In the lead-up to COP26 in Glasgow, dozens of countries significantly stepped up their climate ambition for this critical decade. Almost every comparable developed economy is committed to slashing emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2030. This increased ambition – especially from advanced economies similar to Australia – has left us in the dust. Without credible action this decade, reaching net zero will be impossible.
Far from accelerating decarbonisation, the technologies the federal government is promoting under its ‘technology not taxes’ approach to addressing the climate crisis, such as carbon capture and storage and the misleadingly named ‘clean’ hydrogen, will lock us into increased emissions.
Virtually all of the technologies required to bring about a zero emissions future already exist. More than that, many would save Australians large amounts of money if deployed today.
The first priority is to replace all fossil fuels, like coal and gas. The vast majority of this can be tackled with electrification and efficiency improvements using existing technologies. An EU-based study from last year found that 78 per cent of European industry’s energy needs are electrifiable with existing technologies, and up to 99 per cent is able to be electrified with technology already under development. Australia is no different.
Heat pumps not unlike those found in fridges and reverse cycle air conditioners are delivering heat to homes and industry efficiently. This mature, commercially-available technology is ready to replace gas and coal in most instances where these fossil fuels are used to provide heat.
In some instances, you can’t throw enough electricity at a problem though. Renewable hydrogen will be needed in these instances if we are to fully decarbonise. A recent US study found that despite the aggressive claims of its proponents, gas-driven hydrogen manufacturing – marketed as ‘clean’ hydrogen – is as dirty as burning gas in most instances, even when attached to carbon capture and storage.
In the near term, hydrogen will likely only be used in instances where electricity and efficiency improvements aren’t feasible.
The second priority is to power everything with wind and solar. The Australian Energy Market Operator’s most ambitious scenario sees Australia’s largest grid become 70 per cent renewable in ten years. The development of wind and solar is outpacing this scenario already.
Australia is the sunniest continent on the planet, and the windiest inhabited one. Earlier this year, CSIRO showed that even after accounting for the need for storage and ensuring grid stability, renewables are still the cheapest form of new generation available. Intelligently planning for a zero emissions grid that is capable of meeting future demand would put Australia in the driver’s seat when it comes to reducing energy prices.
As Australia’s ageing and unreliable fleet of fossil fuel generators retire there is only one sensible option for their replacement, and it is wind and solar backed by storage.
Third, Australia has a significant future role in helping the rest of the world to reduce their emissions. By stepping up as a global zero emissions manufacturing superpower, Australia wouldn’t just replace the lost income from legacy high-emitting processes. The economic opportunities in zero emissions vastly outpace the scale of Australia’s existing exports.
This comes in many forms, including direct exports of electricity within the region, exports of renewable hydrogen, onshoring zero emissions steel-manufacturing using Australian iron ore, Australian sunshine and Australia’s skilled workforce, exporting Australia’s world-beating expertise and Australian-made technological development.
These opportunities don’t come about only through future technologies but also the technologies that are already here. They come from considered and intelligent planning that goes beyond slogans. This will reap spectacular dividends in the long run. Unfortunately, the federal government has shown that it is simply not up to the task.
Given the federal government’s over-attachment to dead or dying technologies, we’re well on the way to missing out. During COP26, a global report from a number of international organisations rated Australia last on climate policy. A recent Climate Council report likewise placed Australia last among comparable nations on climate performance.
At the summit, the federal government continued to act as a dangerous handbrake on negotiations, especially in relation to the phasing out of fossil fuels. The federal government failed to match our key strategic allies by increasing ambition ahead of Glasgow.
To add insult to serious diplomatic injury, on arrival back home the federal government further cemented its reputation as a laggard and blocker by insisting that it would not increase its 2030 emissions reduction target only one day after agreeing to do so in the Glasgow Climate Pact. Our target that was set six years ago was the weakest in the developed world when it was declared. It is even further behind today.
The fourth and final priority is to take action on the land and coasts to protect our rural, regional and coastal communities. This essential step is crucial, as we are one of the developed nations most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the world. It involves restoring Australian landscapes so that they – and we – can better weather the storm of climate change.
All that is required for us to avoid ever-worsening climate harm is for the nation to get to work. Fortunately, I know a clever, diligent country capable of doing just that, but this requires credible, sensible and intelligent leadership at the federal level. Otherwise we will miss out.
And while the rest of the world moves on, we will be left spruiking technologies no-one else wants. If COP26 teaches us anything, it must be that.
Professor Tim Flannery is chief Climate Councillor, scientist, author, explorer, and former Australian of the Year. He took part in COP26 in Glasgow.
Tim Baxter is the Senior Researcher for Climate Solutions at the Climate Council.