Australia finally has a net zero goal. Even without being legislated, it means something like a signal. It will actually be twofold, a rare and valuable thing in Australia’s climate policy.
Of course, the long-term goal could be used to divert from the fact that not much is being done to put Australia on a low-carbon path right now, but it must be taken at face value if we are to have a chance.
How can Australia become net zero? Technically, the answer is pretty clear, and it has been for a long time. What has changed is that more and more zero-emission options are available at lower and lower costs. The task is now easier than we thought it would be just five years ago.
It starts with a complete shift to clean energy in the electricity supply. In Australia, the cost-effective electricity system of the future is a mix of solar and wind power with energy storage in batteries and pumped hydropower plants and gas plants ready for occasional use when needed. This means huge investments that will give us zero emission power at low operating costs. The task of this decade is to mobilize these investments for the future of clean energy.
Record amounts of solar and wind are being installed in Australia, now mainly driven by commercial decisions. The process must be accelerated. We need reforms in the electricity market, including the planned and accelerated decommissioning of the remaining coal-fired power plants and the rapid construction of new transmission lines.
Coal does not play a role in our future electricity system, as new carbon capture and storage facilities would be far more expensive and still have some residual carbon emissions. It is possible that other technologies will play a role, but right now there is nothing else that matches renewable energy to affordability. Nuclear power plays a role in countries where renewable energy is more limited. For it to be economically viable in Australia, it will require a dramatic drop in costs that is not in sight.
The network of the future will be far more decentralized, and it will be more dependent on local power sources, especially solar panels and smaller warehouses. It includes electric cars: collectively, the car-owning public will build a massive battery capacity on wheels, which can strengthen the system through vehicle-to-network charging.
Zero-emission electricity supply will power most of the things that now use oil, gas or coal. “Electrify everything” is the battle cry.
In the field of transport, which includes electric cars and lorries, and heavy transport using pure hydrogen produced using renewable energy. In industry, this means switching to electricity as a heat source and using pure hydrogen as an energy raw material. In buildings, it means electric heat pumps and induction hobs. Out with the gas. Much of this will require political support of one kind or another. A price on carbon emissions is an essential part of the policy mix, starting in the industry.
There are new battle lines for the energy industry. Governments and industry are pushing hard for a continued role for gas, and possibly coal, as a raw material for hydrogen production. It is now cheaper than making hydrogen from renewable electricity through electrolysis, but it has residual emissions, even though carbon capture and storage is used, and the electrical route is rapidly becoming cheaper. The same goes for the possible export industries of the future for clean energy – hydrogen, ammonia, synthetic fuels – even the processing of iron ore into iron and steel – can all run on the basis of renewable energy.
Carbon capture and storage is likely to play a niche role in specific cases where there are no alternatives or where it is cheapest. Cement production is an example. In some cases, the captured carbon could be used as the material.
Then there is agriculture, which now accounts for around 14% of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. It is a matter of improving agricultural practices and moving the product mix away from cattle and sheep, which are major emitters of methane, driving global warming in the short term.
So where in all this is the need for new technologies, which the government’s net zero “plan” presents as the only thing that matters? Innovation will make known clean technologies cheaper and better, and in a few specific areas new technologies are needed. But the overwhelming part of the journey can and will take place using technologies that are in use now.
It is a matter of implementing existing technologies on a large scale, quickly. We should plan ahead with some future technologies, but we do not have to wait for the technology.
Some greenhouse gas emissions will remain. And that’s fine, they’ll be compensated for by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s why it’s called net zero.
Photosynthesis is an excellent way to take carbon dioxide from the air, for example through replanting of marginal grazing areas, also through better management of agricultural land. But every land area eventually reaches its carbon saturation point, so this is not an option forever.
This is where carbon dioxide removal using technological means comes into the picture. It includes carbon dioxide capture directly from the air and some other technologies such as improved weather for specific minerals. These options are expensive and energy consuming. But their costs will come down with research and experience, and they will be driven by renewable energy.
This continent has the prerequisites for removing carbon dioxide on a large scale. Australia can become a network negative emissions economy. It would mean becoming an exporter of emission removal services along with energy and energy-intensive products made using renewable energy.
The government’s “plan” presupposes the purchase of offset credits from other countries. This is strange given Australia’s relative advantage in terms of land availability and renewable energy. It also misses one of the key areas where future research and development is needed and could directly result in positioning Australia better for a net-zero world economy.
Right now we can not assess the basis for the set-off assumption. This is because the government withholds the technical / modeling report that informed about the net zero decision.
It suits politicians to release high-level documents prepared with the help of consulting firms before the analysis prepared by state authorities. But that is equivalent to a mistake in a proper process in an open democracy. It enables blurring and monopolizes information.
To understand Australia’s opportunities and pressures in the transition to net zero, we need an open, inclusive, genuine process. One that makes it possible to build a truly common understanding, and that keeps politics at arm’s length from the considerations of long-term national strategy. Introducing a genuine process for a long-term emissions strategy is a chance for the next federal government, no matter which party wins.