Australia finally has a net zero target. Even without its legalization, it is important as a signal. It would be effective bipartisan, which is rare and valuable in Australia’s climate policy.
Of course the long-term goal can be used to get away with the fact that not much is being done to put Australia on a low carbon path at the moment, but it must be taken at face value if we are to stand a chance.
How can Australia become net zero? Technically the answer is very clear, and It was a long time. What has changed is that more and more zero emission options are available at lower and lower cost. The task is now easier than we thought it would be just five years ago.
It begins with a complete transition to clean energy in the electricity supply. In Australia, the cost-effective energy system of the future is a combination of solar and wind energy, with energy stored in batteries and hydroelectric pumping stations, and gas stations ready for occasional use when needed. It means huge investments that will give us zero emissions energy at low operating costs. The mission of this decade is to mobilize those investments for a clean energy future.
Record amounts of solar and wind power are being installed in Australia, now largely driven by commercial decisions. The process needs to be expedited. We need reform in the electricity market, including the planned and accelerated shutdown of the remaining coal plants, and the acceleration of construction of new transmission lines.
Coal has no role in our future electricity system, as new plants that contain and store carbon will be much more expensive and still carry some of the remaining carbon emissions. Other technologies could play a role but for now there is nothing else that can match the affordability of renewables. Nuclear power has a role in countries where renewable energy is limited. To be economically viable in Australia, it would need a significant reduction in cost which is invisible.
The grid of the future will be much more decentralized, and will rely more on local energy sources, especially solar panels and small-scale storage. This includes electric cars: Car owners will collectively build massive battery capacity on the wheels which can boost the system by charging from the car to the grid.
Zero electricity supplies will power most things that now use oil, gas, or coal. “Electrify everything” is the battle cry.
In transportation that includes electric cars and trucks, and heavy transportation using clean hydrogen made using renewable energy. In industry, it means switching to electricity as a heat source, and using clean hydrogen as an energy raw material. In buildings, it means electric heat pumps and induction stoves. Get rid of the gas. Much of this will need political support of one kind or another. a The price of carbon emissions is an essential part of the policy mix, starting with the industry.
These are new battle lines for the energy industry. Governments and industry are pushing hard for the continued role of gas, and possibly coal, as feedstock for hydrogen production. It is now cheaper than producing hydrogen from renewable electricity through electrolysis, but its emissions remain even if CCS is used, and The electric road is getting cheaper quickly. The same is true for potential future clean energy export industries – hydrogen, ammonia, synthetic fuels – even processing iron ore into iron and steel – all of which can run on the back of renewable energy.
CCS is likely to have a specialized role in specific cases where there are no alternatives or where it is cheaper. Cement production is an example. In some cases, sequestered carbon can be used as a material.
Then there is agriculture, which now accounts for about 14% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is a matter of improvements in agricultural practices, shifting the product mix away from cows and sheep, which are an intense source of methane emissions that lead to short-term global warming.
So where is the need in all this for new technologies, which the government’s net “plan” depicts as the only thing that matters? Innovation will make known clean technologies cheaper and better, and new technologies are needed in a few specific areas. But the greater part of the journey can and will be done using the technologies in use now.
It is a matter of deploying existing technologies widely and quickly. We should plan ahead for some future technologies but we don’t need to wait for technology.
Some greenhouse gas emissions will remain. And that’s fine, they will be offset by the withdrawal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is the reason for its name Clear zero.
Photosynthesis is an excellent way to take carbon dioxide from the air, for example through revegetation of marginal grazing lands, and also through improved agricultural soil management. But any area of Earth eventually reaches its carbon saturation point, so that’s not forever an option.
And here comes the role of removing carbon dioxide through technological means. It includes capturing carbon dioxide directly from the air, and some other technologies such as enhanced weathering of certain minerals. These options are expensive and consume a lot of energy. But its cost will come down with research and experience, and it will be powered by renewable energy.
This continent has the prerequisites for carrying out large-scale CO2 removal. Australia can become a network Negation emissions economy. This means becoming an exporter of emissions removal services, along with energy- and energy-intensive products made using renewable energy.
The government’s “plan” assumes the purchase of offset credits from other countries. This is intriguing given Australia’s comparative advantage in the availability of land and renewable energy. It is also missing a key area that requires future research and development and could directly better position Australia for a global zero-economy.
At the moment we cannot evaluate the basis for the displacement assumption. This is because the government is withholding the technical/modeling report that informed the net zero decision.
It is suitable for politicians to issue high-level documents prepared with the help of consulting firms before the analysis prepared by government departments. But it amounts to a failure of the right process in an open democracy. It enables obfuscation and monopoly of information.
To understand Australia’s chances and pressure points in moving to net zero, we need an open, inclusive and genuine process. An approach that allows building a real common understanding, and keeps politics out of deliberations about the long-term national strategy. Putting together a real operation for a long-term emissions strategy presents an opportunity for the next federal government, whichever one will win.