Australia’s new emissions projections report came out this week. The results are far more muddled than I anticipated. The projections actually don’t suggest Australia is on track to hits its 2030 Paris climate targets, with a gap still remaining between the projected emissions and the Paris targets.
But they include what is purportedly an ‘extra scenario’ that models the impacts of the government’s ‘technology roadmap’. Though Australia won’t be speaking at the UK’s “climate action summit” on Saturday, they will address the Pacific Island Summit on Friday night, and at this event they’ll tout this new report as proof of their ambition.
It is a genuinely strange document. There are contradictions all over the place, confusing assumptions, opaque modelling weird numbers. It smacks of a project pulled in various directions, particularly by energy minister Angus Taylor; whose ideological make-up can be found within this vision of the next decade. This is a journey, but I guarantee you, it’s an extremely important one that the confusion at the heart of Australia’s climate inaction.
Shall we begin?
1 – More gas, less wind and less big solar: the electricity numbers make no sense
As with every downwards shift in future emissions in these reports in previous years, the bulk of the reductions come from the electricity sector. Thankfully, the more recent years have included a breakdown of total electricity generation so we can compare the sources, and previous years have shown big drops fossil fuels and big upwards shifts in wind and solar output.
This new report has some significant differences. While both coal and solar continue their trends, wind has downgraded in its output by around 8TWh in 2030, while gas has been upgraded by about 4TWh in 2030. There is no explanation of the significant wind power downgrade in the report, but it matches an assumed near-full-stop in the development of large-scale renewables in Australia in the mid-2030s, inexplicably assumed by the modellers.
The increase in fossil gas is justified as “further grid stability supported by new gas capacity, including to support the replacement of the Liddell Power Station”. This seems to be a reference to the wildly controversial plan for the federal government to build a 1,000 megawatt gas-fired power station in NSW as retaliation if the market didn’t replace the closure of the Liddell coal plant with like-for-like capacity.
“Nationally, new gas capacity is projected to outpace retirements by 1 GW over the decade, supporting peaking loads rather than baseload generation”, claims the report. But if those generators were peaking, rather than “baseload”, their output wouldn’t be increasing these revisions – they would be decreasing. And if the government’s ‘tech-focused’ policies brought down battery prices, we should see a downward revision of gas too. Instead – it’s going up, while wind simply has no explanation of any kind. Large-scale solar is also assumed to hit a massive slow-down mid-decade, due to crowding out from rooftop. What is going on here?
2- Angus Taylor is still shutting down coal-fired power stations
Zooming in on coal – an industry Taylor clearly doesn’t care much for – it’s clear that the forecasts of coal output for electricity have been revised downwards the most. It’s easy to state that the majority of the drop in projected emissions across all the sectors comes from increased pessimism about the future of coal power in Australia, with this downgrade the biggest in the history of the reports:
I noted that between 2018 and 2019, the revised projections ‘shut down’ two Hazelwood’s worth of coal-fired power. Well, it’s even more this time, with around 124TWh of coal generation between 2020 and 2030 sliced off the projections, a decrease of around 10%. Yes, that’s coming from Angus Taylor’s office; he who recently declared “We have already seen the dire consequences of closing coal and gas fired power stations early and without a plan for replacement”. Well, plenty of coal’s being shut down in every new version of these projections.
There’s another oddity: the new presence of a category called “other”. It has an installed capacity of four gigawatts by 2030, more than battery storage and pumped hydro combined, but there’s no clarity on what it actually is.
3 – Predicted battery output downgraded to a fifth of 2019 projections
The numbers on battery storage are extremely confusing here. This could be an artefact of the way battery charging and discharging is counted, but without any access to the underlying modelling, there’s no way to tell. The output of battery storage was revised down, by nearly four times, between the 2019 and 2020 reports. This is despite the “technology roadmap” claiming to incentive new battery storage, and the report itself claiming increased levels of deployment of batteries.
The charitable explanation here is some accident of energy modelling and consequently, weird results. The less charitable and more probable explanation is simply that Australia’s Energy Minister would very much prefer fossil fuels to be the thing that’s prioritised in modelling over clean integration options for renewables like batteries, hydro, demand response and new transmission lines. With absolutely no access to the details or assumptions, and very little chance of ever seeing these, we can unhappily assume the worst.
4 – Leaning on a dark future for Aus coal exports
Buried in the details of the report are two interesting assumptions. Namely, that while both coal and gas exports are impacted by COVID19, only gas recovers, relative to the 2019 projections. In fact, by 2030, the projections upgrade gas export quantities and significantly downgrade coal export.
The report explicitly refuses to model any impacts from Australia’s major fossil fuel customers setting net zero by 2050/2060 targets, declaring optimistically that “These targets are not expected to impact Australia’s coal production to 2030 in the absence of new short term policies”. Of course, if short term policies are announced prior to next year’s report, will they impact these predictions? COP26 in Glasgow next year is, hopefully, going to be soaked in short-term climate goals from these countries. While the view on gas here is incredibly optimistic, it probably won’t last.
Like the record-breaking downgrade in coal power in the electricity sector, this is very much aligned with the preferences of Australia’s energy minister – a long time advocate of gas who possibly sees coal as a major competitor. I imagine Taylor is hoping people like Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce don’t read this post, because these extremely pessimistic narratives on the future of coal in Australia would send them into a fit of rage.
5 – Australia’s transport remains mostly fossil fuelled
Australia’s government is yet to release its “future fuels” strategy, but this reports sets a worrying baseline for the growth of electric vehicles in Australia; essentially only a tiny change from the 2019 projections. The assumed proportion of EVs in new car sales in 2030 has been revised up from 19% in 2019 to 26% in 2020’s report. But this isn’t a good metric of the emissions reductions impact of government transport policy. Really, this needs to be closer to 100% by 2030, like the UK, to have a real short-term impact. Buried in the data is the actual difference in the presence of zero emissions vehicles in the stock of vehicles in Australia, between the two reports, and the difference (6.5% by 2030, rather than 5.5% by 2030) is barely visible:
Like the electricity sector, the projections mostly simple indicate the ‘business as usual’ state of affairs in Australia. Transport emissions will need to fall massively over the next decade to have any real chance at being on track for net zero by 2050, so this is a very alarming graphic. COVID19 has made a very visible dent, but absolutely nothing else has changed, and it needs to.
6 – The technology roadmap is a ghost
There is a lot of confusion within this report about whether the “Technology roadmap” policy – the government’s signature climate policy touted as a replacement for a net zero target – actually impacts the predicted trajectory of Australia’s emissions. When the 2019 version of this report was released, the tech roadmap was a twinkle in Angus Taylor’s eye. But that 2019 report included various sensitivities, in which low growth, high growth and rapid technological uptake were modelled. These included, crucially, a drop in Australia’s fossil fuel exports due to greater competition from cheap renewables and batteries.
The 2020 report includes the same sensitives, but the ‘high technology’ modelling tweak has been re-branded as a scenario that models the impact of the technology roadmap. It is, in fact, almost precisely the same scenario as the one published last year, in terms of the difference from the baseline projected emissions. If anything, the 2020 ‘strong technology’ scenario actually has a slightly lower impact on emissions, relative baseline:
And it includes global factors, well outside of the reach of Australia’s policy levers. “The sensitivities do not assume any policy changes”, the report helpfully adds. The wording is careful here: “The high technology sensitivity scenario is aligned with the Government’s Technology Investment Roadmap” (emphasis my own). In fact, the report also includes modelling of both strong and weak recovery from COVID19, both with around two or three times the impact on emissions trajectories than the ‘high technology’ sensitivity.
There is zero clarity here on how the ‘stretch goals’ feed into this ‘tech roadmap aligned’ scenario, or any explanation of how they happen to have precisely the same impact on emissions as last year’s pre-roadmap modelling exercise. What seems to be happening here is probably worse than just ‘misleading’. What was reported as modelling of Australia’s signature climate policy is actually just tweaking of economic assumptions that “do not assume any policy changes”, and rely on global economic and technological shifts well outside the zone of Taylor’s ‘tech roadmap’. That’s very, very naughty.
7 – Australia’s federal government is stuck in an eternal loop
The end result for the 2020 projections is that despite leaning even more heavily on coal closure in the power sector, along with a big drop in transport purely from COVID19, there is little change in other sectors.
That means the projections, just like last years, show that Australia is still off track to meet the 2030 Paris targets. The genuinely misleading use of the pre-existing ‘sensitivities’ as proof of the efficacy of the technology roadmap is pretty bad; as is the inexplicable downgrades in wind and large-scale solar production, and the replacement of that with huge increases in gas-fired power generation. Buildings, homes and cars all remain untouched, and it’s unlikely any strong policies will be introduced to push down emissions in those sectors by the federal government.
The report itself is heavily politicised. There are plenty of mentions of Taylor’s key talking points, such as gas exports displacing coal (it’s not true), or the need for gas to ‘balance intermittent renewables’ (also not true). But because this has become such a conduit for heavy politics, it is insightful in its own quirks. True to form, it is not a clear, well-thought-out and well-planned political document. It is stacked with weird, confusing and utterly baffling contradictions, and doesn’t end up doing much more than treading water. In that sense, it is insightful.
It explains why Australia’s federal leaders currently lean on renewable energy, pandemics and droughts to do the bulk of the work in emissions reductions. Everything is just killing time while Australia’s fossil fuel industries squeeze the life out of mines, power stations, pipelines, vehicles and buildings, hoping that the time of action is called once they’re well and truly into their retirement years. They are treading water, and they are getting very good at it.
The end result is Australia remains badly off track the actual Paris targets: putting actual hard work into real, short term emissions reductions. This new report still has coal supplying a full 35% of Australia’s electricity in 2030. Angus Taylor has increased the predicted proportion of gas power in that year from 10% to 12%, when by 2030, Australia should have a 95-100% clean grid – and feasibly could – to align with 1.5C targets, according to the Climate Action Tracker.
In fact, Australia should aim for around a 66% decrease by 2030, instead of a 26% decrease. Like the UK’s recent recommendations, this front loads climate action to maximise the direct and immediate benefit of upgrading society to more efficient, cleaner and cheaper forms of energy. The grid needs to go clean about two or three times as fast, and the transition to non-fossil machines in transport, homes and industry needs to begin right this second. By denying all of these things, Australia’s government is condemning the citizens of Australia to a lifetime of delay and economic disaster, as the world moves rapidly past Australia, while its leaders tread water for decades to come.