We could be a superpower: 3 ways Australia can take advantage of the changing geopolitics of energy


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Christian Downie, Australian National UniversityThe International Energy Agency confirmed last week what many already knew: the world is undergoing a huge transformation in global energy markets. Fossil fuels are dying and renewables are on the rise.

Much of the focus has been on what this means for Australia, given the IEA declared there can be no new fossil fuel projects if global temperature rise is to be kept below 2℃.

But what the discussion has missed is how the shift to renewable energy is also set to transform Australia’s geopolitical environment. For a country that likes to think of itself as an energy superpower, it’s time we started paying attention.

Australia should embrace the opportunity to become a renewable energy power. If we don’t act now, with the global energy transition gathering pace, Australia could be exposed to a hostile international energy environment with profound economic, security and diplomatic consequences.

The new geopolitics of energy

The IEA’s declaration that new fossil fuel projects have to end now sits at odds with the federal government’s plans for a gas-led economic recovery, and its recent announcement of A$600 million to fund a major new gas-fired power plant.

But the IEA isn’t the only authoritative body making this claim. Most global energy transition scenarios project a peak in fossil fuel demand this decade and exponential growth in renewables, before a long decline in fossil fuel demand in the decades thereafter.

Recent commitments by Australia’s major trading partners to net-zero emissions, including China, Japan and South Korea, will only accelerate this process.

The IEA set out a roadmap to bring the planet to net-zero emissions by 2050. Indeed, under this net-zero scenario, oil demand peaked in 2019 and will fall by almost 75% between now and 2050. Demand for coal has peaked, too, and will fall even faster by 90%. The prospects for gas are only slightly better, with a decline of 55% out to 2050.

It’s no wonder Australian financial regulators keep warning about stranded assets.




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The geopolitical consequences of this transition will be profound. To varying degrees, the changes taking place in energy markets will reorder patterns of cooperation and conflict between states.

At one end of the spectrum, some states will emerge as renewable powers — think Chile with its large solar resources in the Atacama Desert, or China with its superiority in renewable technologies.

Aerial view of solar panels in the desert
A solar energy power plant in the Atacama desert, Chile.
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At the other end of the spectrum, some states will experience political instability from the decline of fossil fuel revenues — think countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where oil and gas revenues comprise more than 40% of their GDP.

Transitioning to clean energy will have huge upsides for Australia. But let’s start with the downsides, because the IEA has just put them up in lights.

Our international leverage will soon disappear

Successive federal governments have declared Australia to be an energy superpower.

One reason is our exports of coal and gas. Take LNG (liquefied gas) for example. In 2019 Australia overtook Qatar to become the largest exporter of LNG in the world, with total exports valued at A$48 billion, representing a 22% share of global exports.

The IEA says this must end if the world is to have any hope of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. If the gas industry hasn’t got the message yet, the IEA had some chilling news.

As the graph below shows, Australia’s gas exports will have to peak by 2025 and then fall off a cliff in the decades after, under a net-zero-by-2050 emissions scenario. The picture for coal is even worse.

The economic repercussions are obvious. As a political leader might say, it’s “jobs and growth” that’ll be hit hardest.

But this also has geopolitical implications. Australia has long relied on the economic strength we derive from being a dominant exporter of coal and gas to shape our bilateral relationships with countries, such as Japan and South Korea.

This leverage will soon disappear and it will force Australia to rethink how it engages with many nations and international organisations.

For example, potential disruptions to oil shipping lanes will likely become less of a concern. Nations may also compete to control the supply of rare minerals that are vital for a range of technologies needed for a clean energy transition, such as batteries and wind turbines.

What should Australia do?

First, Australia should harness its renewable resources. Australia’s solar radiation per year is around 10,000 times larger than our total energy consumption. If these resources are exploited, Australia can become energy self-sufficient and, at the same time, reduce its vulnerability to energy supply disruptions, such as from international conflicts.

Second, Australia should pursue export dominance. The rise of renewables will open up significant opportunities for Australia to become one of the primary exporters of clean electricity, hydrogen and critical minerals.

For example, growing demand for electricity in Asia combined with improvements in high-voltage direct current cables could see Australia export electricity to countries in our region, such as Indonesia and Singapore.




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Third, Australia should leverage its energy advantage. States with significant renewable resources that become energy self-sufficient and attain export dominance are likely to be “geopolitical winners”.

In other words, the economic power derived from Australia’s renewable energy advantage will open up opportunities to influence other countries and shape intergovernmental arrangements, such as those governing the future of international trade in hydrogen.

Being energy self-sufficient will also insulate Australia from the risk that other countries will seek to coerce it by disrupting energy supplies.

This opportunity won’t last forever. Countries that move first will gain an advantage in new industries, technologies and export markets. Those that wait may never catch up.




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The Conversation


Christian Downie, Associate professor, Australian National University

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

Fly infertility shows we’re underestimating how badly climate change harms animals


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Belinda van Heerwaarden, The University of Melbourne and Ary Hoffmann, The University of MelbourneEvidence of declining fertility in humans and wildlife is growing. While chemicals in our environment have been identified as a major cause, our new research shows there’s another looming threat to animal fertility: climate change.

We know animals can die when temperatures rise to extremes they cannot endure. However, our research suggests males of some species can become infertile even at less extreme temperatures.

This means the distribution of species may be limited by the temperatures at which they can reproduce, rather than the temperatures at which they can survive.

These findings are important, because they mean we may be underestimating the impacts of climate change on animals – and failing to identify the species most likely to become extinct.

two flies mating on a leaf
The distribution of some species may be limited by the temperatures at which they can reproduce.
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Feeling the heat

Researchers have known for some time that animal fertility is sensitive to heat stress.

For example, research shows a 2℃ temperature rise dramatically reduces the production of sperm bundles and egg size in corals. And in many beetle and bee species, fertilisation success drops sharply at high temperatures.

High temperatures have also been shown to affect fertilisation or sperm count in cows, pigs, fish and birds.

However, temperatures that cause infertility have not been incorporated into predictions about how climate change will affect biodiversity. Our research aims to address this.




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eggs on straw
High temperatures can affect bird reproduction.
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A focus on flies

The paper published today involved researchers from the United Kingdom, Sweden and Australia, including one author of this article. The study examined 43 species of fly to test whether male fertility temperatures were a better predictor of global fly distributions than the temperatures at which the adult fly dies – also known as their “survival limit”.

The researchers exposed flies to four hours of heat stress at temperatures ranging from benign to lethal. From this data they estimated both the temperature that is lethal to 80% of individuals and the temperature at which 80% of surviving males become infertile.

They found 11 of 43 species experienced an 80% loss in fertility at cooler-than-lethal temperatures immediately following heat stress. Rather than fertility recovering over time, the impact of high temperatures was more pronounced seven days after exposure to heat stress. Using this delayed measure, 44% of species (19 out of 43) showed fertility loss at cooler-than-lethal temperatures.




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The researchers then matched these findings to real-world data on the flies’ distribution, and estimated the average maximum air temperatures the species are likely to encounter in the wild. They found the distribution of fly species is linked more closely to the effects of high temperature on male fertility than on temperatures that kill flies.

These fertility responses are crucial to species survival. A separate study led by one author of this article, using simulated climate change in the laboratory, showed experimental populations of the same flies become extinct not because they can’t survive the heat, but because the males become infertile. Species from tropical rainforests were the first to succumb to extinction.

The prediction that tropical and sub-tropical species may be more vulnerable to climate change is not new. But the fertility findings suggest the negative impact of climate change may be even worse than anticipated.

Flies on a stick
The research found fly fertility is affected at lower-than-lethal temperatures.
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What does all this mean?

Some animals have adapted to minimise the effect of high temperature on fertility. For instance, it’s thought testes in male primates and humans are externally located to protect the developing sperm from excessive heat.

As the planet warms, animals may further evolve to withstand the effects of heat on fertility. But the speed at which a species can adapt may be too slow to ensure their survival. Our research has shown both tropical and widespread species of flies could not increase their fertility when exposed to simulated global warming, even after 25 generations.

A study involving beetles also indicates fertility damage from successive heatwaves can accumulate over time. And more work is needed to determine how other stressors such as salinity, chemicals and poor nutrition may compound the fertility-temperature problem.

Whether our findings extrapolate to other species, including mammals such as humans, is not yet clear. It’s certainly possible, given evidence across the animal kingdom that fertility is sensitive to heat stress.

Either way, unless global warming is radically curbed, animal fertility will likely decline. This means Earth may be heading for far more species extinctions than previously anticipated.




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The Conversation


Belinda van Heerwaarden, Future Fellow, The University of Melbourne and Ary Hoffmann, Professor, School of BioSciences and Bio21 Institute, The University of Melbourne

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

Stop removing your solar panels early, please. It’s creating a huge waste problem for Australia


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Deepika Mathur, Charles Darwin University and Imran Muhammad, Massey UniversityInstalling solar panels is an easy way to lower your carbon footprint and cut electricity bills. But our recent research found there are many incentives to remove them prematurely, adding to Australia’s massive waste problem.

Researchers predict Australia will accumulate 1 million tonnes of solar panel waste by 2047 — the same weight as 19 Sydney Harbour Bridges.

But this number is likely to be higher, as we found people often choose to remove panels after just 10 to 12 years of use. This is much earlier than their estimated end-of-life age of 30 years (and potentially older).

Unfortunately, recycling is just a small part of the solution. So why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

Australia’s shocking ‘material footprint’

Australians have heeded the call to increase renewable energy. The installed capacity of panels across Australia has increased dramatically from 25.3 megawatts in 2007 to 77,078 megawatts in 2017. Likewise, the rooftop solar market capacity has almost doubled between 2014 and 2018.

Australia has committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of using fewer resources. And this requires us to use products (like solar panels) efficiently, with less waste. But Australia’s 2020 progress update shows our per capita material footprint is increasing. In fact, it’s one of the highest in the world, at 70% above the OECD average.




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To help lower our growing material footprint and keep e-waste out of landfills, we need to ensure solar panels are sustainable in life, as in death.

It is assumed the primary reason why people remove solar panels is due to technical failures, such as when they’ve reached their expiry after 30 years, or breaking due to extreme weather or during transport. But failing to generate electricity doesn’t explain why many are thrown away prematurely.

So, we interviewed solar panel installers, recycling organisations, advocacy groups and local government waste managers across the Northern Territory. And our resulting qualitative research found social and economic incentives for removing solar panels.

Out with the new, in with the newer

We found a whole system of panels gets removed when only a few panels are damaged, as the new panels must have similar electrical properties to the old.

If the panels are still under warranty, the manufacturer often pays to replace the whole set, even when only a few are faulty. This means working panels are removed alongside the faulty panels, prematurely turning into waste.

Solar panels have also become a commodity item. Many of us dump old phones and cars when newer technology becomes available, and solar panels get the same treatment. After recovering the investment in solar panels through reduced electricity bills, some people are keen to get newer, more efficient models with a new warranty.




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Our research also suggests government incentives aimed at rolling out more solar panels have caused consumers to replace their entire solar array. This is because previous rebates didn’t cover the replacement of only one or a few panels.

Finally, the life of solar inverters is usually 10-12 years, much shorter than the 30-year life span of the panels themselves. Some people use this as an opportunity to install a new set of solar panels when they change their inverters.

So why can’t we just recycle them?

There’s currently little research on what we can do with panels when they’re removed for reasons other than technical failure.

Researchers often put forward recycling as the preferred option for removed panels. But sending the growing number of working panels to recycling facilities is a tremendous waste of resources, and increases the burden for panel recycling, which is still in its nascent stages.




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Managing waste is the responsibility of states and territories, and they align their waste strategies with the federal government’s National Waste Policy.

But there’s no directive yet at the national level on solar panel disposal, specifically. This means there’s a patchwork of policies across the states and territories for managing this waste.

Victoria, for example, has identified solar panels as the fastest growing waste stream in the state’s overall e-waste flow, and the state government has banned them from landfills.

But such measures wouldn’t work for the Northern Territory, given its lack of processing facilities and the distance to the recycling centres in southern Australia, which are at least 1,500 kilometres away. With ample open land, they’re more likely to end up dumped illegally.

What do we do?

Australia needs clear guidelines at a national level on collecting, transporting, stockpiling and disposing solar panels. A lack of clear policy hampers state, territory and local governments from managing this waste effectively.

By proposing recycling as preferred option to manage this waste, we risk excluding other important options in the waste management hierarchy, such as reducing waste in the first place by making solar panels that last, extending their life.

The federal government has also touted “product stewardship” as a potential solution. This is where those involved in producing, selling, using and disposing products share the responsibility to reduce their environmental impact.

But this model wouldn’t effectively service regional and remote areas, as collecting and transporting goods from remote locations comes at a very high financial and environmental cost.

It’s worth noting some panels do undergo a kind of “second life”. There’s a unique demand for secondhand panels from people who can’t afford new systems, those looking to live off-grid, small organisations keen to reduce energy bills, and mobile home and caravan owners.

But with a number of massive solar farms proposed across northern Australia, it’s more important than ever to explore new strategies to manage removed solar panels, with clear policies and creative solutions.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Robin Gregory from Regional Development Australia, Northern Territory to this article.The Conversation

Deepika Mathur, Research Fellow, Northern Institute, Charles Darwin University and Imran Muhammad, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, Massey University

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