How Australia can lead on climate change

Australia is not irrelevant to global climate change efforts, a new report shows, with our combined coal and gas export emissions projected to more than double between now and 2030 at a time when we are pursuing a 'clean energy future'.

Since 1992, the international community has been trying to avoid dangerous climate change through the negotiation of a 'grand bargain' within the UN climate framework. In that time, there have been many 'action plans', 'road maps' and 'decisions', meanwhile global energy emissions have soared by 50 per cent.

There is no end in sight. The best-case scenario, based on last year's 'Durban Roadmap', is that a new agreement will come into effect from 2020 entailing emissions cuts for some countries sometime after that. This would be far too little, far too late to avoid catastrophic warming: global emissions must peak and begin to decline before 2020 if the world is to stay within the '2 degrees budget' (and even that would be risky).

Trajectories consistent with a two degree carbon budget (source).

In other words, the UN negotiations will not result in global peak emissions within the 'critical decade'. 'It is clear', note the editors of the world's preeminent scientific journal, Nature, 'that the science of climate change and the politics of climate change, now inhabit parallel worlds'.

Australia, too, is operating in a parallel world. Having introduced a carbon price that it claims will usher in a 'Clean Energy Future', the Labor government, along with Liberal/National governments in the resource-rich Australian states, is aggressively supporting a massive program of investment in new coal mines, coal seam gas wells, pipes and ports. These projects will see Australia export a staggering amount of highly emissions-intensive coal and gas during and well beyond the critical decade.

Based on analysis by the Federal Government's resource economics bureau, Australia's combined coal and gas export emissions (which are already twice Australia's 'domestic' emissions) are projected to more than double between now and 2030.

In 2030, Australia's combined (domestic and export) emissions from fossil fuels (2.2 gigatonnnes) would equate to 11 per cent of the world's 2 degree carbon budget in that year (20 gigatonnes – see first graph above).

This data, which is presented in a new report from climate solutions think tank Beyond Zero Emissions, Laggard to Leader, shows that Australia's actions are not 'irrelevant' to global climate change efforts: we are materially worsening the chances of achieving the emissions cuts that are necessary if the world is to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change.

In the second half of our report, we show how Australia can lead the world to zero-carbon prosperity. Australia's central position in the global coal and gas trade and its world class renewable energy resources mean Australia is one of only a handful of nations with the influence and capabilities to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels.

While the UN negotiations remain deadlocked, the report 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.