Australia finally has a net zero target. Even without legal regulation, it is a signal. It will be effectively bipartisan, a rare and valuable thing in Australian climate policy.
Of course, the long-term goal could be used to deflect attention from the fact that not much is being done right now to put Australia on a low-carbon path, but it has to be taken at face value if we are to stand a chance.
How can Australia go net zero? Technically, the answer is pretty clear, and was a long time ago. What has changed is that more and more zero-emission options are available at ever lower costs. The task is now easier than we thought five years ago.
It starts with a complete switch to clean energy in the power supply. In Australia, the low-cost electricity system of the future will be a mix of solar and wind power, with energy storage in batteries and pumped storage power plants, as well as gas-fired power plants that are available for occasional use when required. That means huge investments that enable us to generate emission-free electricity at low operating costs. The task of this decade is to mobilize these investments for the future of clean energy.
Record numbers of solar and wind turbines are currently being installed in Australia, and these are now primarily driven by commercial decisions. The process needs to be accelerated. We need a reform of the electricity market, including the planned and accelerated closure of the remaining coal-fired power plants and the speedy construction of new transmission lines.
Coal does not play a role in our future electricity system, as new plants with CO2 capture and storage would be much more expensive and some CO2 emissions still remain. It is possible that other technologies will play a role, but currently nothing else is affordable than renewable energy. Nuclear energy plays a role in countries where renewable energies are more limited. To be economically viable in Australia, it would take a dramatic drop in costs that is not in sight.
The power grid of the future will be much more decentralized and rely more on local power sources, especially solar panels and small storage systems. This also includes electric cars: together, the car owners build a massive battery capacity on wheels, which the system can strengthen by charging vehicles to the power grid.
Zero emissions power supply will power most things that use oil, gas, or coal today. “Electrify everything” is the battle cry.
In transport, which includes electric cars and trucks, and in heavy goods vehicle transport using clean hydrogen made with renewable energy. In industry, this means switching to electricity as a heat source and using clean hydrogen as an energy resource. In buildings, these are electric heat pumps and induction hobs. Out with the gas. Much of this will require one or two political support. A Price for CO2 emissions is an integral part of the policy mixstarting in industry.
These are new lines of battle for the energy industry. Governments and industry are urging that gas, and possibly coal, continue to play a role as a feedstock for hydrogen production. This is now cheaper than making hydrogen from renewable electricity through electrolysis, but there are remaining emissions, even if carbon capture and storage is used, and the electric route is quickly becoming cheaper. The same goes for the possible clean energy export industries of the future – hydrogen, ammonia, synthetic fuels – even the processing of iron ore into iron and steel – can all run on renewable energy.
Carbon capture and storage is likely to play a niche role in certain cases where there are no alternatives or where it is cheapest. One example of this is cement production. In some cases, the trapped carbon could be used as a material.
Then there is agriculture, which is now responsible for around 14% of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. This is a matter of improving agricultural practices and shifting the product mix away from cattle and sheep, which are powerful methane emitters that are driving global warming in the short term.
So where is the need for new technology that the government’s net-zero “plan” is all that matters? Innovations will make known clean technologies cheaper and better, and new technologies are needed in some specific areas. But the vast majority of the journey can and will be done with technologies that are now in use.
It’s about using existing technologies quickly and true to scale. We should plan ahead with some future technology, but we don’t have to wait for technology.
Some greenhouse gas emissions will remain. And that’s a good thing, they are offset by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s why it’s called network Zero.
Photosynthesis is an excellent way of removing carbon dioxide from the air, for example through the greening of marginal willows, but also through better management of agricultural soils. But every area of land eventually reaches its carbon saturation point, so this is not an option forever.
This is where carbon dioxide removal through technological means comes into play. This includes carbon capture directly from the air and some other technologies like improved weathering for certain minerals. These options are costly and energy intensive. But their costs will come down through research and experience, and they would run on renewable energy.
This continent has what it takes to remove carbon dioxide on a large scale. Australia could become a network negative Emissions economy. That would mean becoming an exporter of emissions removal services alongside energy and energy-intensive products made with renewable energies.
The government’s “plan” assumes that compensatory credits will be bought from other countries. This is odd given Australia’s relative advantage in terms of land availability and renewable energy. It also misses one of the key areas where future R&D is needed and could directly result in Australia being better positioned for a net-zero world economy.
We cannot currently assess the basis for the offset assumption. This is because the government is withholding the technical / modeling report which contained the net zero decision.
It is appropriate for politicians to publish high-level documents prepared with the help of consulting firms before analysis by government departments. But it amounts to failing the right process in an open democracy. It enables the obfuscation and monopoly of information.
To understand Australia’s opportunities and pressure points in moving to net zero, we need an open, inclusive and genuine process. One that makes it possible to build a really common understanding and that keeps politics away from considering a long-term national strategy. Establishing a real process for a long-term emissions strategy is an opportunity for the next federal government, whichever party wins.