Feature

Beyond Zero Hero

Green Lifestyle

Dr Stephen Bygrave tells us why renewable energy is a viable choice for Australia, challenging the present government’s take on the coal industry, and shares insight into what keeps him motivated.

Dr Stephen Bygrave

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You have to be pretty passionately interested in the cause of the environment to have spent more than two decades helping to create solutions to climate change. Working across renewable energy, energy efficiency, transport, agriculture, and forestry, Dr Bygrave is one very focussed individual.

Since September 2013, Bygrave has been working as a CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions – a not-for-profit research and education organisation. Under his leadership, this year, Beyond Zero Emissions has won the Business Not-for-Profit Category of the Green Lifestyle Awards.

Q: At the end of last year, the Prime Minister expressed his positive views on the coal industry. How would you argue against his views that coal is beneficial for the economy?

It is not cheaper, that's the first point. In fact the recent review done into the Renewable Energy Target by the Climate Change Authority shows that households will benefit from having more renewable energy. By having more solar energy in our grid, electricity prices do not peak as high, and that means the consumers actually pay less for energy. Our Fossil Economy report also shows that Australia’s fossil fuel exports will be responsible for one-sixth of the world’s carbon budget by 2015, a position that is clearly unsustainable.

Q: The PM also argued that people have the right to be lifted from poverty, saying that coal is the cheaper option though?

It's short sighted to think that coal would be burnt forever with knowing that the world is heading to four degrees of warming by 2100 – which is only 80 years away. Renewable energy has far greater potential and opportunity to bring developing countries out of their poverty than coal does. Again, our Fossil Economy report highlights that countries that are key importers of Australia’s coal and gas, including China and India, are shifting away from fossil fuels.

India has said that they will not build large centralised energy. They will be developing distributed energy systems, and renewable energy is perfectly positioned to supply that distributed energy. There are thousands of projects already being built in India. It is simply uneconomic for India and they know this – to build a centralised energy system which will have huge loses in the transmission line.

Renewable energy is more appropriate for rural communities. It enables communities to take control of their energy and how they build their energy supply.

Q: Is Carbon Capture Storage, or CCS, a viable option?

The recent project in Canada is the first case in which industry has claimed CSS to be commercial. A recent article we wrote for The Conversation explains that there's nowhere else in the world that CCS is currently commercial.

The only reason the industry is saying that it is commercial in the particular site in Canada is because they are using it for enhanced oil recovery. They are pumping CO2 into the reservoir to extract more petroleum that in fact leads to more emissions because that petroleum will eventually be burnt.

CCS is a band-aid for a very big problem. It will never address adequately the emissions that are currently coming from burning coal and gas. CCS will never be able to capture and store those emissions. It is simply not economic and not technically possible.

Q: In terms of lot of people who are going to be put out in climate displacement, one of the big solutions would be reducing emissions, you would say. So, what are the positive ways you see that are happening?

We have launched a new initiative called Energy Freedom. This is showing households how they can take measures in their homes to increase energy efficiency, thereby reduce their bills, and then by putting solar on their roof they can become energy producers. They can save money from reduced energy consumption, and they can actually make money by selling energy into the grid. The energy utility actually becomes as much a customer of the household as the householder is a customer of the utility.

Simply by riding [a bicycle] to work and getting public transport we can be more connected with our community. Many of our communities are disconnected because we walk from our front door into our garage, into our cars and we are in our bubbles and do not interact with people on the way. We can also maintain a healthy lifestyle through walking, and a little bit more by cycling. I know when I do ride that I feel more energised when I get to work. The endorphins kick in.

Another would be simply by reducing our meat consumption, even by little bit. So, say we eat meat seven days a week and we move to eating meat six days a week that can have enormous impact on environment and greenhouse emissions but also on our diet and health. In fact in Australia, we have already reduced our meat consumption by 43% since 1930s.

Q: Are there high-level examples of positive reduction of greenhouse emissions in Australia?

There are some amazing things that towns are doing and what local governments are doing and also what farmers are doing. We have some amazing case studies for our Land Usereport highlighting the innovative things farmers are doing on their land. There are numbers of towns in Australia called Transition Towns and they are moving to solar, moving to reducing energy consumption, and installing renewable energy.

Q: So at the moment in Australia there many high level leadership challenges to reduce our emissions. How do you stop yourself from becoming jaded along the way?

Our incredible staff, volunteers and researchers around the country continually remind me of the positive energy there is in the community to make a change.

I have been working for climate change for 20 years. When I look back there have been enormous improvements. I have worked on fuel efficiency labeling for motor vehicles where it is now mandatory to have fuel consumption labels on new cars when they are sold.

I helped design the Renewable Design Target that has led to thousands of renewable projects being built around the country. Whenever I travelled by train and see wind turbines in the landscape I feel like, ‘wow I had some role to play in that'.

Our cars are becoming more efficient; our buildings are becoming more efficient, our transport system is becoming more efficient. There are more cycleways dedicated for the cyclist in our cities – and with our mayors, many are taking fantastic action into ways how our cities work and how our regional towns work.

But there is so much more that has to be done urgently if we are to seriously address climate change.

For example, we really need some political leadership on phasing out fossil fuels and on high-speed rail. Our High Speed Rail report confirms that Melbourne to Sydney is the fifth busiest flight route in the world, we've still got a 1960’s railway system. We should be moving to systems which will not only revolutionise travel in Australia but also connect the cities and our country areas a lot more.

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Winner of a Green Lifestyle Award 2014, Beyond Zero Emissions produces ground-breaking research for implementation of a safe, affordable, zero-emissions future.