As the federal Senate again debates the repeal of Australia’s carbon pricing scheme, a new report has found that a transformation to 100 per cent renewable electricity generation would be vital to the rapid decarbonisation of Australia.
The report says that this goal for Australia is not only mandatory in the fight against global warming, but it is readily achievable, and could even result in an economy much larger than it is today.
A preliminary report from The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) – a collaborative effort by researchers from the 15 countries with the highest CO2 emissions in the world – has modelled pathways for countries to transition to a low-carbon economy, a necessary step if we are to meet the internationally agreed target of limiting global warming to less than 2°C.
For Australia, whose coal-heavy electricity generation accounts for two-thirds of the country’s greenhouse gases, keeping its side of this global bargain would mean cutting emissions by an order of magnitude by 2050, says the report – a goal that, in turn, will require fundamental changes in Australia’s energy system.
The report, released to the UN on Tuesday, found that decarbonisation of Australia’s energy transformation (mainly electricity generation) combined with electrification of transport – supplied by renewable electricity – and fuel switching leads to nearly a 75 per cent reduction in the emissions intensity of energy use across all economic sectors.
By 2050, the report notes, electrification across all sectors would drive a two and one-half fold increase in electricity demand. But the substantial change in Australia’s electricity generation mix would lead to a greater than 95 per cent reduction in the emissions intensity of electricity to just 0.021tCO2/MWh.
In a scenario modelled in the report, 84 per cent of Australia’s electricity demand is met by grid-integrated renewable energy generation by 2050, mostly from rooftop and large-scale solar PV, onshore wind, enhanced geothermal systems, wave, biomass and solar thermal (see Figure 9).
This is possible, says the report, through the inclusion of both flexible and variable renewable energy technologies as well as advances in energy storage technologies, which would also be widely used in the transport sector.
“The potential for generating energy from renewable resources in Australia is far greater than Australia’s total energy use today,” says the report. “As such, the challenge for Australia is not the availability of renewable resources, but harnessing the potential.”
The remaining electricity demand is met by distributed supply, mostly from renewable energy generation with one quarter (or 4% of total demand) supplied by on-site gas fired electricity generation in remote (non-grid integrated) areas.
And far from having the economy-wrecking effect the Abbott government has foreshadowed accompanying any rapid shift to renewables, the results from the report’s illustrative pathway show that between now and 2050, Australia’s real GDP grows at 2.4 per cent per year on average, resulting in an economy nearly 150 per cent larger than today.
Productivity also keeps rising, with 43 per cent growth in real wages and exports growing at 3.5 per cent per annum.
After accounting for all emissions sources and sinks, the pathway includes intermediate emissions reductions milestones of 19% below 2000 levels in 2020, at least 50% below 2000 levels in 2030, and to net zero emissions by 2050. The cumulative emissions to 2050 are compatible with Australia’s carbon budget recommended by Australia’s Climate Change Authority, an independent body established under the Climate Change Act 2011.
Already, says the report, emissions from fuel combustion have stabilised since the end of last decade, driven by a significant expansion in renewable energy, a drop in demand for grid-supplied electricity, and a tripling in the rate of energy efficiency improvement in large industrial companies.
“Rising energy prices and government programs and policies (including standards and subsidies for energy efficiency, carbon pricing, and support programs for renewable energy) have helped achieve this outcome.”
But the report warns that Australia now risks locking in energy-intensive assets, particularly for new vehicles, buildings, industrial plants, mines, and – crucially – power stations, if low-carbon reform is not taken seriously.
“To ensure new technology developments can contribute effectively and efficiently to deep decarbonization, clear signals about Australia’s likely long-term emissions pathways are required to inform investment decisions,” it says the report.
“Government has a vital role to play in providing predictability of policy settings in order to minimize investment hold-ups and to reduce the risk of suboptimal investment decisions.”