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In the wake of Australia’s COP31 2026 hosting bid announcement, six exciting speakers took to the stage at Smart Energy Expo 2024 to explore Australia’s place in the wider renewable scene.

Led by chair Richie Merzian, International Director of Smart Energy Council, the panel discussed the various global opportunities presented by the world’s transition to Net Zero. 

Reflecting on the discussions led by Ariane Wilkinson, Matt Kean and Dr. Katherine Woodthorpe, it has never been clearer that scaling renewable energy, engaging in global partnership and investing in education and training are critical steps in unlocking Australia’s potential as global energy superpower. 

 

Panel Highlights

ARIANE WILKINSON 

Senior Manager - Climate & Energy Policy, WWF Australia 

If Australia wants to step up as leaders in the renewable energy space and be part of the conversation on a global scale, we first need to look inward, at the state of our own. This was the key takeaway from Ariane Wilkinson’s talk, which addressed the need to better align our climate policies with the leading science and set the highest possible ambitions to decarbonise. In discussing this energy transformation, Wilkinson contextualised Australia’s trajectory within the 1.5C target outlined in the Paris Agreement; the global benchmark for climate action. 

Wilkinson cited her involvement in Queensland as an example, having recently won a 75% by 2035 emissions target from the Queensland Government. However, she stressed that given Australia’s current trajectory, it is imperative that the rest of the nation follows suit in their own contributions and legislation. Part of this journey involves finding ways of stopping new fossil fuel exports. Leading climate scientists, the IEA and the IPCC have proven fossil fuel exports are unaligned with the 1.5C target, though the Paris Agreement does not yet address them.

Given Australia’s history of capitalising off fossil fuels, Wilkinson believes that the key to moving forward into this decarbonised future will be stopping new fossil fuel exports. Despite both political and technical difficulties, she firmly believes this can be done in a way that is both good for communities and the economy. 

 

“Here’s one solution; clean exports. Stepping up our renewable energy targets so high that we can actually sell, decarbonise goods, transform regional communities. This requires a huge field of renewables, so we’ve got to do it in a way that’s fast and effective.” 
– Ariane Wilkinson 

 

HON MATT KEAN MP  

Shadow Minister for Health, Parliament of New South Wales 

Matt Kean, NSW’s former Minister of Energy and current Shadow Minister for Health, shared sharp insights about Australia’s current climate policy and position within the broader context of global energy. By reframing climate change as not only an environmental and ideological issue, but also a national and global economic issue, Kean emphasised how Australia’s response to climate change not only impacts the planet, but future prosperity. 

Kean’s line, “you don’t need to believe in climate change to believe in capitalism” sums up his approach. Renewable energy is not only becoming more financially viable, but also profitable. Kean mentioned the likes of world-leading companies like Apple as an example, who are committed not only to achieving excellence in their business but reducing emissions in their entire supply chain. On a larger scale, countries like Japan, Korea and Germany have already set out plans to transition to hydrogen-based economies. Kean believes Australia could play a significant part in that transition, by using our renewable energy to develop hydrogen-fuelled transport systems and industrial processes our global allies will need.  

However, despite Australia’s clear advantages in the renewable resources available to us – in particular, our competitive advantage in rolling out solar and wind at scale – Kean warned that inadequate policy settings pose a huge economic risk. As he described it, we're in a “global arms race” for capital, and Australia risks being left behind if our policies do not catch up. Before we can become a global clean energy superpower, we must first actually contribute to the global decarbonisation effort, by leveraging our abundant resources and engaging in meaningful, international partnerships.  

 

“Decarbonising our economy is not just about decarbonising the electricity system, it’s about finding ways to run our entire country. We have to do that in a way that maintains and enhances our way of life, and leaves no one behind.” 
– Matt Kean 

 

DR KATHERINE WOODTHORPE AO FTSE 

President, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering (ATSE) 

The through-line of last week’s panel – and arguably, what needs even more emphasis in broader discussions on Australia’s climate journey – is the importance of action. Resources are abundant, the scientific evidence is clear, but decisive, effective legislation and investment is critical in the global transition to Net Zero. 

Dr Katherine Woodthorpe, president of the ATSE and first woman to lead in its 47-year history, made it abundantly clear that “we need to be constructing solutions… yesterday”. Australia cannot continue to be a laggard in climate policy, investment, and innovation, especially when R&D has proven to be essential foundations for climate change innovation. International competitors, such as the US, Japan and Germany, spend over 3% of their GDP on R&D. Comparatively, Australia is falling short with 1.68%, and even then, a huge proportion of that is focused on the medical sector. 

Woodthorpe stressed the need for Australia to set higher emission reduction targets: an ambition that she and the ATSE have long championed. Controversially, they've called on the Federal Government to commit to an ambitious Net Zero by 2035 target. This is fuelled by the belief that such targets are necessary to drive investment into technological innovation and education, which will be critical to decarbonising and deploying renewables at scale. Dr Woodthorpe also stressed the need for Australia to prioritise up-skilling our workforce (particularly in energy, transportation, manufacturing and construction) and give more people from diverse backgrounds and regions access to high quality education.  

“The earlier we invest in equitable education and our future capability, the better equipped we will be to embrace the post-carbon world,” she stated.

 

So, What is The Global Opportunity? 

As suggested by all three panellists, Australia’s real global opportunity lies in the chance to prove that we can drive meaningful change in the renewable energy space, both domestically and globally. Given our bid to host COP31 in 2026, there's never been a better time to discuss how Australia can effectively leverage our own renewable resources, reimagining our approach to a decarbonised future. In reflecting on their discussions, a shared vision of Australia's future emerges; one in which we commit to ambitious climate goals, invest in innovation powered by STEM, and become a global superpower in clean energy. 

 

“Reaching net zero by 2035 target will be a monumental challenge, but with immediate and large-scale action to invest in skills and infrastructure, as well as policy and regulatory support at all levels, it is achievable.” 
– Dr Katherine Woodthorpe 

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Written by
Jaana Robles

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