Australia could become a net negative emissions economy. The technology already exists
To understand our opportunities and pressure points we need an open, inclusive, genuine process
Australia finally has a net zero target. Even without being legislated, it matters as a signal. It will effectively be bipartisan, a rare and valuable thing in Australia’s climate policy.
Of course the long-term goal could be used to deflect from the fact that not much is being done to put Australia on a low-carbon pathway right now, but it must be taken at face value if we are to stand a chance.
How can Australia become net zero? Technically the answer is quite clear, and has been for a long time. What has changed is that more and more zero emissions options are available at lower and lower cost. The task is now easier than we thought it would be just five years ago.
It starts with a complete shift to clean energy in electricity supply. In Australia, the cost-effective power system of the future is a mix of solar and wind power, with energy storage in batteries and pumped-hydro plants, and gas plants at the ready for occasional use when needed. It means huge investments that will give us zero emissions power at low operating costs. The task this decade is to mobilise those investments for the clean energy future.
Record amounts of solar and wind are being installed in Australia, now driven largely by commercial decisions. The process needs to be sped up. We need reform in the electricity market, including the planned and accelerated decommissioning of remaining coal plants, and the rapid building of new transmission lines.
Coal has no role in our future electricity system, as new plants with carbon capture and storage would be far more expensive and still have some remaining carbon emissions. It is possible that other technologies will play a role but right now nothing else matches renewables for affordability. Nuclear has a role in countries where renewable power is more limited. For it to be viable economically in Australia, it would need a dramatic drop in cost which is not in sight.
The grid of the future will be far more decentralised, relying more on local power sources, especially solar panels and small-scale storage. That includes electric cars: collectively the car-owning public will build up a massive battery capacity on wheels which can bolster the system through vehicle-to-grid charging.
Zero emissions electricity supply will power most of the things that now use oil, gas or coal. “Electrify everything” is the battle cry.
In transport that includes electric cars and trucks, and heavy transport using clean hydrogen made using renewable power. In industry it means shifting to electricity as a heat source, and using clean hydrogen as energy feedstock. In buildings it means electric heat pumps and induction cooktops. Out with the gas. Much of this will need policy support of one kind or another. A price on carbon emissions is an essential part of the policy mix, starting in industry.
These are new battle lines for the energy industry. Governments and industry are pushing hard for a continued role for gas, and possibly coal, as the feedstock for hydrogen production. That is now cheaper than making hydrogen from renewable electricity through electrolysis, but it has 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 processing iron ore into iron and steel – can all run on the back of renewable power.
Carbon capture and storage will likely have a niche role in specific cases where there are no alternatives or where it is cheapest. Cement production is an example. In some cases, the captured carbon could be used as a material.
Then there is agriculture, which now accounts for about 14% of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. That’s a matter of improvements in agricultural practices, and shifting the product mix away from cattle and sheep, which are heavy emitters of methane which is driving global warming in the short term.
So where in all this is the need for new technologies, which the government’s net zero “plan” portrays as the only thing that matters? Innovation will make known clean technologies cheaper and better, and in a few specific areas new technologies are needed. But the overwhelming part of the journey can and will be done using technologies that are in use now.
It is a matter of deploying existing technologies at scale, rapidly. We should plan ahead with some future technologies but we do not need to wait for technology.
Some greenhouse gas emissions will remain. And that is fine, they will be compensated for by drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That is why it is called net zero.
Photosynthesis is an excellent way to take carbon dioxide from the air, for example through revegetation of marginal grazing lands, also through better management of agricultural soils. But any area of land eventually reaches its carbon saturation point so this is not a forever option.
That is where carbon dioxide removal through technological means comes in. It includes carbon dioxide capture directly from the air, and some other technologies such as enhanced weathering for specific minerals. These options are costly and energy-intensive. But their cost will come down with research and experience, and they would be powered by renewable energy.
This continent has the preconditions to do carbon dioxide removal at large scale. Australia could become a net negative emissions economy. That would mean becoming an exporter of emissions removal services, alongside energy and energy-intensive products made using renewable energy.
The government’s “plan” assumes purchasing offset credits from other countries. This is curious given Australia’s relative advantage in land availability and renewable energy. It also misses one of the key areas where future R&D is needed and could directly result in positioning Australia better for a net zero world economy.
Right now we cannot assess the basis for the offset assumption. That is because the government is withholding the technical/modelling report that informed the net zero decision.
It suits politicians to release high-level documents prepared with help from consultancy firms before the analysis that is prepared by government departments. But it amounts to a failure of proper process in an open democracy. It enables obfuscation and monopolises information.
To understand Australia’s opportunities and pressure points in the transition to net zero we need an open, inclusive, genuine process. One that allows building truly shared understanding, and that keeps the politics at arms length from the deliberations about long-term national strategy. Putting in place a genuine process for a long-term emissions strategy is a chance for the next federal government, whichever party wins.
Frank Jotzo is a professor at the Australian National University and head of energy at its Institute for Climate Energy & Disaster Solutions