in homes that have an adaptation to longer periods of heat and even cold! It's quite cold in the homes in Perth, which I found to my surprise when I first came here.
Professor Greg Morrison: Inclusivity and climate resilience are an important part of that. I think what Greta and the movement have been saying is: 'We need to do it now'. I wouldn't fully agree with what she says that, you know, we haven't necessarily done enough. I think we've done an awful lot, but I think there's an emergency or a crisis to it that we need to react to. Looking at it from a global perspective, if we're able to carry out this type of project that moves to 2030, I think that is a reasonable response with the presence where we are today.
David: What does the term 'climate emergency' mean? Was the term 'climate change' not cutting through? Were we all just thinking, 'Oh, it'll get a little bit warmer', when in fact it means that we are going to have more floods, more adverse weather events, more natural disasters?
Professor Greg Morrison: Yeah. So this was what I was trying to say earlier that I think we've moved from a time where environment, environmental science, preservation, conservation was big. The '60s, with the DDT (a pesticide with potent toxicity) and the acid rain, and I've seen that progression in my career to more around '87 where you had the Brundtland Commission on sustainable development. Now, the interesting part was that when that really got to the Rio Conference in '92, the academic world reacted a little bit slowly. We discussed for quite a long time that sustainable development is like a political vision and what does that really mean in a university and should we react to it? And it took about 10 years to really get going, to be honest, and to understand that sustainable is something quite fundamental to our future.
Professor Greg Morrison: I think the difference this time is that there's been a change in meaning; we're not just talking about a climate crisis, which is what you're referring to, but to environment and climate. In other words, it's the biodiversity, our planetary boundaries that are being exceeded. I think the difference is that the message is so stark and so real. From my experience, there's no reason why we should be waiting for this to happen. We need to be working on the solutions and just taking up the challenge and for goodness sake that it took a 15-year-old child to tell us that, I'm almost ashamed. But, we get it and I'm starting to see quite a lot of universities through the world that are reacting much quicker and in a much different way.
Professor Greg Morrison: So I guess going back to your question: 'What is the difference about this?' Well, I think the difference is that at the present time, the environment and climate emergency becomes, if you like, a symbolic, not particularly legally binding agreement to do something in policy. I think that's a great start. You have to start somewhere. Nobody's expecting to legally bind governments immediately into something without spending some time working out what to do. I think at the same time that symbolism and that message is something we can all attach to. And I think this was always the idea behind these movements: to get us to wake up a little bit and start doing something.
Jess: Going back to what you were talking about before, the project that you're working on in Perth: the global cities transformation – Perth and also Sydney and the other European cities – you mentioned early that will help to encourage climate neutrality in our cities. Can you explain how we're going to do that in the future?
Professor Greg Morrison: If we just briefly go back to some of the research we've been doing in Fremantle. We've been looking at solar storage systems, looking at how we can introduce batteries and batteries are going to be a big part of our energy future. We've been carrying out projects. The White Gum Valley has won lots of prizes, very important for LandCorp, very important for Western Power and Synergy as the grid owner and the retailers. There was always an idea that somehow this could gradually move into new developments. We've done a lot of good research on that. We've also been carrying out research on peer-to-peer trading of energy across the grid. It was one of the first in the world, but it's very much local or limited in what it is in terms of space and in terms of time.
Professor Greg Morrison: I think the difference with a climate emergency is we need to start looking at ways of saying, 'We've done a lot of great research. How does it get scaled? Well, let's bring together all the research we do so that it's not disjointed'. And then bring together the local government authorities that are very progressive – just to name a couple we work with: Fremantle, Bassendean, Joondalup, Canning. There's a few of those LGAs that we know are really trying both politically and in other ways to show what they can do. If you look at the ones that have moved into the three bin system the fastest, they're the ones that are moving quickly. The change in the way that we recycle, you reuse the materials. That's a whole circular economy thinking behind our energy, water waste, urban metabolism. The key thing about the transformational part is bringing all those stakeholders together and starting to track and to infuse the other stakeholders and to bring in more people who feel that they want to join this type of project. Who are prepared to invest money into the environment and climate emergencies, or are prepared to invest time into it. And that will be different from the different stakeholders: what they can and can't do. I think without that type of process, then we will tend to remain with very nice research ideas and demonstrations. But that's just not enough.
Jess: What does the climate neutral city look like?
Professor Greg Morrison: We're looking at exactly that question. What does a climate or a climate resilience and a zero-emissions-by-2030-city look like? And it's gonna look different in different places. You can start looking at, well, where do you draw your system's boundaries and how do you define that? I think it's important for it to be broad and I think it's important to be global and I think it's important to be able to look at those differences and to understand it. So my answer to that is I could imagine it could be a lot of public transport and cycling and it can be a lot of green space. It can be fossil free. That's all fine, but I think it's much, much more complicated than that. I think we need to start to understand that there's a heterogeneity or a difference in the way that our cities look like. That's where it gets interesting as a research perspective. If you wanna talk 'climate neutral' or 'carbon neutral', that's fine. But I think there's a much greater complexity. That's where our research is getting quite interesting.
Jess: 2030 may sound like it's a while away, but it's really not–.
David: 2020 sounded like it was miles away and we're now mere months away from it.
Jess: Is it really possible to make such great change in that space of time, when we've obviously discussed, just in this conversation, some barriers to that happening? Is it possible?
Professor Greg Morrison: Yeah, I think so. I remember we when I was when I was at Chalmers University in Gothenburg; in terms of energy, they're pretty far down the track, with triple glazing, well-insulated buildings, electric buses. We moved very quickly onto the next challenge, which I think is the more difficult one in a sense, going to be our big challenge for humanity. And that is the whole material, consumerism, resource use. I think we can do the actual climate side of it and the energy side of it, for 2030. I think the big challenge we have for say 2050 is the increase in use of resources in our buildings, in our societies. The reality is if you look for a population on Earth of say 10 million in 2050; to really be able to live within our planetary boundaries in terms of resource material use, we need to start thinking about reducing that by about a factor of 10, globally, if we're going to have Africa and countries like India and China continue to become more prosperous and using more materials. I think we have to meet this challenge for 2030. I think it's quite doable. And then I think there'll be the next challenge, which probably will go beyond my research. But this is quite doable. There's a political will. It varies around the world, the way this is regarded, but when you start to show what can be done, it's surprising how quickly people can react to good change.
Jess: We've obviously spoken in a global sense, but how does Australia actually rate? How do we rate and how are we on track for the future?
Professor Greg Morrison: Yeah. So there's sort of two sides to that question. How do we rate in terms of CO2 emissions? Not great. If you look at the sustainable development goals, it's climate that is a problem for Australia. No question about it. You know, that's starting to be pessimistic. But, if you look at Australia as a country of opportunity – the whole solar situation – Australia has a huge possibility to be a solar energy powerhouse. There are huge opportunities here. We will be mobilising the universities. What I find coming here is that the whole meeting of universities and society and industry is perhaps not as far progressed as has been the case in Europe and even before that in America. But, that's changing very quickly. There's a realisation by universities that we have to integrate in the types of projects we do. So, the sort of projects I talk about is what we should be doing.
Professor Greg Morrison: You've got some of the best university researchers in the world and some of the great minds; it's just bringing them together and bringing them together with society and industry to say: 'Well, now we want to solve this issue'. And then it becomes eminently solvable. I think rather than saying, 'We're the best or worst in certain things', there's huge opportunities here in Australia.
David: Just leading on from Jess's question, given that WA (Western Australia) is not part of the national grid for the electricity network, how does WA rate in terms of mitigating climate change?
Professor Greg Morrison: So your question is about is about the grid, which is the southwest integrated system, which is separate from the NEM (National Energy Market), which is the whole energy system over east. That is again, a challenge. You've got a grid that's basically the size of the UK grid, but with about two million people as against 60, 70 million. So, it's expensive and it's challenging. It's a capacity market, a monopoly. The challenge has been, I would say, the actual transformation that we're seeing at the present time in terms of individuals putting solar on their roof started some, at least five to 10 years ago. There hasn't been a transformation of this type for a hundred years. The last time there was that type of transformation was when the Perth Gas Company was taken over by the Perth government authority and turned into the electricity company that has been built on a model of large-scale generation and distribution and then delivered to homes. That is radically changing and has been doing so for the last five years or so. So, this is one of the first places in the world to undergo a transformation to a more decentralised, local... rooftop generation. You don't get much more decentralised than that on people's homes.
Professor Greg Morrison: The challenge will be, and we're doing quite a lot of research on this at the moment, how to integrate batteries. Are we talking batteries in people's homes to be able to store the energy, the solar you produce during the day and use it in the evenings in the morning? So, battery is certainly a solution. Or does it make sense to have a community battery? We're doing some experiments on that at the White Gum Valley. It could be a pumped hydro or it could be large-scale batteries out in the grid. But it can also be batteries on two wheels and four wheels and many wheels. So everything from the electric bike to the car. We just bought an electric car ourselves. We connected it the house. It's not fully electric – it's a hybrid –which means of course we use more electricity, rather than fossil fuel, which is a good thing, but home integration of batteries is going to change the very nature of the grid. So I think we're seeing another optimistic development there and that is that with smart metring. We're now able to look at electricity use down to five seconds and perhaps even down to one second soon. So there will be the possibility for a demand response, better control in the network but also for the homeowner to have their own management system both in the home and perhaps across the grid as well. So although it's a very challenging time for the bigger companies that are dealing with this, it's actually quite an exciting time. We have just great meetings with Synergy and Western Power, where we sit and say: 'What do we do next?' I'm again quite optimistic here. I think this will be solved. There'll be changes with time and there's an experimentation going on with how we use our energy and what individuals can and can't do in terms of local use or whether it can be traded and all the rest of it. I think that as the whole sort of a digital services, visualisation of our cities emerges more and more, I think we're going to see huge opportunities for improving the actual grid system.
David: You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you have any questions about today's topic, get in touch by following the links in our show notes. Bye for now.