Five years to zero emissions – Australia’s climate reality check

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If Australia fails to move on its climate policies, it may have no choice but to cut emissions to zero within five years to meet its share of the global effort to avoid a climate crisis. But it’s not something that policy makers want to admit.

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Just five years to slash emissions to zero – that is the growing reality check for Australian policy makers if they fail to ratchet up the nation’s climate policies between now and 2030.

That estimate was part of an omnibus report from the Climate Institute on Wednesday, which included new modelling from Climate Analytics that shows that Australia is facing double the environmental and economic costs if average global warming is capped at 2°C, rather than the 1.5°C aspirational target agreed to in Paris.

hourglass-web+time+running+out+hourglass
Time is running out for Australia to meet its share of the global climate targets agreed to at Paris

The Climate Institute says Australia – to meet its fair share of the effort to reach those targets – needs to achieve zero net emissions well before 2050. It needs to have half of its electricity sourced from renewable energy by 2030, and to have coal-fired generation completely phased out by 2035.

Cutting emissions in the electricity sector first, it says, is crucial, because that can then lay the platform for reductions in other sectors, such as transport (more electric vehicles), and building emissions.

“If Australia is to play its part in global efforts to limit warming to 1.5-2°C, a mid-range carbon budget of around nine billion tonnes between 2015-2050 would need to be targeted. Australia would need to achieve net zero emissions well before 2050,” the report says.

“If (Australia) does not update its current 2030 target, to remain within this carbon budget, Australia would need to reduce emissions to zero within around five years after 2030.”

The report is timely because most Australian policy makers are simply refusing to acknowledge the issue. Australia’s electricity emissions are actually rising, rather than falling, yet the federal government shows no interest in putting forward new policies.

Environment and energy minister Josh Frydenberg told RenewEconomy in an interview two weeks ago that next year’s review of climate policies will only be a stocktake. There was no intention, possibly thanks to the power of the Coalition’s right wing, of any increase in targets.

Indeed, at the COAG energy ministers meeting last week, a suggestion that a zero net emissions target should be set was rejected by the ministers. Instead, the ministers appear to have bought the idea that gas is the solution for their electricity ills. And while some Labor ministers raised the prospect of a “gas investment bubble”, it was firmly rejected by the likes of the federal and NSW representatives.

The Climate Institute report is not the only one to hammer home the importance of early action. That has been a constant in just about every climate report that has ever been produced. Next week, a long delayed update by the Climate Change Authority is expected to reinforce its recommendation that Australia aims for a 60 per cent emissions cut by 2030.

The Climate Institute says that if Australia fails to decarbonise its electricity system, the country will only be able to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement by requiring other economic sectors to reduce emissions more significantly and/or by placing a greater reliance on untested and expensive technologies for carbon sequestration.

If the electricity sector was allowed to meander along its current trajectory, the burden on emissions cuts would then fall on transport and other major carbon emitting sectors. But for those sectors, such as transport, the task would be more difficult without electrification.

These three graphs illustrate the task ahead for Australia. The Coalition government likes to say that its targets for 2030 represent the biggest fall in per capita emissions, but that is only because it is starting so far behind everyone else because of the lack of effort over the past 20 years.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 12.03.19 PM Indeed, even with the 2030 target achieved, Australia still ranks far higher than most other developed countries, and nearly three times higher than the global per capita emissions target needed to meet the Paris target.

The Climate Institute estimates Australia’s share of the “carbon budget” is around 9 billion tonnes. At current rates, it will consume 40 per cent of that from 2020 to 2025. If nothing else changes, it will exhaust its budget by 2035.

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 12.03.54 PM

That leads to the next graph (above). Australia will need to reduce its emissions to zero well before 2050 – possibly as early as 2040 – if it is to meet those targets. Not even Labor’s 45 per cent reductions proposal by 2030 is ambitious enough.

australia future carbon budget

And so what is Australia’s fair share? Well, in the Climate Institute’s estimate of “high equity” – i.e. Australia playing its fair share and not counting on “negative emissions” and international offsets – Australia would have to reach pretty close to zero emissions by 2025.

If it could access international credits – for around 4 billion tonnes – then it might be able to defer decarbonisation until jut after 2035, and then hope for some “negative emissions” in the years to come.

Simply ignoring the issue won’t make it go away.

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22 Comments
  1. Cooma Doug 3 years ago

    Giles

    Another interesting article thanks. You are certainly adding to the increasing awareness of the issues. The science is all here to enable the shift. The political walls are the hard bit.

  2. john 3 years ago

    I do not see Australia or any other country even trying to meed these standards.
    We as in every country will keep going as they have and the poor people who are our descendants will reap the rewards of our dismal attitude towards them.
    I am sorry that that is how it is.

  3. DavidSG 3 years ago

    So where’s the empirical evidence. Gotta have empirical evidence.

  4. Daniel 3 years ago

    Australia “needs to achieve zero net emissions well before 2050”
    Australia “needs to have half of its electricity sourced from renewable energy by 2030”
    “Cutting emissions in the electricity sector first, it says, is crucial, because that can then lay the platform for reductions in other sectors, such as transport”

    When we as readers take in these articles, do we think – how can my property make the needed changes?
    Have we the residents of our property set these goals and are we currently taking steps to implement them?
    Are we preparing our building rooftops for each new PV array?
    Have we begun our emissions reduction by getting that first rooftop covered in PV?
    Have we implemented our first battery trial?
    Have we budgeted for the second and third PV array?
    Have we planned enough rooftop PV for the EV?

    Or do we the so called aware readership, sit on our hands and blame the government for not being inspired to act??? How does a duck curve begin???

    • Pauline McKelvey 3 years ago

      This is the best thing I’ve seen on an ‘aware people’ discussion ever. Three quarters of what I see is people venting their feelings of powerlessness. Which is their illusion. Be the change you want to see is the antidote to that.

      • Daniel 3 years ago

        Thanks. I was encouraged the system works yesterday when 542 people in my part of town had a power outage from 9am to 3pm. With a 1.5kW of solar panels and 4x lead acid batteries, the battery SOC only ever varied by 2% and at 3pm the SOC was still 94% after the cheap little system ($7600) stood alone for 6 hours on a cold, cloudy, rainy winters day. We had scrambled eggs for lunch and cooked a soup. We ran LED lights, fridges, 3x computers, NBN router, landline telephone, toaster, kettle, microwave and induction cooktop. We didn’t have the power for heating though what we had was great. We boiled the kettle for hot water bottles. It was cold. I don’t know what the other 541 homes did. I hope they had a fire or something.

        • Daniel 3 years ago

          This is a map of Essential Energy’s upcoming supply interruptions for NSW. My area has another supply interruption from 845am – 3pm next Thursday. As you can see, poles and wires need constant maintenance to help prevent them coming down in the upcoming storm season.
          http://www.essentialenergy.com.au/content/outage-all?tab=future#search-go

        • hugh spencer 3 years ago

          I’m glad I wasn’t your batteries – I’d be aching in all my joints! – lead acid batteries HATE being discharged below 60% of capacity – and you have to recharge them immediately – or you’ll lose them fast, see
          https://onestepoffthegrid.com.au/living-off-grid-australias-tropical-north-tips-long-term-daintree-resident/

          • Daniel 3 years ago

            The batteries never dropped below 94% of full charge even in cloud/rain. The power outage was in the daytime, so the solar was self consumed pretty much as it was generated. Only a small battery is needed during the daytime. In sunny weather in winter, the battery SOC sits on 100% full charge all day. Additionally, when the grid is online, most inverter/chargers can be programmed to “sustain” the batteries at a pre-programmed threshold.

          • david H 3 years ago

            Daniel, Congratulations on your article, I couldn’t agree with you more!
            My house has a large area of North facing roof and I am keen to install a cost a effective PV system. My conundrum is that in mid summer we run reverse cycle air conditioning during the afternoon and evening, particularly when we have coastal high humidity. The biggest problem is probably in winter with cold mornings and evenings, again running the reverse cycle for heating. The house is a new build and well insulated.
            Your advice would be appreciated.

          • Daniel 3 years ago

            Hi David, I’m an electronics technician not a solar installer. Solar is my hobby not profession. I can say I currently have one 1.5kW solar array and it just drives my reverse cycle air conditioner (rated 1.8kW max input). I don’t run it on maximum. If it drew more power than the PV supplied, I’d be dipping into my battery and if the battery discharged too deeply, the inverter/charger would grab additional power from the grid. A 1.5kW array is very small or 6x solar panels. The only reason I installed 6 solar panels, it is maxed out the first rooftop I wished to tackle. My suggestion with the PV is always max out whatever rooftop your tackling, rather than putting a small amount in the middle, as it wrecks it for later (sounds obvious though this happens allot). PV is the cheapest part of the system, EV is on the way, so always spend up big on PV because that part of the system pays for itself by far the easiest.
            With the air conditioner in summer, it should not be a problem, as the sun will be beating down hard when you most need the air conditioner.
            So with heating in winter and cooling in summer, as long as the PV is rated in Watts above the rating in Watts of the air conditioner, then there won’t be an issue driving it during the day. Of course its necessary to allow a bit more PV for all the little loads like fridges, computers and lights too, though they probably won’t draw more than 500Watts as they are small and intermittent.
            Therefore when the sun is up it is easy to slash the electricity bill, however the issue really is how much you wish to run the air conditioner, and especially the heating, after dusk. The easiest way to estimate your night time electricity use is simply record the meter reading at dusk and dawn and then calculate the difference, giving the kWh consumed at night. Batteries are the most expensive component of the system, so if there is a perfectly good grid, there is little purpose in spending big just so the house can use solar power at night, unless you are particularly idealistic and wealthy.
            In summary, I would have a few people quote on what size array they can get on your prime north facing roof to max it out, then have them look at your electricity bill to determine how much of it the PV will take care of. If the roof will only supply your daytime use and you work at home during the day, I would only get a small to modest size battery. If the PV will cover all your electricity, and you have the cash and interest to spend, then you might consider a more generous investment in the battery.
            The only other major component is the inverter/charger and it really only needs to be big enough to drive all the small continuous loads like fridges, computers, lights and perhaps one high power appliance. The reason is modern inverter/chargers can always top up their peak power output from the grid, so buying a big one isn’t going to produce bill reduction for the few times you wish to drive a number of high power appliances at once. For example, for my first solar system here for a small building, I got a 2500Watt inverter/charger which can supply up to 6000Watts for short periods of time and it can source over an additional 10kWatts from the grid if it needs to. For a medium sized house one would probably consider a 4500W inverter/charger, unless your cashed up you could go even bigger. The last factor with sizing the inverter/charger is you have to be able to cope with its average output power if there is a grid outage (2500W is just enough for my properties fridges, computers, lights and one high power kitchen appliance at a time (kettle, toaster, microwave and induction cooktop).
            All in all, spend up big on PV, get the adequate sized inverter/charger knowing it can top itself up from the grid and skimp out on batteries as much as possible, knowing buying them is like buying a computer in the 1980’s. This is the cheapest way to get a financial winner endeavouring to aim for a decade or so payback. Ive written allot because some installers will attempt to up sell their customers.

          • david H 3 years ago

            Hi Daniel, Many thanks for your quick and highly practical advice. You have outlined a logical approach which I will follow starting with the demand profile and what PV output I can get from the roof area.

          • Daniel 3 years ago

            Fantastic, it will be great fun for the family walking friends through the system and showing them the system displays, as well as your mobile phones with graphs of the system in real time.. People love these things. I’m still yet to install that bit.

          • Daniel 3 years ago

            Sorry one more detail often overlooked which installers tend not to mention, worth checking the surface of your roof, as the panels are going to have a 25 year warrantee. I repainted mine. See some ugly old roofs with new solar panels out there. It’s great to have an aesthetic outcome for the promo side. It’s probably best to follow the contour of the roof if the roof faces the street, rather than going too radical with tilt frames. It is good to work for winter sun angle where possible, though not to detract from house value. Also on that, I moved a few minor things aside like a spinaway roof extractor (to the other side of a gable). This gives a nice clean sweep with the PV panels, so your not screwing panels down around chimneys, spinaways and skylights etc. We want it to be a lovely piece of art where possible.

          • Daniel 3 years ago

            Worth making it look as good as possible, so adds rather than subtracts value. Especially if yours faces street. Shed on middle of my property facing rear.

          • Daniel 3 years ago

            Forgot, with locating gear, always endeavour to locate the equipment inside in a cool location. Batteries can lose 50% of their service life for each 10 degree rise in temperature. With the inverter/charger a fan will come on and its output will automatically reduce if it begins to overheat.

          • Daniel 3 years ago

            If your interested in the way to calculate the answer to your question, say your running a 2kW reverse cycle air con. for heating in the evening after sunset, and wish to run it 2 hours, this results in 2 hours x 2kW = 4kWhours. This means taking 4kWhours out of a battery. If its a lithium battery that can be discharged 6kWhr, that leaves 2kWhr left for other things. So it can be seen that running air con. and heating when the sun isn’t up at all needs an expensive battery bank. Unfortunately unless your wealthy, heating and cooling by drawing energy from a battery is probably not very viable.
            This is why, in the past, country folk off grid have either used gas (fracked these days) or a wood fire. Gas or wood enabled them to just run the basic electric appliances on a relatively small solar system.

    • Ren Stimpy 3 years ago

      LED light bulbs, induction cooktops, reverse cycle air conditioners, fridges with best rating for energy efficiency, and so many other ways of saving dollars by drawing less power from the grid. All these energy efficient appliances will be rolled out across society anyway as old appliances give up the ghost and need to be replaced. But if people want to help they could bring forward the replacement of their energy hungry beasts with energy efficient wonders of the modern age.

      A lot of people when going down to Harvey Norman would look at the price of a less energy efficient fridge and see it is lower than a fridge with a very good energy efficiency rating, and decide to buy the former. But the fact is, that is a more expensive choice because adding the ten year cost of energy to run the thing to the purchase price would see the better fridge come in cheaper in the long run. These are the things people need to be made a lot more aware of if we are to meet our emissions targets.

  5. Webber Depor 3 years ago

    i can achive 50% renewable energy in Australlia, if i were president.

  6. neroden 3 years ago

    Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Canada are way above the targets almost entirely due to the oil + gas industry. Their emissions will drop when everyone switches to electric cars.

    Australia is something *else*, and obviously has the dirtiest electricity generation sector in the world. Probably the biggest problem is Victoria with the brown coal. What is the best strategy for driving the brown coal generators bankrupt and getting them out of the market?

    • Daniel 3 years ago

      Keep installing solar and wind to take over the grid for summer, then autumn and spring, then winter. Residences could do the same with solar.

  7. Daniel 3 years ago

    An analysis of what government isn’t doing

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