Sharan Burrow: Australian businesses can clean up in the energy revolution

This week, Barack Obama told America that "the nation that leads in the creation of a clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy".

Obama, with a clear focus on job creation, expects to have the nation's clean energy bill in place by the time the world meets for critical climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.

Meanwhile, Australia's opposition parties and independent senators effectively voted against jobs by pushing climate change reforms off the agenda, refusing even to debate the 11 bills that could have begun our nation's essential transition to a low-pollution, sustainable economy.

While we sit on our hands, a clean-energy industrial revolution is transforming the global economy, with green and clean-tech investment, products and industries now estimate d to be worth $6.3 trillion dollars worldwide.

But without an emissions trading scheme or renewable energy target in sight, Australia isn't even in the race.

With no legislative mechanism, we have no means of generating serious investment in emerging renewable energy industries that could provide thousands of jobs and reduce carbon pollution.

It also leaves jobs in traditional industries in limbo. Coal and steel industries need a framework to adapt their processes to rapidly changing global circumstances.

While Australia has wasted a week of serious national debate on "Utegate", the rest of the world continues to steal a march.

Germany, with considerably less sunlight than Australia, is a world leader. It has been nurturing its domestic solar energy industry since the 1990s and now claims more than a third of the world's solar photovoltaic production, with a turnover of $7.3 billion.

This hasn't happened by magic, but by 15 years of industry planning and single-minded political support. China, Japan, India and the Danes are close behind.

New player the US has become the world's biggest investor in green industries, recently ploughing $24 billion into wind and biofuel technology. All this despite, and because of, the financial crisis.

On the best available data, Australia could star in six green industries: renewable energy (solar, wind, ocean); energy efficiency in homes, factories and commercial buildings; sustainable water systems; biomaterials made from starch, sugar and cellulose; green buildings through design, construction and retrofitting; and waste/recycling.

China, for example, will need another 40,000 skyscrapers in the next 15 years to cope with urbanisation. Imagine the export potential if Australia's green design, engineering and construction skills were in demand internationally.

Proactive policy settings and investment in these big six alone, starting now, would create nearly a million Australian jobs in the next 20 years and add $302 billion to the national wealth.

Training is essential. Green and clean-tech skills shortages already exist. The ACTU has called for 40,000 productivity places to be dedicated to training in these areas. Australians losing their jobs or facing reduced hours ought to be the first beneficiaries.

While there is a lot of noise from big businesses about the expense of "greening up", the truth is many of them are already factoring in the cost of moving to a low-carbon footing. They know that will help protect traditional industries and jobs by keeping pace with overseas competitors, and they know they can't afford to put it off.

A plethora of reports and economic modelling says the same thing: the transition will cost more the longer we wait. Australia, with its abundance of natural resources and a world-class scientific community, is being held back by a lack of common political purpose and common sense.

Whether you believe in climate change or not, no politician can ignore the reality that the world economy is changing and Australia is in danger of being left behind.

We need to be ready to catch up when the economy recovers, which means getting on with the task of transforming our existing industries and creating new ones with long-lasting, sustainable jobs for thousands of Australians as quickly as possible. We cannot finish first by starting last.

Article originally appeared in The Sunday Age, 28 June 2009.