San Francisco just banned gas in all new buildings. Could it ever happen in Australia?


Madeline Taylor, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, University of Sydney

Last week San Francisco became the latest city to ban natural gas in new buildings. The legislation will see all new construction, other than restaurants, use electric power only from June 2021, to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

San Francisco has now joined other US cities in banning natural gas in new homes. The move is in stark contrast to the direction of energy policy in Australia, where the Morrison government seems stuck in reverse: spruiking a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natural gas provides about 26% of energy consumed in Australia — but it’s clearly on the way out. It’s time for a serious rethink on the way many of us cook and heat our homes.

Cutting out gas

San Francisco is rapidly increasing renewable-powered electricity to meet its target of 100% clean energy by 2030. Currently, renewables power 70% of the city’s electricity.

The ban on gas came shortly after San Francisco’s mayor London Breed announced all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet must run on 100% renewable electricity by 2022.

Buildings are particularly in focus because 44% of San Franciscos’ citywide emissions come from the building sector alone.

Read more:
4 reasons why a gas-led economic recovery is a terrible, naïve idea

Following this, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the ban on gas in buildings. They cited the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, and recognised that natural gas is a major source of indoor air pollution, leading to improved public health outcomes.

From January 1, 2021, no new building permits will be issued unless constructing an “All-Electric Building”. This means installation of natural gas piping systems, fixtures and/or infrastructure will be banned, unless it is a commercial food service establishment.

Switching to all-electric homes

In the shift to zero-emissions economies, transitioning our power grids to renewable energy has been the subject of much focus. But buildings produce 25% of Australia’s emissions, and the sector must also do some heavy lifting.

A report by the Grattan Institute this week recommended a moratorium on new household gas connections, similar to what’s been imposed in San Francisco.

The report said natural gas will inevitably decline as an energy source for industry and homes in Australia. This is partly due to economics — as most low-cost gas on Australia’s east coast has been burnt.

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There’s also an environmental imperative, because Australia must slash its fossil fuel emissions to address climate change.

While acknowledging natural gas is widely used in Australian homes, the report said “this must change in coming years”. It went on:

This will be confronting for many people, because changing the cooktops on which many of us make dinner is more personal than switching from fossil fuel to renewable electricity.

The report said space heating is by far the largest use of gas by Australian households, at about 60%. In the cold climates of Victoria and the ACT, many homes have central gas heaters. Homes in these jurisdictions use much more gas than other states.

By contrast, all-electric homes with efficient appliances produce fewer emissions than homes with gas, the report said.

A yellow triangle sign that says 'no coal or coal seam gas' on a wooden fence.
Natural gas produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide.

Zero-carbon buildings

Australia’s states and territories have much work to do if they hope to decarbonise our building sector, including reducing the use of gas in homes.

In 2019, Australia’s federal and state energy ministers committed to a national plan towards zero-carbon buildings for Australia. The measures included “energy smart” buildings with on-site renewable energy generation and storage and, eventually, green hydrogen to replace gas.

The plan also involved better disclosure of a building’s energy performance. To date, Australia’s states and territories have largely focused on voluntary green energy rating tools, such as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System. This measures factors such as energy efficiency, water usage and waste management in existing buildings.

But in 2020, just 2% of buildings in Australia achieved the highest six-star rating. Clearly, the voluntary system has done little to encourage the switch to clean energy.

The National Construction Code requires mandatory compliance with energy efficiency standards for new buildings. However, the code takes a technology neutral approach and does not require buildings to install zero-carbon energy “in the absence of an explicit energy policy commitment by governments regarding the future use of gas”.

An economically sensible move

An estimated 200,000 new homes are built in Australia each year. This represents an opportunity for states and territories to create mandatory clean energy requirements while reaching their respective net-zero emissions climate targets.

Under a gas ban, the use of zero-carbon energy sources in buildings would increase, similar to San Francisco. This has been recognised by Environment Victoria, which notes

A simple first step […] to start reducing Victoria’s dependence on gas is banning gas connections for new homes.

Creating incentives for alternatives to gas may be another approach, such as offering rebates for homes that switch to electrical appliances. The ACT is actively encouraging consumers to transition from gas.

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Banning gas in buildings could be an economically sensible move. As the Grattan Report found, “households that move into a new all-electric house with efficient appliances will save money compared to an equivalent dual-fuel house”.

Meanwhile, ARENA confirmed electricity from solar and wind provide the lowest levelised cost of electricity, due to the increasing cost of east coast gas in Australia.

Future-proofing new buildings will require extensive work, let alone replacing exiting gas inputs and fixtures in existing buildings. Yet efficient electric appliances can save the average NSW homeowner around A$400 a year.

Learning to live sustainability, and becoming resilient in the face of climate change, is well worth the cost and effort.

Should we be cooking with gas?

Recently, a suite of our major gas importers — China, South Korea and Japan — all pledged to reach net-zero emissions by either 2050 or 2060. This will leave our export-focused gas industry possibly turning to the domestic market for new gas hookups.

But continuing Australia’s gas production will increase greenhouse gas emissions, and few Australians support an economic recovery pinned on gas.

The window to address dangerous climate change is fast closing. We must urgently seek alternatives to burning fossil fuels, and there’s no better place to start that change than in our own homes.

Read more:
No, Prime Minister, gas doesn’t ‘work for all Australians’ and your scare tactics ignore modern energy problems

The Conversation

Madeline Taylor, Lecturer, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, Professor of Global Governance, University of Sydney

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


Infographic: The state of coal

Emil Jeyaratnam, The Conversation; James Whitmore, The Conversation; Reema Rattan, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

As the world moves to combat climate change, it’s increasingly doubtful that coal will continue to be a viable energy source, because of its high greenhouse gas emissions. But coal played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution and continues to fuel some of the world’s largest economies. This series looks at coal’s past, present and uncertain future.


The Conversation

Emil Jeyaratnam, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation; James Whitmore, Editor, Environment & Energy, The Conversation; Reema Rattan, Series + Specials Editor, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Deputy Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paris climate talks could be a light in the darkness of terror

Nick Rowley, University of Sydney

With a country still in shock, and more than 200 innocent people either killed or receiving hospital care in Paris, it seems perverse to even turn one’s mind to what implications this horrific event might have for the international response to climate change.

The French hosts have been quick to confirm that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference starting in Paris next Monday will still go ahead. For it to be cancelled or postponed would have handed an apparent success to terror.

Yet the whole tone and context of the lead-up to the meeting has changed. It is likely that fewer people will attend. The security presence, already tight, will now be intense. Leaders of all the major economies are planning to be in Paris for the first half of the meeting. Their minds will be occupied, and the media will be asking them about more than climate change.

Already, with a full agenda coming to Paris after the G20 Antalya summit in Turkey, actually being in the city will pull leaders’ attention towards more immediate international security concerns.

How can more than 100 heads of state be in Paris and not make reference to the most grotesque terrorist attack in Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings?

The London bombings and the G8

For me, this is all eerily reminiscent of the tense days at the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005. July 7, the day set aside for discussions on climate change, was sent into turmoil by the London bombings.

I was with then-British prime minister Tony Blair that morning as news of the attacks started coming in. First on Sky News, then a call from the Chief Executive of London Transport indicating that these were not crashes or engineering errors: this was catastrophic. The morning before, London had won the right to hold the Olympics in 2012; the morning after suicide bombers were wreaking havoc on innocent commuters.

While the G8 meeting continued without disruption, the prime minister flew back to London to help coordinate the response from Downing Street. That evening Blair returned to Gleneagles and continued chairing the meeting. It was a big day. I will never forget it.

Although the prime minister had to be in Whitehall that day, on his return many of the issues still open for what we envisaged would be a hard negotiation (on financing for African development and new low emissions technology development) had disappeared. Blair’s fellow leaders recognised the need for the G8 meeting to be, and be seen to be, a success for the international geopolitical order.

So, on July 8, in front of the world’s media, the Gleneagles communiqué on climate change and Africa was signed, very publicly, by all the G8 leaders coming up to the lectern in turn. It was a piece of high political theatre unprecedented at such meetings. A colleague of mine, having been tasked with finding a suitable fountain pen for eight rather powerful signatures, kept it.

Building momentum

A Conservative British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was once asked what was the most difficult thing about his job. “Events, dear boy, events,” was his alleged response.

No matter how much any leader might prepare and seek to spend time and political capital on his or her priorities, events cannot be ignored. Events, be they severe climate events such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, or policy decisions such as China’s commitment that its emissions will peak in less than 15 years, or the G7 agreeing to phase out fuels by the end of the century, have drawn heads of state back to the issue.

Prior to Friday, the momentum behind reaching a more adequate international agreement on climate change was already significant.

States have presented their emissions reduction commitments prior to the meeting (through their “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”). The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has also learnt important lessons from previous meetings.

US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all coming to Paris having committed themselves to significant and ambitious domestic climate policies. They aren’t coming to Paris to negotiate what might be achieved, they are focused on ensuring a supportive international policy environment that will assist the how: namely the effective implementation of what is committed to internationally and a process for supporting further policy ambition.

One perverse consequence of the horror of Friday night might be that it provides further incentive for demonstrated unity and agreement at the Paris climate change conference. With France, President Hollande and his highly able Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, presiding over the conference, the world community might now be more well disposed to helping achieve a clear, symbolic and positive success. Both for France, and as a potent demonstration of the enduring effectiveness of international diplomatic process.

Out of the darkness of last Friday night in Paris an ambitious and meaningful climate agreement might just provide some positive and enduring light.

The Conversation

Nick Rowley, Adjunct professor, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

OECD coal discussions highlight tensions in Australia’s position on climate change

Katherine Lake, University of Melbourne

While the UN Paris talks approach at the end of November, attention is currently focused on another forum, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), where member countries are negotiating a deal to limit public finance to overseas coal projects in emerging and developing countries.

Australia and South Korea are reportedly opposed to an agreement struck by the US and Japan and supported by other member countries, notably Germany and France, to prevent public finance to all but the very cleanest power plants.

How will these discussions at the OECD impact on the UN Paris negotiations? Australia’s approach to these international meetings would seem to be inconsistent.

Many pathways to action on climate change

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is still the main negotiating forum through which countries negotiate emission reduction commitments. However, over the last decade, other international forums, in particular the World Bank, International Energy Agency, G20, G7 and the OECD, have played an increasingly important role in progressing emission reduction outcomes.

The OECD’s broad objective is to assist governments foster prosperity and fight poverty through economic growth and financial stability. It helps to ensure that the environmental implications of economic and social development are taken into account. Pursuant to this mandate the OECD has worked with the G20 and G7 to address climate change, in particular through promoting green growth, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, reforming energy regulation and facilitating climate finance

This multi-forum approach to addressing climate change is critical as it diversifies the range of action, but it also maximises accountability in the process and exposes countries’ weaknesses and internal inconsistencies in their climate change policy positions.

Given the different membership and mandates of international organisations, outcomes that might be impossible in one forum are able to be achieved in others. Clearly, this multi-layered approach is essential if we are to solve the climate change problem.

The strength of the UN process is in providing an overarching framework, whereas more concrete actions can be achieved through the OECD, the World Bank and other forums.

Limiting coal finance

The work on fossil fuel subsidies by international organisations was undertaken in response to a request by G20 Leaders when they met in Pittsburgh in September 2009.

At that time, leaders agreed to “rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption”. They asked the OECD together with the International Energy Agency (IEA), Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the World Bank to “provide an analysis of the scope of energy subsidies and suggestions for the implementation”.

Export credit finance is a particular type of fossil fuel subsidy, through which public credit agencies, such as the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation in Australia, provide government-backed loans and other types of finance to businesses wishing to invest in industries abroad. It is estimated that agencies from OECD countries channelled US$34 billion into coal power projects between 2007 and 2014.

The discussions to phase out export credit finance for coal power stations in the OECD commenced last year, but hit a stalemate in June this year. In November, however, the US and Japan will reportedly announce a proposal which would restrict export credit finance to all but the cleanest power stations, known as ultra-supercritical pressure coal plants, a technology that Japan is a leader in.

The text of the proposal also reportedly includes a clause that a coal plant could only win public funding if cleaner alternatives, such as renewables, were not viable. If adopted, the US-Japan proposal would substantially reduce the number of new power stations built in emerging economies in Asia and South America. Australia opposes these restrictions and also rejects the clause requiring project developers to look at cleaner alternatives.

OECD rules require that decisions are made by consensus by the members, so countries will need to reach a compromise next week, when the process concludes. The ultimate outcome will have a direct impact on the ambition of the Paris negotiations, so is important.

Australia is walking a fine line in climate diplomacy

Are Australia’s positions on climate change in the UN and the OECD inconsistent?

On the one hand, Australia supports the objective of keeping the global temperature rise within 2℃ and is willing to make some domestic emission reductions to assist in achieving this.

On the other hand, it is not yet willing to place any real limits on its coal exports to developing countries. It justifies this position on the basis that coal is required by developing countries to alleviate poverty and that it is not for Australia to decide how other countries allocate their public finance.

Other countries, notably the US, Japan and Germany, however, now accept that if we are to meet the 2℃ goal then developed countries have a responsibility, including through the direction of public finance, to ensure that emerging economies transition away from fossil fuels, by allocating funding to clean energy technologies instead.

This transition is not as fanciful as it once seemed, given the decreasing cost of renewable technologies every year. The International Energy Agency recently highlighted that in order to meet the 2℃ goal, any new power stations must on average emit 200 grams of CO₂ per kilowatt-hour, whereas even super-critical power stations emit above 600 grams per kWh. It is therefore clear that the cleanest power stations will be required to limit warming to 2℃, unless carbon capture and storage technology becomes viable for power stations, which currently seems unlikely.

While Australia’s economy is more vulnerable than others to the effects of restrictions on coal uptake, it seems inevitable that there will be a continuing decline in coal demand and thus the sooner we transition our economy accordingly, the easier this transition will be in the long term. Many businesses recognise this probability and are already planning scenarios around it.

In addition, taking a blocking position at the OECD has the potential to damage Australia’s credibility in other international negotiations and particularly as its role as co-chair of the Green Climate Fund. Overall, to address climate change, our policies on energy and climate change will need to align. As the US, EU and China step up their leadership on climate change, Australia will come under increasing pressure to reconcile its different positions.

The Conversation

Katherine Lake, Research Associate at the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Business is picking up the pace ahead of the Paris climate summit

Anna Skarbek, Monash University

Last week 12 Australian companies committed to strong measures to tackle climate change at the Australian Climate Leadership Summit in Sydney. Many of these companies are household names, including the National Australia Bank, Westpac, AGL and Origin.

The announcement followed the peak bodies’ statement in June pledging their support to the global goal of limiting climate change to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and acknowledging that this will require most countries, including Australia, eventually to reduce net emissions to zero or below.

The commitment by these companies is consistent with ClimateWorks Australia’s research with ANU and CSIRO that shows Australia can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions – to net zero by 2050 – while still growing the economy.

These announcements signal the momentum of business action on climate change is increasing in the lead-up to the Paris conference. It also sends a signal to the Australian Government that even greater emissions reductions are possible.

Businesses leading the way

In Australia and around the world, many businesses are adapting to the challenges of climate change and moving towards a low carbon economy. These businesses are making the shift from seeing climate change mitigation as a cost, to seeing it as an opportunity.

Partly this is been driven by businesses wanting to mitigate risk, rising energy costs and respond to stakeholders’ concerns about climate change. Yet, the Paris climate process has also been a catalyst for many new groups of businesses taking action.

One such action group, We Mean Business started just 14 months ago asking businesses to sign up to its seven pledges including adopting a science-based target, putting a price on carbon, and purchasing 100% of electricity from renewable sources.

To date, over 250 companies and 144 investors have signed up to more than 600 commitments to tackle climate change. These companies represent US$5.7 trillion in total revenue and US$19.5 trillion in assets under management.

About 40 Australian companies have signed on to key climate commitments, including Australia’s largest energy retailer, Origin Energy, which signed up to all seven of the commitments.

Over 20 large multinational companies including Goldman Sachs, H&M, IKEA, Nike, Mars, Nestle, Unilever and Swiss have joined the RE100 initiative and have committed to going 100% renewable.

Pledges are compiled by the United Nations’ NAZCA platform, which registers all commitments to climate action by companies, cities, subnational regions and investors to address climate change. To date, more than 900 cities, 100 regions, 1,700 companies and 400 investors around the world have pledged over 6,500 commitments to reduce emissions.

In a similar vein, a group of international business leaders, running some of the world’s largest companies, established The B Team to push for a better way of doing business that takes account of the wellbeing of people and the planet.

The organisation recently called on governments to commit to a global goal of net zero emissions by 2050 and will shortly be announcing companies pledging to be net zero companies.

Putting words into action

Progressive companies have begun setting ambitious emissions reduction targets, reporting emissions and shifting to low carbon technologies. Others are turning ideas into reality and delivering practical solutions on the ground.

For example, construction company SOM sculptured the 309-metre-tall Pearl River Tower in China so it directs wind to in-built turbines that generate energy for the building.

Car and battery company Tesla is set on developing a mass market for electric vehicles. There is already a solar plane travelling around the world.

Energy giant AGL announced it will close down its coal-fired power stations in 2050 (still too slow but a strong first step from the sector), Shell is stopping drilling for oil in the Artic, and Australia’s major banks are also making overarching commitments to limit global warming to 2℃.

Deeper cuts possible

There is no doubt the momentum is building for businesses to go “green”. So too is the ability to do it, thanks to rapid advancements in technology. Businesses are putting themselves in the spotlight and willing to be held accountable to their shareholders for their environmental management.

However, Australia cannot just rely on business action if we are to achieve the substantial emissions reductions needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Leading businesses are making these pledges in good faith but they are only voluntary and not yet universal.

In addition, practical measures being adopted by businesses to reduce emissions are still in the early stages and there needs to be an acceleration of actions to reach even our 2030 emissions reduction target.

To beat the ticking carbon budget clock, the pace of business progress needs a policy nudge. A suite of policy and regulation is still needed to accelerate business efforts and ensure broad coverage of emissions reductions across the entire economy.

The real contribution these pledges can make is to show the Australian government what can be achieved. The ramping up of business action on climate change should give the government confidence it can achieve more emissions reductions and set policies that aim considerably higher than the current targets.

The Conversation

Anna Skarbek, CEO at ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: South America – Patagonian Glaciers Melting Rapidly

As elsewhere, climate change is having a massive impact on glaciers throughout Patagonia in South America. The link below is to an article that reports on the glacial melt under way there.

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