Moving to a future powered mainly by renewable energy will be crucial if we are to stay within the global warming limits set out by the Paris Agreement. But building all of this new renewable energy will initially require fossil fuels to help power all of the necessary mining, construction and decommissioning. This raises the question as to whether the energy transition itself will be pointless.
But new research by a group at UNSW (Bahareh Sara Howard, Nick Hamilton, Tommy Wiedmann and myself) shows that it is theoretically possible for Australia to move to a renewable energy future without blowing its share of the carbon budget.
Actually doing it will require two things: prompt, decisive action, and a reliance on “renewable energy breeding” – the process by which mining the raw materials and manufacturing technologies such as solar cells and wind turbines are themselves powered by renewables rather than fossil fuels.
Already under way
This renewable energy breeding is already under way in some places. Tesla’s solar panel factory in Nevada, known as Gigafactory 1, will itself run on solar power. In South Australia, Liberty OneSteel, the new owner of the Whyalla steelworks, is planning solar power, pumped hydro, batteries and demand management to reduce energy costs and greenhouse emissions. In Western Australia, Sandfire Resources’ DeGrussa gold and copper mine and Galaxy Resources’ lithium mine are both going solar.
These are encouraging developments. But will they be enough? The world has only a limited emissions budget left to keep global warming below the Paris Agreement’s 2℃ limit, and an even smaller budget for the agreement’s more ambitious 1.5℃ goal.
As Australia is responsible for about 1% of global emissions and its electricity industry is responsible for about one-third of that, we have assumed that the country’s carbon budget for electricity generation is about one-third of 1% of the global carbon budget. Overall, then, this gives us a total carbon budget for Australia’s electricity sector of 3.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (post-2011) for the 2℃ target, and 1.3 gigatonnes for the 1.5℃ target. For comparison, Australia’s annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions are over half a gigatonne (actually 0.55 gigatonnes), so we are only three years away from overshooting the 1.5℃ target.
Even these budgets are generous, because Australia is one of the biggest per capita carbon dioxide emitters in the world and has enormous renewable energy resources.
What’s more, electricity is the easiest part of the energy sector to move to renewable energy – heating and transport are more difficult prospects. This means that if we are to move to an entirely renewable energy future, most heating and transport will need to be electrified. Therefore, electricity should have a greater emissions reduction target than other sectors.
Making the transition
Our study, which builds on earlier research, looked at 22 possible scenarios for transitioning Australia’s electricity sector to predominantly renewable energy. Some were developed by us, and some by other research groups.
Crucially, our study factored in the “life-cycle” emissions of these energy generation technologies – that is, the total greenhouse emissions including those released during the manufacture of the technologies themselves. And we looked explicitly at renewable energy breeding as part of that analysis.
Our scenarios also assume that overall electricity demand will either stabilise or decline, despite the move towards electrifying transport and heating. This is because Australia is well placed to make huge improvements in energy efficiency.
Rapid action needed
The principal findings of our research include the good news that the life-cycle greenhouse emissions from manufacturing renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines are tiny, compared with the emissions saved by using them as substitutes for fossil fuels.
With the help of renewable energy breeding, the overall life-cycle emissions savings can be substantial – more than 90%, in some of the scenarios we examined. Therefore, manufacturers of renewable energy systems should use renewable energy to power their production lines.
The bad news is that, in every scenario we investigated, Australia nevertheless fails to achieve its share of the ambitious emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 1.5℃ with 66% probability. Furthermore, 9 of our 22 scenarios also fail the more lenient 2℃ target.
The main reason for this is the legacy of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel use before the renewable energy transition. In most of our scenarios, the benefits of renewable energy breeding to the cumulative emissions become significant only beyond 2040.
The scenario (S8a, labelled V in the graph above) that comes closest to achieving the 1.5℃ target involves a 98% transition to renewable electricity and a 35% reduction in electricity demand by 2030 – a very rapid transition indeed!
The scenarios that deliver on the 2℃ target have rapid and high penetrations of renewable energy into the market, and high contributions from energy efficiency.
While it may already be too late for Australia to make a fair contribution to keeping global warming at 1.5℃, our results show that we can stay within our share of the carbon budget for 2℃ – provided we have the political will to move fast.
What’s more, if we implement policies that incentivise renewable energy breeding, there is no reason to suppose that moving to 100% renewable energy would necessarily entail a large increase in emissions to produce the necessary technologies.
But the overriding message is that time is of the essence, if we want to come anywhere close to limiting dangerous climate change. Our various scenarios suggest that even if we implement a rapid, effective response, we are likely to have to take CO₂ back out of the atmosphere in the future, to compensate for the likely overshoot on our share of the global carbon budget.
Australia’s native plants and animals are integral to the success of our society. We depend on wildlife to pollinate many of our crops. Most of our cities depend on effective water catchments to provide clean water. And medical scientists are making important breakthroughs in managing disease and health issues based on discoveries in nature.
The mental health benefits of a “dose of nature” are becoming more widely recognised, on top of our own experiences of having fun and enjoying the natural wonders of national parks. Our nature inspires us in all kinds of ways, and you can build major industries around that; the Great Barrier Reef is reportedly worth A$56 billion to the Australian economy.
It is therefore surprising, on one hand, to read the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia budget submission that the Australian government has slashed environmental spending by one third since 2013.
On the other hand, I’m not especially surprised because we ecologists have been living through the ongoing attack on the environment every day. We see how cuts to environmental budgets play out.
Our native species and ecosystems are under growing pressure. Australia’s 1.6% annual population growth outstrips many other countries. This is compounded by rises in per-capita consumption and greenhouse emissions.
Escalating consumption translates into growing impacts on biodiversity as more land is released for housing and infrastructure, extractive industries such as mining, recreational and industrial fishing expand and agriculture intensifies.
Climate change further interacts with land clearing associated with producing more for a growing and greedier population. Many species are expected to have to shift their range as the environmental conditions they live in move, and if they can’t move because there is no habitat to move through, extinctions will result.
State of the Environment reports document the extent of the problem.
For example, between 2011 and 2015, there was a 66% increase in the number of critically endangered animals (from 38 in 2011 to 63 in 2015), and a 28% increase in critically endangered plants (112 in 2011; 143 in 2015). By critically endangered, we mean that extinction is a real possibility in the short term for these species. Immediate action is needed if we are to avoid terminating millions of years of independent evolution, as these biological lineages die out.
Given the extraordinary value of biodiversity and the extreme and growing threats, it would make sense to maximise our spending on biodiversity conservation now, to protect our wildlife through this period of peak human.
Funding is needed to manage the reserve system, containing threats and nurturing already threatened species. Meanwhile, outside of reserves where most of the people live and interact with nature, biodiversity needs to be provided for, and threats need to be managed. Biosecurity is a critical area for funding, particularly to more tightly regulate rogue industries, like horticulture.
Horticulture was recently responsible for introducing myrtle rust, a disease that is devastating many gum-tree relatives, in the family Myrtaceae. Finally, climate change demands a strong response, both in mitigation and adaptation.
Science and environment work needs funding
I’ve never seen so many fantastic, skilled, enthusiastic young ecologists struggling to get a job. At a time when ecologists and conservation scientists are needed more than ever to help solve the problems created by the growth economy, funding for ecology is at a low.
Of course, beyond the people, we see conservation programs in desperate need of support that just isn’t forthcoming. Christmas Island is a case in point.
The island’s reptiles have been devastated by invasive pests, most likely the wolf snake and perhaps the giant centipede. Two endemic species (species that only lived on Christmas Island) are presumed extinct; the last known forest skink died in 2014.
Two other endemic species are extinct in the wild, but small populations of around 1,000 animals are kept in captivity on the island and at Taronga Zoo.
While ideally a population of at least 5,000 would be maintained to minimise loss of genetic diversity, funding is not available to house that many animals. And it’s rock-bottom budget accommodation; Lister’s geckos are housed in tents because the budget doesn’t stretch to building something permanent.
We’ve also seen important long term research programs defunded. Long-term data provides crucial insights into how our biodiversity responds to decadal changes in weather patterns as well as longer-term changes caused by the greenhouse effect. It is unimaginable that the government have slashed the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network’s funding so far that well-established long-term data series are now being compromised.
Ultimately, the environmental funding shortfall needs to be fixed. Our livelihoods and well-being depend on it.
The original version of this article incorrectly reported that the budget submission was made by the Australian Conservation Foundation and The Wilderness Foundation. It was in fact made by the Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF Australia.
The 2017 federal budget has axed funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF), an agency that provides information to decision-makers on how best to manage the risks of climate change and sea level rise.
The NCCARF received A$50 million in 2008 to coordinate Australia’s national research effort into climate adaptation measures. That was reduced in 2014 to just under A$9 million. For 2017-18, a mere A$600,000 will be spread between CSIRO and NCCARF to support existing online platforms only. From 2018, funding is axed entirely.
Despite a growing global impetus to address the risks of climate change, there is evidence that Australia is being hampered by policy inertia. A review of 79 submissions to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry on Barriers to Effective Climate Change Adaptation, published in 2014, found that:
adaptation first and foremost requires clear governance, and appropriate policy and legislation to implement change.
Earlier this year the World Economic Forum listed “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” as one of the top five risks to the world, in terms of its potential impact. Meanwhile, in Australia, local governments, professionals and community groups have consistently called for more national policy guidance on how best to adapt to climate risks.
The government’s decision to slash funding for climate adaptation research is therefore at odds with the growing urgency of the problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent major assessment report, pointed out that Australia can benefit significantly from taking adaptation action in highly vulnerable sectors.
These areas of vulnerability include: the risk of more frequent and intense floods; water shortages in southern regions; deaths and infrastructure damage caused by heatwaves; bushfires; and impacts on low-lying coastal communities.
To put it simply, lives and money will be saved by strong climate adaptation measures.
Australia needs a coherent policy approach that goes beyond the current focus on energy policy, although climate adaptation is indeed an important issue for our electricity grid as well as for many other elements of our infrastructure. A coherent, whole-of-government, approach to climate risk is the economical and sensible approach in the long term.
Like it or not, the federal government has to take a leading role in climate adaptation. This includes the ongoing need to address existing knowledge gaps through well-funded research.
The federal government is the major funder of leading research in Australia, delivered through CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Cooperative Reserach Centres, the Australian Research Council and universities. This role should not be divested. Without climate adaptation research, Australia can expect significantly higher infrastructure damage and repair costs, more death and disease, and more frequent disruption to services – much of which would be avoidable with the right knowledge and preparation.
The damage bill from the 2010-11 Queensland floods alone exceeded A$6 billion. Since 2009, natural disasters have cost the Australian government more than A$12 billion, and the private sector has begun trying in earnest to reduce its risk exposure.
In response to these known risks, there is demand for robust policy guidance. Effective partnerships between government, industry and the community are crucial. One such example led by the NCCARF is CoastAdapt, an online tool that collates details of climate risks and potential costs in coastal areas.
For projects like this, success hinges on full engagement with all relevant spheres of government, industry, research, and the community. There is more to be done, and it needs leadership at the highest level.
Climate scientists have recently been outraged by job losses within CSIRO. Sixty climate jobs are likely to be lost. Chief executive Larry Marshall has said the reaction to the cuts from scientists has been “more like religion that science”.
Well, in certain respects, he has a point. In reaction to the cuts, scientists are making claims about their ability to predict the future, and are failing to consider the politics of climate science.
We know it’s happening, now let’s do something
In Senate estimates on Thursday, Marshall stated that while CSIRO would not withdraw from monitoring and measuring climate change, there would be a reduction in monitoring and measurement in favour of “mitigation”.
It is unclear what he means by mitigation (whether he’s talking about reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to climate change, or just the former) but I believe that in order to justify itself, climate science should be urgently re-branded as “adaptation science”.
When scientists talk about climate science, they often speak as if it’s a homogenous research activity. But, there are different types of climate research.
This matters because some research questions are more important to policymakers than others. For simplicity, let’s distinguish between two types of climate research.
The first type involves the development of increasingly sophisticated projections of future climate change. Scientists do this using global models, which are downscaled to make projections for local and regional areas.
Ideally, this research would allow us to make specific predictions about what will happen when and where. For instance, it might tell us how the climate in 2050 will be affected by El Niño.
The second type of research looks at the vulnerabilities and tries to make communities, ecosystems, infrastructure and economies more resilient to climate extremes and climate change. For instance, we understand that planting trees at strategic locations along a river bank can enhance the resilience of fish populations that are vulnerable to heat stress
In many cases, this research does not require absolutely specific predictions of how the climate will change. What it does need is the expertise of many other environmental scientists, geographers, urban planners, engineers and social scientists.
I propose that by far the most important research agenda at this point in time is this second research question. This is not to say climate modelling is not important. Modelling is part of the picture, but the focus should be on the ultimate goal: adapting to climate change.
The problem of uncertainty
Over ten years ago, climate scientist Stephen Schneider warned that we should be careful about relying on climate models because they cannot fully account for the abrupt changes possible in the Earth’s climate systems.
For much of the 2000s, as a climate change adaptation advisor working in the UK, I listened to climate scientists make encouraging noises about improving climate change forecasts.
Even so, in 2009 when the UK’s Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) released its state-of-the-art projections, it loudly and repeatedly warned users that they should not be used to predict future outcomes. (As an aside, these outputs have also been very problematic for many potential users). UKCIP warned these projections should only be used to understand a range of potential future climates.
More recently, a team of mathematicians from the London School of Economics and Oxford University has provided eloquent reasoning for why this is so, no matter how good the models seem, especially at regional and local scales.
In Australia, a simpler and more user-friendly set of projections have been developed by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.
Importantly, these are projections of possibilities, not predictions.
The problem of policy
Policy-makers don’t necessarily care about the specifics of how the climate will change at a certain point in the future. They know that no one can predict exactly how the climate will change, not to mind where a bushfire will strike at a specific time in the future.
Investment decisions are based on relatively more certain knowledge of the imminent future (say, five to 20 years, at most). They assume the future will be similar to the present. Depending on their political leanings, only then will they consider climate change.
For instance, the Queensland Reconstruction Authority (QRA), was established by the state government to rebuild infrastructure after the floods in 2011.
Their mantra is “build it back better”. But the precise terms of their federal funding mean that they usually only replace infrastructure on a like-for-like basis. The funding rules require the QRA to make a special request to federal government to build anything that accounts for future climate change. In fact, their strategic plan doesn’t even mention climate change.
Elsewhere, the Thames Estuary 2100 project in the UK delays crucial pre-emptive decisions on flood defences until they absolutely have to be made and in ways that will be resilient to a range of futures.
In this article on The Conversation, Andy Pitman made the case that desalination plants in Perth were constructed following knowledge of a long-term climate shift. This was part of it, but, crucially, the desalination plants provide benefits to the electorate under a range of possible future climates.
The core message should be that vulnerabilities already exist and can be fixed, providing benefits both today and under the increasing risks of climate disaster.
For instance, to build flood defences, policymakers often only want to know how high they can afford to build them to protect the highest number of people possible. Increasingly detailed projections won’t be particularly helpful because policymakers are fundamentally unwilling to build something optimised to one specific climate future.
The key for policymakers is to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket. That way they avoid getting egg on their face by not investing in solutions that may not actually be needed. The key here for scientists, therefore, is how to frame and focus their research accordingly. This means tailoring their science and its communication to policymakers’ priorities.
The climate science community is playing a political game, whether they know it or not. If they want to participate on the same terms as political decision-makers, they need to speak their language.
The link below is to an article reporting on money being allocated in Victoria for various improvements to national parks in that state.
With the road trip now done and the car returned to Budget (rental), my thoughts have turned to my next holiday. I have a few road trip style adventures in the works, but my next holiday is likely to be a trekking adventure.
In the past I have twice walked across the Barrington Tops, completing the ‘Tops to Myall Heritage walk’ section as far as the township of Craven. I now plan to do the second section of the walk, from Craven to Hawks Nest – not far from where I now live. This has been something I have wanted to do for some time and now I intend to actually complete it.
There is no intended date at this stage, though I would hope to do it well before the end of this year. I would think it likely to be towards the early part of the second half of the year – if that makes sense.
Prior to setting out on this trek, I will be looking to update some of my gear (most of which has vanished in recent moves). I will be looking at a new tent and a sleeping bag for starters, as well as a new back pack. I’m sure there will be a few other things I will need to acquire before I set off as well.
Planning for this trip can all be followed on this Blog… stay tuned for further developments.