THE man at the helm of the world's biggest coal port says the Hunter should respond to a polarising election by acknowledging the Hunter's strong connection to coal mining while planning for global headwinds coming our way.
"Ours may be the highest quality coal in the market, but this will not protect us from the day it is no longer needed," said Port of Newcastle chair and University of Newcastle Conjoint Professor Roy Green in an opinion piece today.
"Even those unconvinced by the climate science cannot ignore that a global transition is underway. The debate is only about the speed at which this transition is proceeding, and what we should do in response. Ignoring the challenge is to ignore the opportunities, of which there are many," he said.
The region is "a kind of crucible for the entire country", Professor Green said after a federal poll billed as the "climate change election" saw Labor support evaporate in regional Australia, and One Nation record its highest national result in the once Labor stronghold seat of Hunter.
The region "didn't need the federal election to remind us of the Hunter's strong connection to coal mining", he said.
"Thousands of workers are employed in the industry. Generations of families have made a living from this in-demand resource over more than two centuries."
But increased recognition of climate change and the shift to cleaner energy sources presented the region with a challenge to further diversify the regional economy, he said.
"This does not happen overnight. It takes years to create the necessary momentum and decades to fully take effect. We know the road ahead will be bumpy. The longer we take to begin the process, the rougher the ride."
Professor Green said the Hunter was well placed to lead the country on transitioning away from a coal economy after the "hugely challenging transition of its industrial base with the closure of the BHP steelworks".
The change led to strong growth in health, education, professional services, specialised manufacturing, agribusiness, construction and retail.
"Newcastle is justifiably proud of its extraordinary transformation. But it didn't happen automatically through the 'invisible hand' of the market," he said.
An orderly transition from a city dominated by the steelworks required business leaders, unions and the community to work together on a transition plan with a shared commitment to identify new job pathways for steelworkers.
"Changing circumstances require us once again to prepare for another transition, this one possibly even more fundamental and far-reaching than the last. Even from a narrow risk management point of view, the best path forward is to prepare for the worst-case scenario," he said.
Transition required a coordinated approach that would include the resources sector and related industries, and was already happening, Professor Green said.
"Already AGL is preparing its community for the replacement of an ageing coal-fired power station with renewable energy, offering new jobs and opportunities. The University of Newcastle has switched to solar power. Liberty OneSteel has a 'green steel' model, and the CSIRO Energy Hub is working on industrial scale hydrogen for export.
"These examples barely scratch the surface of the possibilities."
The Port of Newcastle had an important role as long-term custodians of the region's global gateway, he said.
"We have a duty to facilitate current trade while pursuing new opportunities to grow and diversify. The Port is well placed to do so. Its rail and road connections are the envy of increasingly congested capital cities, and it has the former steelworks site at Mayfield ready to go for a container terminal."
The Port's deepwater channel, which is operating at 50 per cent of capacity, "could make Newcastle the first and possibly only port able to accommodate the Ultra Large Container Vessels that will soon become the world standard for container shipping", Professor Green said.
Part of the future planning was to recognise how threatening the changes might feel in an industry that continues to provide employment for many people and has been a major driver of regional investment, he said.
Transition planning included the responsibility to protect communities, the environment and the economy, he said.