I’ve said it too many times this year, but I have to say it again: outright climate denial is no longer a threat. People who say they’re acting on climate, but don’t behave that way at all, are the main group responsible for struggles to eliminate emissions.
For the Australian government, this has most recently manifested as a “technology roadmap”, an effort to scratch at the edges of sub-components of the climate and emissions challenge, and present that as if it’s a wild swing at the heart of the problem. It is tied inextricably to Australia’s government clean energy agencies, ARENA and the CEFC, essentially shifting around their function and presenting that the entire government’s flagship, centrepiece emissions reduction tool – the policy that Australia will take to the 2021 COP26 global climate meeting, as it refuses to increase its Paris targets (as it is meant to) and refuses to commit to net zero by 2050.
We need to do two things together to hit climate goals: accelerate deployment of mature technologies beyond the ‘natural’ rate of build, and research new technologies. The roadmap shines an ultra-light torch on the ‘research’ part, with the intent of casting ‘deployment’ into darkness. As nicely outlined by the detailed (and well worth reading) ClimateWorks Australia report released earlier this year:
To put this very simply: without the ‘accelerate deployment’ bit, then even if you make a suite of technologies very cheap, they’ll only emerge as the existing technologies decay into bits and need replacing. ‘Maturity’ isn’t enough to hit climate goals – there needs to be more, for these massive shifts to happen as quickly as they ought to, to protect our safety and health.
To give an example, the International Energy Agency has just released a report highlighting the ‘locked in’ fossil fuel / high emissions infrastructure as a very major risk, because there is a whole lot of stuff that’s going to be around for a very long time. Fossil-fuelled machines will stick around for eye-watering amounts of time, without intervention, no matter how cheap or great the replacements are.
This sums up the climate challenge: Cumulative emissions from existing energy infrastructure could reach 750GtCO₂ by 2070, more than enough for 1.5°C.
— Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen) September 11, 2020
In Australia, there is a large collection of coal and gas-fired power stations that aren’t scheduled to reach their natural shut down dates for decades. Without accelerated deployment of renewables and shut down of these plants, they’ll keep spewing out GHGs. Sure, wind and solar are mature – but without federal climate leadership, strong climate targets and clear policy, the grid will potter along at business as usual – as shown below in Australia’s 2019 emissions projections. The grid operator modelled a range of various future scenarios that each depend on government, business and consumer changes that extend far beyond ‘are renewables cheap or not’. The future is forked, and the best case outcomes call for the greatest intervention.
Deployment isn’t just about cost: it matters that renewables are cheap, but it doesn’t matter enough to make the best case scenario above the default and most likely option. If you were under the impression that all that was required was cheap wind and solar and that you could set and forget after that, you’re wrong. This is a massive, complex, socio-technological machine with multiple failure points that manifest in the various futures shown above. In merely 20 years, emissions could be half of todays, or near-zero, and without clear planning, climate policy and consistency, it’s more likely to be the worse outcome for us, and the better outcome for fossil fuels.
Ditto for Australia’s massive, heavily-polluting fleet of combustion engine vehicles. Without strong, rapid action to decarbonise transport in Australia, the ‘business as usual’ is a truly terrible outcome. Both electricity and the electrification of transport are highlighted as key areas of action for deployment by ClimateWorks:
There’s far more to transport than new private cars, but it’s just one example of how significant it is for the government to ditch the active encouragement of the deployment of commercial options. Ditto again for buildings, where “the technology required for a zero-emissions building sector – deep energy efficiency and electrification powered by renewables – is already available to be deployed”.
Of course, it is true that some research and development is required for the ‘hard to abate’ sectors. Contrary to statements from Australia’s government ministers, ARENA is not currently investing in wind and solar. It is now focused on industry, and the ‘hard to abate’ bits. In fact, the technology roadmap reads almost as if it could be an ARENA investment roadmap, rather than a national climate policy.
Here’s the real sticking point: it isn’t just about innovation. Wind and solar got cheap not just due to innovations like bigger turbines and better panels. They were deployed on a massive scale through government subsidies, and that drove innovation. What’s the plan to deploy a country-wide electric charging fleet? The government is explicitly anti-deployment (unless it’s a gas-fired power station), so each of these innovations will get stuck in the mud.
The technology roadmap is intended to distract from the main game of climate technology: accelerating the deployment of mature machines as fast as possible, because it matters how fast we reduce emissions. Climate targets are meant to be the things that drive that acceleration at a high level, paired with a range of ground-level incentives. Electricity transforming to wind, solar and integration ASAP, while cars, trucks, buses, buildings and homes are sucked into the world of electrons also ASAP is the bulk of the decarbonisation, and that is not something that can be left to individuals and business – governments need to get involved.
The ‘technology not deployment’ tactic has been running for a while. I wrote about it in 2015 (not long after the government tried to axe research agencies). It’s still going, and we need to recognise it for what it is: a delaying tactic that seeks to bat our hands away from the low hanging fruit of massive, immediate and rapid change.