Q&A

Here’s Why We Need to Look Beyond Government Policy in Our Switch to Renewables

2021 Honours Fellow Phoebe Evans talks to SEI about Australia’s transition to renewable energy, and why COVID-19 has provided the ideal opportunity to address the climate crisis.

Image by Georgi Petrov, via Unsplash.

Liberty Lawson: Could you tell us about your Honours project?

Phoebe Evans: The central focus of my Honours thesis is on the practicalities of Australia’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. It draws attention to the vast economic potential these renewable energy sources hold, and the importance of capitalising on the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen Australia’s economic recovery. My Honours project will posit that Australia has the potential to become a global leader in renewable energy generation.

In investigating this transition, I am looking to incorporate a range of perspectives from different groups, with the intention of exposing the discrepancies between these and governmental policy. Industry and business perspectives will be central here, as the corporate world has shown a greater responsiveness to public demand when it comes to leading sustainable changes.

“The corporate world has shown a greater responsiveness to public demand when it comes to leading sustainable changes.”

I am also looking to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into my thesis, as land viable for renewable energy projects often lies on Country. I am hoping to get approval to conduct interviews with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members through a case study, to understand their perspectives on renewables projects, and the potential of these projects to empower remote communities by generate economic activity. The incongruities between these different community perspectives and current policy will be investigated through my Honours project as a potential means of overcoming political inertia, and thereby a driver of change at the governmental level.

What was the inspiration that led you to this line of research?

I have always had a strong interest in the complex issues surrounding sustainability and climate change, and an urge to work productively towards finding practical solutions. In Australia, the impacts of climate change have been increasingly tangible over the past few years especially, with consistent record-breaking temperatures, and the horrific bushfires over the summer of 2019 and 2020. These fires have left an enduring scar on the landscape of affected areas like the NSW South Coast, but also in the minds of rural communities, and seemingly the greater Australian psyche. The urgency of acting on climate change has not been realised in government action, especially at the federal level, despite business and industry leaders committing to sustainable futures. This left me wanting to understand exactly where Australian energy policy could go from here, to phase out fossil fuel use and work towards net-zero.

“The urgency of acting on climate change has not been realised in government action, especially at the federal level, despite business and industry leaders committing to sustainable futures.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic globally, and Australia’s relative success in containing the virus, encouraged me to consider this crisis as a potential opportunity to address another. We have been granted a moment to reset the way in which our society operates in relation to the surrounding environment, and rethink the value we place on ensuring the longevity of the natural world for generations to come. But rethinking our current approach means respecting Indigenous knowledge and land management practices. My experience working on a service learning project on the health impacts of climate change with community leaders from the Torres Strait Islands, has inspired me to seek out traditional knowledge within my thesis, to understand how Indigenous empowerment can relate to the move towards sustainable energy in Australia. Writing an Honours thesis appealed to me as an opportunity to delve further into these varied perspectives surrounding a sustainable transition, and how renewable energy can drive a sustainable future for Australia.

Why is this topic so important, and what do you ultimately hope your findings will contribute to society and its future?

Australia is in a unique position where we are so vulnerable to the early impacts of climate change, yet so heavily reliant on fossil fuels, especially coal. However, Australia has such strong potential for renewable energy generation, particularly in wind and solar energy, but also in emerging industries like wave and geothermal energy. With the rapid advancement and increased cost-efficiency in wind and solar technologies over the past decade, combined with Australia’s early move towards economic recovery from the pandemic, there has never been a better time to promote policy change within Australia.

Moreover, Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels can’t feasibly continue for much longer. This reliance is becoming increasingly illegitimate, as our major trading partners, including the EU, the UK and the US, look towards sustainable transitions to address the impacts of climate change, and privilege renewable energy in their economic recovery strategies. There is already evidence that trade policies in these countries will punish the Australian fossil fuel industry.

Ultimately, I hope that my findings regarding Australia’s potential and business willingness for change, will contribute to overcoming political inertia regarding the establishment of a strong climate strategy. By emphasising the unique potential of each state and territory in different areas of renewable energy, I hope that my findings will add to the case for the establishment of a comprehensive energy transmission network, to counter the issue of intermittency in renewable energy sources. Furthermore, I hope to highlight the importance of listening and learning from Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in the move towards a sustainable energy future, and identify opportunities for social advancement in rural communities where renewable energy can be harnessed.

“I hope to highlight the importance of listening and learning from Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in the move towards a sustainable energy future, and identify opportunities for social advancement in rural communities where renewable energy can be harnessed.”

What about the Sydney Environment Institute made you interested in completing an Honours Fellowship with us?

The Sydney Environment Institute is an inspiring hub of passionate individuals, motivated to address complex environmental issues and analyse strategies to address climate change. I was particularly interested in the multi-disciplinary aspect of SEI, and encouraged by the prospect of working with driven academics across diverse disciplines. Collaboration across different fields is so important in promoting awareness of the need to work together to address the multifaceted challenges associated with climate change. Looking outside my own discipline and broadening my understanding of environmental issues is something I value very highly, and consider crucial to the development of effective environmental strategies. This multi-disciplinary emphasis aligns with my research, as I will be seeking out knowledge from outside my own government discipline, expanding into economics, cultural studies and sociology, amongst others. The opportunity at SEI to engage with intelligent individuals across disciplines to enhance my research and build on my own understanding of sustainability and the environment was a key motivator in completing an Honours Fellowship with SEI.

The SEI’s commitment to working towards creative and collaborative strategies to work towards a just and sustainable environmental transformation, also characterised it as somewhere I wanted to undertake an Honours Fellowship. By working within the SEI team, I feel my research can add to the broad, innovative research projects already being undertaken at the Institute, to have real world impacts beyond the academic realm. I am inspired by SEI’s dedication to working with community members outside the university, as well as cultural institutions, policymakers and government, as this reinforces the sense that research undertaken at SEI can be extended into society to drive change.


Phoebe Evans is a 2021 Honours Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. Phoebe completed her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Politics and International Relations) in 2020, and is now undertaking her Honours with the Department of Government and International Relations. Her central research interest is in the practicalities of Australia’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and Australia’s immense opportunities to advance economically in the post-pandemic era, to become a global leader in renewables. Phoebe has been inspired by her work with Indigenous communities through the university Service Learning project, and her thesis looks to incorporate Indigenous traditional knowledge and perspectives on empowerment through harnessing renewable energy sources in remote areas.