CLIMATE SPECTATOR: The middle power with climate clout

Not only is Australia geographically, demographically and economically well-placed to lead on climate change, it is in our national interests, commercially and ethically, to do so.

The Lowy Interpreter

See part one of this post here.

With UN negotiations deadlocked, our new report, Laggard to Leader, published by climate solutions think tank Beyond Zero Emissions, calls for a new way of thinking about international climate cooperation.

'Cooperative Decarbonisation' is a practical, problem-solving approach to the decarbonisation of the global economy within the timeframe necessary to restore a safe climate. Instead of merely complying with arbitrary emissions targets hollowed out by loopholes and undermined by accounting tricks, Cooperative Decarbonisation is much more pragmatic.

Put simply, each country must phase down to zero or very near zero the greenhouse gas emissions associated with every economic and social process over which it has control or influence, acting unilaterally and through international cooperation in small groups focused on particular problems and solutions associated with climate change.

Australia can lead this process. Specifically, the report calls for two sets of Australian actions.

The first relates to fossil fuels. The report shows that less than one eighth of the world's remaining recoverable fossil fuel reserves (which contain 3.5 trillion tonnes worth of potential carbon dioxide emissions) can be burned if we are to remain within a two degree warming budget. Australia should use its market power in global coal and LNG markets to start building a norm of 'non-exploitation' of fossil fuel resources and to foster cooperation on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. Specifically, Australia should:

Impose a moratorium on new Australian coal and gas developments to send a clear signal to world leaders and investors about the necessity of a fossil fuel phase-down.
Leverage the attention received from its moratorium to convene immediate negotiations among coal and gas importers and exporters on the terms of a fossil fuel phase-out and renewable energy ramp-up, taking into account international equity considerations.

Support these efforts by commissioning a high level, independent panel of experts to make the case for a fossil fuel phase-out on climate, public health, security, social, and environmental grounds, just as Australia did for nuclear weapons elimination in the early 1990s with the establishment of the Canberra Commission on Nuclear Weapons.

The second set of actions relates to renewable energy. An advanced economy that enjoys among the world's brightest sun, Australia holds the key to the most important climate change solutions. In addition to solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind, the critical technology for decarbonising the world's energy system is Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) with storage. This technology, operating today in other countries, produces 24 hour energy from the power of the sun and provides the best commercially-available technology option for replacing fossil fuels for 'on demand', zero carbon, grid-connected energy. Laggard to Leader calls for Australia to:

Roll-out more than 40GW of CST throughout Australia over the next ten years, starting now, along the lines recommended in the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan (which showed in comprehensive detail that such a roll-out is technically achievable and economically affordable).

Establish a system of feed-in tariffs and other proven policy mechanisms to leverage total public and private investment of $37 billion per year (over ten years) to support this level of deployment of CST and other renewable technologies.

Contribute $3 billion per annum to renewable technology research, development and demonstration, cooperating with other countries wherever possible.

These strategic investments, the report argues, would have a profound effect on the global cost of CST. Germany has shown that, through targeted renewable energy deployment policies, one leading country, assisted by a handful of 'followers', can catalyse rapid cost reductions in renewable energy technologies. Germany has installed around 30GW of solar PV (around 30-40 per cent of the world's total accumulated PV installation), causing PV prices to fall an incredible 65 per cent over the last six years. The International Energy Agency expects that the widespread deployment of CST would have a similar effect on CST prices.

With Australia leading the way through the actions we recommend, it is reasonable to expect that CST could become cost-competitive with fossil fuel energy within this 'critical decade' on climate change. The US and other countries are already beginning to deploy CST, but it's early days: Australia could establish itself as the world's CST powerhouse while cooperating with other countries to virtually guarantee that it becomes the cheapest form of 'on demand' (or 'baseload') energy.

The report argues that not only can Australia lead the world, it should. The case for Australia to undertake these climate leadership actions rests on a combination of ethical and national interest grounds.

Whereas Australia's coal and gas boom greatly raises the probability of dangerous climate change and hollows out the non-mining economy that employs 98 per cent of the Australian workforce, establishing a leadership position in the global clean tech economy would ensure a more prosperous and equitable 'one speed' economy while greatly improving the chances of avoiding devastating climate impacts.

Fergus Green is co-author of Laggard to Leader: How Australia can Lead the World to Zero Carbon Prosperity. He will be launching the report in Brisbane on Thursday. Part one of this post here.

Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.

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