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How do we talk about the cost of net-zero?

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My hairdresser likes small talk. Each time we meet, I sit in a chair for a half-hour and we talk about the weather, then the cost-of-living. I don’t like small talk, I don’t know what to say, but it’s part of the routine; ‘it’s starting to get warmer isn’t it?’, ‘have you seen how expensive things are getting?’ We talk about the forecast ahead, and the ritual seems to hold some meaning.

I have wondered about this, already feeling the heat of the coming Christmas and another interest rate hike before summer. The small talk seems mundane, but for a small business that operates in a beach-side suburb, the change in season and economic outlook is everything.

Talking about what is to come has perhaps never felt harder with warnings of impending heatwaves and one million households facing the mortage cliff. The ritual of small talk is now connected to challenges both environmental and economic. For the half-hour in a hairdresser’s chair, I am increasingly unsure of what to say.

While people are feeling the heat in the climate, they’re also feeling heat in the cost of living. The Federal Government legislated Australia's greenhouse gas emission reduction targets last year, to act on the climate crisis  by reaching net zero by 2050 through an economic transition. Given the forecast ahead has never been worse, what does acting on climate look like, and how do we even talk about the cost?

Talking about the cost is tricky given the Federal Government is yet to provide a specific path to net-zero. Research projects like Net Zero estimate that around $7-9 trillion of capital will need be to be invested into energy and infrastructure by 2060, with 1.5 trillion required by 2030. The project’s suggestion that Australia will need to double its amount of gas-fired generation capacity is at odds with environmentalist’s recommendations and an open letter issued by 118 scientists calling for an end to the Government’s proposed fossil fuel projects.

While conservative media repeatedly call for a cost-benefit analysis on the transition to net-zero, other media voices have begun to consider what it will cost to not act on climate, with Australia possibly losing its triple-A credit rating and major credit agencies taking Australia’s climate risks into account. A heating climate will continue to harm productivity too, with one summer of record breaking heatwaves estimated to have cost the economy 7 billion. The recent Intergenerational Report concluded that Australia could lose anywhere between $135 and $423 billion in productivity in coming years.


'There is an economic case for acting on a heating climate but the economics can be a distraction unless we start the conversation at the right place: the environment. A heating climate will cost us trillions. It’s inevitable. If we don’t act at all, it will cost us everything.'


Some voices in business and the energy sector have argued for the economic opportunity in the transition, pointing towards successful European economies that have cut emissions. Sweden is a global leader in lowering emissions with the cost passed on to consumers being small, but Australia’s reliance on fossil fuel exports makes the comparison hard, with no alternate no plan outlined yet.

What does acting on climate look like? How do we even talk about the cost? The answer is that we haven’t decided yet. The coming transition to net zero will be one of the largest and fastest economic transformations in history, comparable to Europe's post-World War II reconstruction. Most of the multitrillion-dollar cost will come from businesses and households. When it comes to discussing this, government, scientists, industry, and media aren’t always having the same conversation. There is no agreed plan of action, and we don’t know the cost.

I sit in the hairdresser’s chair and we perform the ritual; ‘it’s starting to get warmer isn’t it?’, ‘have you seen how expensive things are getting?’ I don’t know what to say. Last July was the hottest in 100,000 years and one in four Australian families are unable to afford adequate food. Bushfires that started in the Northern Territory in August have already burnt more hectares than the entirety of Black Summer, turning solar panels into molten puddles. The small talk seems too hard. I decide to make it harder. I talk about the forecast ahead.

I talk about the summer but also about the coming heatwaves when people won’t be able to leave the house at all. I talk about the weather but also about the rising sea levels and storms that will damage the coastal areas. I talk about how the catastrophic weather will shut down infrastructure and energy supplies. I talk about the cost-of-living too, what this will all do to the economy - but I talk about the environment first, the place where we do business. An extraordinary series of global climate records were broken this year and continued warming will leave Australia’s ecosystem unrecognisable. Given the forecast ahead, there simply is no economy in that environment.

For those in power, the debate over a heating climate might finally be over. After years of denialism, the Liberal opposition is now committed to net-zero. Treasurer Jim Chalmers has promised a ‘uniquely Australian’ economic transformation to lower emissions. The debate has changed, the disasters have seen to that. The discussion will now be about how we act. For those us going about our routines, the small talk must become a bigger conversation. Talking about the weather and the cost-of-living isn’t a meaningless ritual anymore.

There is an economic case for acting on the climate crisis but the economics can be a distraction unless we start the conversation at the right place: the environment. A heating climate will cost us trillions. It’s inevitable. If we don’t act at all, it will cost us everything.




Anthony N. Castle is an Adelaide-based writer. He has written for The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and other national publications. He tweets @AnthonyNCastle.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration. 

Topic tags: Anthony N Castle, Environment, Climate, NetZero, Transition



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Existing comments

You have hit the nail squarely on the head! While the scientific community continues to warn politicians and the general public about the environmental and social risks of inaction on curbing dangerous climate change, it remains in the too hard basket, as economists warn that the costs of switching to renewable energy and cutting Carbon dioxide emissions to net zero, whatever that means would bankrupt the economy. Meanwhile our overindulgence in gas guzzling SUV's and huge Mac Mansions continues apace and are seen as necessary to keep the so-called economy chugging along. We are great talkers but very poor doers!

Gavin A. O'Brien | 04 December 2023