A Light at the End of the Carbon Tunnel

Posted 1st April 2022

The CMU-A Convocation Speaker Series has returned with a speech from Professor Ian Overton, Chief Executive of Green Industries SA, who spoke to CMU students and alumni on Friday about supporting Australia’s transition to a sustainable economy.

“Climate change is not just about carbon,” Professor Overton told students, explaining that “carbon tunnel vision” often prevents us from recognising other contributing factors.

There is a lot of work to be done on a global scale to reduce our impact on the planet, but Professor Overton is optimistic we can turn things around with collective effort – and a big part of this involves re-thinking the way our economy works.

A Global Problem

Human activity has caused a substantial rise in temperature from the 1950s onward, with global average surface temperature currently projected to increase another 4°C by 2100. To maintain a stable living environment, Professor Overton said, we need to limit that increase to a maximum of 1.5°C.

Energy is the largest contributor to global emissions, accounting for 73.2%, with agriculture also making a significant impact at 18.4%. But carbon emissions are not the only problem we face, and “carbon tunnel vision” can overshadow issues like pollution, loss of biodiversity, scarcity of resources and overconsumption, which also need our attention.

Climate Change and Consumption in Australia

Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and impacts of global warming in Australia will include longer and hotter heatwaves, harsher bushfire weather, drought, extreme rainfall events and increased flooding.

Despite these worsening weather events, Australia’s own environmental policies leave much to be desired – including its heavy reliance on coal. Australia is also the fourth largest producer of waste in the world. “If everyone lived like Australia,” Professor Overton said, “we’d need four more planets’ worth of resources.”

Linear vs Circular Economy

Professor Overton explained that our current economic model is a “linear economy.” The linear economy is consumer-centric and relies on mass production, advertising, low prices and built-in obsolescence. It is a system that requires us to constantly be buying, consuming, replacing and disposing.

Of course, this is not sustainable – resources are finite, and we don’t have four planets to draw from. But Professor Overton believes there is a solution – and it involves shifting from a linear economy to a “circular economy.”

In the circular economy model, he explains, we work within planetary boundaries. There is a focus on services instead of products – or turning products into services. Take light, for example:

“You purchase light globes so you can have light in your home,” explained Professor Overton. “Those light globes are designed to fail after a certain period of time. So then you go back and buy another light globe. If a company made a light globe that lasted you for your whole life, they’d make one sale. And they’re not going to survive. So that obsolescence is built in so you continue to buy their products.”

But in a circular economy, where the product becomes a service, companies are incentivised to create a longer lasting product.

“What if instead, what you really wanted was light? So you bought light as a service, rather than as a product. So you pay the company to provide you with lighting. Now that company actually wants that light globe to last the whole time.”

Prof Ian Overton says there's an increased focus on services instead of products in a circular economy model.

A Global Solution

A circular economy makes sense – but will require a major global shift in the way we think about consumption, with changes to product design, production methods and marketing. We need products designed to last longer. Products that use recycled materials. Products that can be repaired, repurposed, or recycled when they are no longer of use. We need better labelling to empower consumers and reliable metrics to let us know what’s working.

Professor Overton also emphasised the role of government in creating policies to incentivise businesses and consumers to make more sustainable choices.

“We need to be more holistic when we set our government policies. It’s not just about getting net zero and decarbonising. It’s also about trying to live more sustainably.”

Forward-thinking in South Australia

Change begins at home, and South Australia is taking the initiative as a global leader in renewable energy. While other states remain heavily reliant on coal for energy, South Australia adopted renewables in 2005 and successfully phased out coal in 2016. The state now runs entirely on gas and wind power, with 60% of our energy coming from renewables and a stated goal to reach 100% by 2030.

But there are still many areas we need to improve, such as food waste, which amounts to 660,000 tons per year in South Australia – a whopping 370kg per person annually.

Professor Overton’s final message was clear: “The number one key thing is that all this relies on behaviour change. Behaviour change is really critical but it’s really hard.”

We may have a long way to go, but at least we can see the path forward.