You might have missed it amid the squabbling within the federal coalition, and particularly the Nationals, over the idea of a net zero by 2050 target. But that is just a taste of what’s to come, because on the other side of the world, Scott Morrison just recommitted to a 1.5°C target that requires reaching net zero nearly a decade earlier.
Over the weekend, prime minister Morrison met with the leaders of the United States, India and Japan in Washington, as part of the first face-to-face meeting of the ‘Quad’ alliance. Their joint statement makes clear their commitment to reach the Paris Agreement stretch target of limiting average global warming to 1.5°C.
“We have joined forces to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the urgency it demands,” they said. “Quad countries will work together to keep the Paris-aligned temperature limits within reach and will pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”
This is significant because the Quad has succeeded in getting Morrison to agree to language that he has resisted in virtually every other international forum. For instance, Australia only just recently convinced the UK to drop the 1.5°C reference in the trade deal signed between the two countries.
And here is another important quote from the Quad statement.
“To this end, Quad countries intend to update or communicate ambitious NDCs by COP26 and welcome those who have already done so. Quad countries will also coordinate their diplomacy to raise global ambition, including reaching out to key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region.”
If Morrison is to be taken at his word, and some may describe that as a big if, Australia is pledging to improve on its miserable interim target of a 26-28 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 (from 2005 levels). And punting a higher target to 2035 – as some suggest – won’t cut it, because to cap average global warming at 1.5°C the world needs to act now.
So, what is needed to cap warming at 1.5°C? The world has already warmed by almost 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels and is on track to exceed 1.5°C before 2040, according to the IPCC. To keep temperatures below this latter level will require urgent and dramatic action to decarbonise the world’s energy system.
For Australia, work has already been done by numerous research groups and institutions on what that might look like, and it has nothing in common with existing federal policies.
The most recent was done by the Australian Energy Market Operator, in conjunction with the CSIRO and numerous other stakeholders as it put together its detailed and voluminous 1,000 plus page “input and assumptions” report in preparation for the next version of its 20-year transition blueprint.
AEMO says that only one of the five scenarios that it is modelling – the “hydrogen superpower” scenario – is aligned with achieving the 1.5°C goal. And it’s interesting to note that Morrison is already talking about the prospect of Australian taking a dominant position green energy exports.
But to get to this 1.5°C “hydrogen superpower” scenario would require reaching net zero emissions by the early 2040s, and vastly outperforming the Morrison government current 2030 target to cut emissions by 26 to 28 per cent.
Even more dramatically, Australia’s electricity system would need to be decarbonised much earlier, with emissions halving by 2026 and achieving zero emissions by 2035.
This rapid decarbonisation is necessary given the comparative ease of reducing electricity emissions through the increased use of renewables and the ability to cut emissions in industry through electrification.
But to be clear, it means no coal power by 2035, unless Australia can do a Hail Mary on carbon capture and storage. If this sounds improbable, NSW energy minister Matt Kean says his state – the most coal dependent in the country – is ready to end coal generation by 2030.
AEMO says this scenario would also require more than three-quarters of Australian road transport to be all-electric by 2040. This is not just new vehicle sales but represents a significant replacement of Australia’s existing transport fleet with electric models within two decades.
Households will also need to cut the amount of their natural gas use by around 90 per cent – replaced by supplies of zero emissions hydrogen gas or switching gas appliances for electric alternatives.
When combined with industrial electrification, the amount of electricity generation in Australia’s main grid will need to significantly increase while it also decarbonises, with electricity demand expected to grow to almost 330TWh by 2040, around 50 per cent higher than current levels.
This will require a massive ramp up in the rate of deployment of new wind, solar and energy storage capacity. Rooftop solar generation would need to grow around five-fold from current levels, with around a third of household energy use to be met by battery storage.
It’s a substantial reconfiguring of Australia’s energy system that will need to be mirrored by virtually all other major economies, especially those of the Quad.
Following the Quad meeting, Morrison has said that his government is working on a plan to support the growth of export industries set to benefit from global investment in decarbonisation. This plan is expected to be unveiled before the COP26 UN climate talks in Glasgow in a few weeks time.
It’s unlikely to be enough to deliver the ambitious efforts needed to establish Australia’s ‘hydrogen superpower’ status. But we can expect Australia’s international peers will hold the Morrison government to account. We can only hope that Morrison is able to travel to Glasgow to deliver on his commitment.