Climate experts slam Energy Green Paper

One of the main objectives of the Abbott Government's energy green paper – increasing coal use, via Asia, over coming decades – is diametrically opposed to the policies needed to limit warming below 2 degrees.

*This is the latest policy brief for Australia from Climate Action Tracker – a joint publication from EcoFys, Climate Analytics and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Australian Energy 'green paper' foresees large increase in coal

Last Monday the Australian Government released a 'green paper' as part of the development of its new Energy White Paper.

The Australian green paper was released on the same day of the UN Climate Summit in New York, which was aiming to build political momentum towards the action needed to limit warming below 2 degrees.

The green paper foresees a future strong growth in coal use globally over the next several decades arguing that “most energy analysts confirm that coal will continue to be a major source of global energy for decades to come”.

In particular, the green paper assumes rapid increases in coal demand from Asian economies and proposes to align Australian Government policies to facilitate accelerated approval of developments to support this.

'Green paper' lock-in of coal-intensive future

In adopting this outlook, the green paper contributes to an economic commitment, in terms of a “lock-in” of legislation and investment patterns, that have the potential for a strong negative effect on achieving an effective global agreement to limiting warming below 2 degrees.

One of the main objectives of the green paper – increasing coal use over the next several decades – is diametrically opposed to the policies needed to limit warming below 2 degrees. 

In another paper, we show that eliminating coal consumption by 2050 alone would make a large contribution of 25 per cent of the effort needed to bring down projected warming to below 2 degrees (if replaced by renewables, not gas). The Climate Action Tracker report, released on September 22, concluded:

A strong political signal is needed now that the electric power sector needs to be de-carbonised by 2050 and emissions from coal use need to be phased out rapidly. It is clear whilst a rapid coal phase out this is just one part of the mix of policy measures needed to limit warming below 2 degrees, but it is one of the most essential first steps given the momentum towards increasing coal investment in the industry and the real and escalating danger of a lock-in of new carbon-intensive energy sector infrastructure.

It appears more than ironic that the Australian green paper was released on the same day the UN Climate Summit was trying to build political momentum towards the 2 degrees goal.

'Green paper' contradicts Australian support for 2-degree goal; heading towards a 4-degree world 

The Australian Government supports the internationally agreed goal of limiting warming below 2 degrees. Agreeing on emission reduction commitments sufficient to meet this goal is one of the major objectives of the current international negotiations on a new climate agreement, to be adopted in Paris in 2015, with effect from 2020. 

There is very little mention in the green paper of climate change, however it is recognised that the post-2020 negotiations could have outcomes for the "composition of the global energy mix". Alternative outcomes, including the necessity of reducing coal use, to meet the 2-degree goal were not considered. The International Energy Agency, in its most recent World Energy Outlook (2013), has explored some of these consequences. 

Under the IEA’s 'Current Policies' scenario, coal emissions are projected to continue to increase rapidly. The IEA WEO 2013 current policy projections indicate ongoing growth of CO2 emissions from coal, reaching about 45 per cent above 2011 levels by 2035. Under this scenario the world would warm by about 4 degrees by 2100. 

The Green Paper draws on the IEA WEO 2013 'New Policies' scenario for quantitative examples of future energy demand and projections of coal growth. This scenario has a lower, but still significant, growth in coal use: an approximately 15 per cent increase in CO2 emissions from coal by 2035, above 2011 levels. Of interest in this context – given the large weight given in the green paper to increasing coal exports – China's use of coal, in this scenario, would increase by 15 per cent above 2011 levels, and India's around double 2011 levels (in the 'Current Policies' scenario, China's emissions would increase by more than 40 per cent and India's by around 150 per cent). Overall warming by 2100 would be around 3 degrees and in the longer-term 4 degrees would be likely.Figure 1 Historical CO2 emissions from coal compared to estimated future emissions based on IEA World 

Figure: Energy Outlook 2013 scenarios – The IPCC RCP 2.6 scenario limits warming below 2 degrees with likely probability (shown here is the median of model results for estimated CO2 emissions from coal). 

Meeting 2-degree goal requires large reductions in coal emissions

Graph for Climate experts slam Energy Green Paper

Should the world move on to a pathway to limit warming below 2 degrees, the IEA shows (in its '450ppm Scenario') that coal emissions would need to be reduced by 35 per cent by 2035 from 2011 levels. In other words, if negotiations on the Paris Agreement are successful, rather than growing substantially, coal use would decrease significantly. 

These IEA results are confirmed by a wide range of modelling groups who have studied the policies required to limit warming below 2 degrees and whose results were reviewed by the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR5 report.

The picture for coal use in Asia is completely different in a world trying to meet the 2 degrees warming goal compared to the assumptions made in the green paper. China's coal emissions would reduce to less than 70 per cent of 2011 levels by 2035, and India’s coal emissions would be only about 10 per cent above 2011 levels by this time.

For the full Climate Action Tracker report, click here

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