Townsville’s ‘road to Paris’ moment: the slow greening of an Adani stronghold

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“Adani was about the here and now for the community,” says Townsville’s mayor, Jenny Hill, reflecting on a decade spent championing the thermal coal project as a way to reduce the city’s high unemployment rate.

“There were no jobs. There was no interest in manufacturing. It was important to give the community hope for the future.”

Townsville’s place at the forefront of the coal wars have made Hill, who is a member of the ALP, a prominent figure in the party’s schism over coal and climate. In 2019 she told a forum run by Labor’s Chifley Research Centre that the city’s mantra was “we stick to our guns: we support mining”.

It is remarkable, then, that Hill now says clean energy – and not thermal coal – will be at the forefront of Townsville’s future economy.

“If you’re smart in politics you’ve got to deal with the short term, but you’ve got to deal with the long term as well,” Hill tells Guardian Australia.

“The market will eventually decide what happens with thermal coal and where it ends up. The Japanese have put it out there on public record they are going to cut their thermal coal imports.

“Economies [like South Korea and Japan] want clean energy and that means green hydrogen. We’re in a position to be able to deliver.”

Some locals in Townsville described the subtle but significant shift in language from community and business leaders as a “road to Paris conversion” – a pivot brought about by rapidly changing international sentiment and declining prospects for coal.

Hill doesn’t directly acknowledge a suggestion that the ground has shifted from a point a few years ago when she described Adani to the writer Anna Krien as “the only next big thing”.

But she now speaks with zeal about the sorts of transition opportunities that might be created in a place where the port could link Queensland’s rare earth mineral deposits with the world; and where refining and manufacturing is already being fuelled by the city’s 320 days of annual sunlight.

Townsville is developing an eco-industrial precinct with plans for a solar microgrid to power battery manufacturing, a nickel refinery and other industries. This week the port of Townsville signed a memorandum of understanding with energy company Origin to export green hydrogen, which could be produced locally with non-potable water and solar power.

“The scientist in me sees it as a pilot study,” Hill said.

“I will always support mining, but it doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage of these new technologies and bring manufacturing back into this country.

“This is about reimagining the economy for my community and building it. If it works here, it can help ensure we get growth.”

The future is sunny

Last month Solar Citizens, a lobby group for solar owners and renewables supporters, released a report detailing how Townsville could become a renewable energy “powerhouse”, creating 11,000 jobs – equivalent to 10% of the city’s total workforce.

Proposed manufacturing and industry projects powered by renewables could be worth $154bn over their lifetime, the report found.

The city already has a company spearheading the transition: the Korea Zinc-owned refiner SunMetals, one of Queensland’s biggest energy consumers, and the first power-intensive facility in Australia to build its own solar farm.

The Townsville council and its regional business lobby, Townsville Enterprise, are heavily promoting plans to build an “eco-industrial precinct” at Lansdown, which would run on a renewable micro-grid and could include a battery manufacturing plant, refineries and other green industry businesses.

The Queensland Nickel refinery at Yabulu in 2016

In Queensland politics, “transition” has been a dirty word. Pro-coal politicians like LNP senator Matt Canavan have said transition equates to job destruction. Rightwing media commentators have portrayed comments that miners need to “re-skill” as a kind of ideological warfare, rather than part of a discussion about how communities respond to a real global shift away from fossil fuels.

“It’s the right of the workers in the community not to be destroyed in the process of the transition,” Tim Buckley, the director of energy finance studies at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, says. “And now the opportunities [from transition] are starting to become tangible and real.”

Sean Cochrane, who runs renewable business SuperGreen Solutions in Townsville, says the conversation had clearly shifted in the city now people could see genuine opportunity from the energy transition.

“A year ago it was all we need coal jobs, we need coal jobs,” Cochrane says.

“There was never another argument, another source of jobs. I don’t think Townsville is the backwater that sometimes people in the south think it is. Townsville has come of age. People are looking for intelligent solutions.”

Joseph O’Brien, the managing director of a Townsville company proposing to build Copperstring 2.0 – a project that would connect the North West Minerals Province to the national energy grid – says there are significant opportunities for the city.

“I believe the real message here is that it’s not about what Townsville shouldn’t do, but what Townsville does as a global leader, and that’s advanced industrial manufacturing and minerals processing,” O’Brien said.

“This pedigree in industrial manufacturing can be an enormous job creator and it’s also an enormous creator of expertise that will be very valuable for the region and for Australia too.

“Townsville is an entrepreneurial and pragmatic place, it doesn’t have the luxury of choosing where it wants to get its jobs from. Regional centres need to play to their strengths and respond to global opportunities and for Townsville the global opportunities make for a very bright future.”

‘You don’t want your city to die’

After Townsville flooded in early 2019, residents in the low-lying suburb of Hermit Park brought out their dead appliances and mud-logged possessions and piled them up at the roadside.

Guardian Australia asked a handful of locals there about climate change. The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, had just called the flooding “unprecedented”. Experts overwhelmingly believe the climate is fuelling more extreme weather events.

“If anyone mentions [climate change] I’ll punch ’em,” a local, Mark Parison, said immediately after the floods.

Residents of Hermit Park cleaning up after floods in 2019.

“These people crying about climate change, they’ve got to look at how they live themselves. They’re still driving around in cars, they’re still wearing nice clothes. They’re using mobile phones. So give that up, I’ll start listening to you.

“City people are stalling us. We need the economy here to be boosted.”

So, for several years, has gone much of the debate in Townsville about coal and climate change. Kitchen table concerns come first. Even if your kitchen table is literally floating away.

Elements of that fraught debate remain a reality in north Queensland, even as the opportunities of a green energy future move from concept towards reality. Few are ready to completely eschew the coal industry or its prospects to provide jobs for locals.

“Whilst an eye must certainly be kept on the future, we cannot stop investing and supporting the existing industries that have been the backbone of our nation’s economy for generations,” says Wade Chiesa, the regional development and investment director of Townsville Enterprise.

Chiesa highlights efforts to create new industries, but says north Queensland’s strengths remain “the natural resources sitting in our backyard and our capacity to generate energy”.

“Off the back of 12 months of Covid-19 support measures from state and federal governments, the royalties generated by our mining and resources industry are more important than ever as we claw back from the largest debt we have ever experienced.

“As of early this year, Bravus (Adani) had signed $2.2bn in contracts to build the Carmichael mine and rail project and in under two years since the project was greenlighted by the state government the company has employed more than 2,000 people.

“Now is the time we need sustained jobs to support families, not a time to erase them.”

Hill says the closure of Clive Palmer’s Queensland Nickel refinery was “a massive shock” to the northern port city, which was Australia’s first “solar city” back in 2007.

“Adani [became] the face of everything because the community desperately needed jobs,” she says.

“You don’t want your city to die. We had 13% unemployment. We have long-term aspirations but there’s a short-term need.

“When you go doorknocking you see people who are barely making ends meet and are desperate for a job that is barely a living wage. Many tourism jobs are low-paying jobs, you can’t go into a bank and get a home loan with some of those jobs. When you’re in the mining sector you can.”

Now, Hill says advanced manufacturing powered by renewables offers another prospect for well-paid work – and that the city will embrace its opportunity.

“The key for me and the council is to show the community that we can get this right in Townsville. We can use renewables to power industry at a far cheaper rate than pulling power off the grid.

“We’re hopeful for long-term jobs for our community.”

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