Australia could fall apart under climate change. But there’s a way to avoid it


Iron ore piles at Dampier, Western Australia. Australia could convert iron oxide to metal for export, producing it with no emissions.
CHRISTIAN SPROGOE/ Rio Tinto

Ross Garnaut, University of Melbourne

Four years ago in December 2015, every member of the United Nations met in Paris and agreed to hold global temperature increases to 2°C, and as close as possible to 1.5°C.

The bad news is that four years on the best that we can hope for is holding global increases to around 1.75°C. We can only do that if the world moves decisively towards zero net emissions by the middle of the century.

A failure to act here, accompanied by similar paralysis in other countries, would see our grandchildren living with temperature increases of around 4°C this century, and more beyond.

I have spent my life on the positive end of discussion of Australian domestic and international policy questions. But if effective global action on climate change fails, I fear the challenge would be beyond contemporary Australia. I fear that things would fall apart.

The Yallourn coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria.
David Crosling/AAP

There is reason to hope

It’s not all bad news.

What we know today about the effect of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases broadly confirms the conclusions I drew from available research in previous climate change reviews in 2008 and 2011. I conducted these for, respectively, state and Commonwealth governments, and a federal cross-parliamentary committee.

But these reviews greatly overestimated the cost of meeting ambitious reduction targets.

There has been an extraordinary fall in the cost of equipment for solar and wind energy, and of technologies to store renewable energy to even out supply. Per person, Australia has natural resources for renewable energy superior to any other developed country and far superior to our customers in northeast Asia.




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Australia is by far the world’s largest exporter of iron ore and aluminium ores. In the main they are processed overseas, but in the post-carbon world we will be best positioned to turn them into zero-emission iron and aluminium.

In such a world, there will be no economic sense in any aluminium or iron smelting in Japan or Korea, not much in Indonesia, and enough to cover only a modest part of domestic demand in China and India. The European commitment to early achievement of net-zero emissions opens a large opportunity there as well.

Converting one quarter of Australian iron oxide and half of aluminium oxide exports to metal would add more value and jobs than current coal and gas combined.

Australia’s vast wind and solar energy resources mean it is well-placed to export industrial products in a low-carbon global economy.
Flickr

A natural supplier to the world’s industry

With abundant low-cost electricity, Australia could grow into a major global producer of minerals needed in the post-carbon world such as lithium, titanium, vanadium, nickel, cobalt and copper. It could also become the natural supplier of pure silicon, produced from sand or quartz, for which there is fast-increasing global demand.

Other new zero-emissions industrial products will require little more than globally competitive electricity to create. These include ammonia, exportable hydrogen and electricity transmitted by high-voltage cables to and through Indonesia and Singapore to the Asian mainland.

Australia’s exceptional endowment of forests and woodlands gives it an advantage in biological raw materials for industrial processes. And there’s an immense opportunity for capturing and sequestering, at relatively low cost, atmospheric carbon in soils, pastures, woodlands, forests and plantations.

Modelling conducted for my first report suggested that Australia would import emissions reduction credits, however today I expect Australia to cut domestic emissions to the point that it sells excess credits to other nations.

Tall white gum trees in northern Tasmania. Australia has huge potential to store more carbon in forests and woodlands.
BARBARA WALTON/EPA

The transition is an economic winner

Technologies to produce and store zero-emissions energy and sequester carbon in the landscape are highly capital-intensive. They have therefore benefited exceptionally from the historic fall in global interest rates over the past decade. This has reduced the cost of transition to zero emissions, accentuating Australia’s advantage.

In 2008 the comprehensive modelling undertaken for the Garnaut Review suggested the transition would entail a noticeable (but manageable) sacrifice of Australian income in the first half of this century, followed by gains that would grow late into the second half of this century and beyond.

Today, calculations using similar techniques would give different results. Australia playing its full part in effective global efforts to hold warming to 2°C or lower would show economic gains instead of losses in early decades, followed by much bigger gains later on.




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If Australia is to realise its immense opportunity in a zero-carbon world, it will need a different policy framework. But we can make a strong start even with the incomplete and weak policies and commitments we have. Policies to help complete the transition can be built in a political environment that has been changed by early success.

Three crucial steps

Three early policy developments are needed. None contradicts established federal government policy.

First, the regulatory system has to focus strongly on the security and reliability of electricity supplies, as it comes to be drawn almost exclusively from intermittent renewable sources.

A high-voltage electricity transmission tower in the Brisbane central business district.
Darren England/AAP

Second, the government must support transformation of the power transmission system to allow a huge expansion of supply from regions with high-quality renewable energy resources not near existing transmission cables. This is likely to require new mechanisms to support private initiatives.

Third, the Commonwealth could secure a globally competitive cost of capital by underwriting new investment in reliable (or “firmed”) renewable electricity. This was a recommendation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s retail electricity price inquiry, and has been adopted by the Morrison government.

We must get with the Paris program

For other countries to import large volumes of low-emission products from us, we will have to accept and be seen as delivering on emissions reduction targets consistent with the Paris objectives.

Paris requires net-zero emissions by mid-century. Developed countries have to reach zero emissions before then, so their interim targets have to represent credible steps towards that conclusion.

Japan, Korea, the European Union and the United Kingdom are the natural early markets for zero-emissions steel, aluminum and other products. China will be critically important. Indonesia and India and their neighbours in southeast and south Asia will sustain Australian exports of low-emissions products deep into the future.

An electric car being charged. Australia has good supplies of lithium, used in electric vehicle batteries.
Ian Langsdon/EPA

For the European Union, reliance on Australian exports of zero-emissions products would only follow assessments that we were making acceptable contributions to the global mitigation effort.

We will not get to that place in one step, or soon. But likely European restrictions on imports of high-carbon products, which will exempt those made with low emissions, will allow us a good shot.




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Movement will come gradually, initially with public support for innovation; then suddenly, as business and government leaders realise the magnitude of the Australian opportunity, and as humanity enters the last rush to avoid being overwhelmed by the rising costs of climate change.

The cover of ‘Superpower’ by Ross Garnaut.
Supplied

The pace will be governed by progress in decarbonisation globally. That will suit us, as our new strengths in the zero-carbon world grow with the retreat of the old. We have an unparalleled opportunity. We are more than capable of grabbing it.

Ross Garnaut conducted the 2008 and 2011 climate reviews for the Rudd and Gillard governments. His book Superpower – Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, is published today by BlackInc with La Trobe University Press.The Conversation

Ross Garnaut, Professorial Research Fellow in Economics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: why Mars is cold despite an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide



The atmosphere of Mars is thin and very dry.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, CC BY-ND

Paulo de Souza, Griffith University


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

If tiny concentrations of carbon dioxide can hold enough heat to create a global warming impact on Earth, why is Mars cold? Its atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide.

The recipe for the temperature of a planet’s surface has four major ingredients: atmospheric composition, atmospheric density, water content (from oceans, rivers and air humidity) and distance from the Sun. There are other ingredients, including seasonal effects or the presence of a magnetosphere, but these work more like adding flavour to a cake.

When we look at Earth, the balance of these ingredients makes our planet habitable. Changes in this balance can result in effects that can be felt on a planetary scale. This is exactly what is happening with the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of our planet.

Increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur hexafluoride and other gases in the atmosphere have been raising the temperature of our planet’s surface gradually and will continue to do so for many years to come.




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As a consequence, places covered in ice start melting and extreme weather events become more frequent. This poses a growing challenge for us to adapt to this new reality.

Small concentration, big effect

It is surprising to realise how little the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and other greenhouse gases has to change to cause such a shift in our climate. Since the 1950s, we have raised CO₂ levels in the atmosphere by a fraction of a percent, but this is already causing several changes in our climate.

This is because CO₂ represents a tiny part of Earth’s atmosphere. It is measured in parts per million (ppm) which means that for every carbon dioxide molecule there are a million others. Its concentration is just 0.041%, but even a small percentage change represents a big change in concentration.

We can tell what Earth’s atmosphere and climate were like in the distant past by analysing bubbles of ancient air trapped in ice. During Earth’s ice ages, the concentration of carbon dioxide was around 200ppm. During the warmer interglacial periods, it hovered around 280ppm, but since the 1950s, it has continued to rise relentlessly. By 2013, CO₂ levels surpassed 400ppm for the first time in recorded history.

This graph, based on samples of air bubbles fro ice cores and direct measurements of carbon dioxide, shows the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution.
NASA, CC BY-ND

This rise represents almost a doubling in concentration, and it clear that, in the recipe for Earth’s surface temperature, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are to be used in moderation.

The role of water

Like flour for a cake, water is an important ingredient of the Earth’s surface. Water makes temperature move slowly. That’s why the temperatures in tropical rainforests does not change much, but the Sahara desert is cold at night. Earth is rich in water.

Let’s have a look at our solid planets. Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, but it has a very thin atmosphere and is not the warmest planet. Venus is very, very hot. Its atmosphere is rich in carbon dioxide (over 96%) and it is very dense.

The atmosphere of Mars is also rich in carbon dioxide (above 96%), but it is extremely thin (1% of Earth’s atmosphere), very dry and located further away from the Sun. This combination makes the planet an incredibly cold place.

The absence of water makes the temperature on Mars change a lot. The Mars exploration rovers (Spirit at Gusev Crater and Opportunity at Meridiani Planun) experienced temperatures ranging from a few degrees Celsius above zero to minus 80℃ at night: every single Martian day, known as sol.




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Terraforming or terra fixing

One of the interesting challenges we face while building space payloads, like we do at Griffith University, is to build instruments that can withstand such a wide temperature range.

I love conversations about terraforming. This is the idea that we could fly to a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere and fix it by using some sort of machine to filter nasty gases and release good ones we need to survive, at the correct amount. That is a recurrent theme in many science fiction films, including Aliens, Total Recall and Red Planet.

I hope we can fix our own atmosphere on Earth and reduce our planet’s fever.The Conversation

Paulo de Souza, Professor, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.