In December this year world leaders will hopefully agree a meaningful international agreement on climate change. Pressure to deliver is significant following the failure at Copenhagen 5 years ago. The political fix for what scientists have been arguing for years is that 2 degrees warming is a “safe” level of climate change. Whether world leaders can negotiate an agreement to achieve even this level of ambition is questionable, but the October 2014 climate agreement between the US and China is one of a number of recent sources for optimism.
2 degrees warming, or stabilising the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm), will be a challenging ask. Yet 2 degrees is already beyond what is really safe for life on Earth as we know it. Already the planet is seeing the effects of only 0.8 degrees warming – increased cyclones, droughts, bush fires, floods and other environmental impacts around the globe. So a safe level of warming is actually zero degrees, one that can be achieved with existing energy, transport and land use technologies and processes.
The momentum is building for a zero emissions goal to be incorporated into a climate agreement later this year. Several leading international organisations are calling for net zero emissions by 2050-2070 to limit warming to 2 degrees.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, has warned that the world must cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to zero by 2070 at the latest to keep global warming below dangerous levels and prevent a global catastrophe. Christina Figures, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change has indicated that at some point in the second half of the century, we need to have achieved climate neutrality—or as some term it zero net or net zero—in terms of overall global emissions. Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, has called for “…the complete elimination of emissions to the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels in the second half of the century…”
At the most recent climate negotiations in Geneva in February 2015, the negotiating text included a number of options referring to zero emissions by the second half of this century in line with the ultimate aim of the UN Convention on Climate Change. At an OECD conference in March this year, representatives of 34 OECD countries, climate negotiators, policy advisers and technical experts, ended with support for a long-term goal of zero emissions. Almost 120 countries now support carbon neutrality being referred to in the Paris Treaty.
At the climate negotiations in Lima, Peru last year, nations agreed to announce post 2020 emission reduction targets by the middle of 2015. Whilst many countries have already announced their targets, Australia is missing in action. It has set up a task force in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet with the intention of announcing future emissions goals by mid-2015. Better late than never but will these goals go much beyond the measly 5 per cent we currently have?
A zero emission target is critical because under business as usual the Earth is heading for at least 4 degrees warming by 2100. The World Bank has warned that under this scenario there is no guarantee that humanity will be able to maintain the civilised ordered society that we currently enjoy. A zero emissions target is ambitious but achievable. It will ensure the reduction of emissions from existing sources, then draw down emissions that are already in the Earth’s atmosphere and the cause of the current impacts of climate change.
Research from several organisations around the world, including our own, shows that zero emissions is possible across every sector of the economy. Our research highlights that:
1. It is technically and economically feasible to power our electricity grid with 100% renewable energy. Concentrated solar thermal, pumped hydro storage, wind and rooftop solar technologies are available at a scale and cost to make this a reality today. We are able to commence our transition away from coal and gas fired power to renewable energy immediately.
2. Our existing housing stock can be retrofitted so that every home can be a net producer, not a consumer, of energy. This can be done through energy efficiency, switching from gas to high efficiency electrical appliances, and installing rooftop solar. This doesn’t take into account the huge energy efficiency opportunities available from new builds, where high efficiency appliances, insulation, double glazing, rooftop solar and solar water should all be standard requirements. We have also modelled the potential for rooftop solar generation in Australia, using satellite data, showing that this amounts to a staggering 31,000MW.
3. Electric high speed rail connecting regional and urban centres up and down the east coast of Australia can be built for around $80 billion, around 5 years of road expenditure. With Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Brisbane being the 5th and 13th busiest air routes in the world, there is clearly the travel demand for high speed rail in Australia. Travel times would be under 4 hours for both of these routes, reducing the requirements for domestic air travel and associated greenhouse gas emissions.
4. Zero emissions agriculture can be achieved through a combination of measures including ceasing land clearing and reclearing, burning savannah
landscapes in the northern parts of Australia in cooler periods leading to less intense burns, reducing livestock numbers, improved livestock feed, nutrition, soil and manure management, and through a revegetation program focused on steep, unproductive land or land that is affected by salinity. With Australia experiencing yet another severe drought in many parts of the country, revegetation offers the opportunity to drought-proof farms and provide alternative revenue streams for farmers.
5. We can move to zero emissions cities and towns through electric vehicle transport systems, improved public transport and connectivity, and enhanced buildings. Electric vehicles can currently meet over 90% of our trip requirements, but with the introduction in Australia of vehicles like the Tesla model S with ranges of over 500km, they can meet close to 100%.
6. Communities such as Byron Bay in NSW are intending to move to zero emissions over the short term. Byron Bay joins other communities around the world in working towards this goal.
The short term political imperatives of achieving a strong climate change agreement in Paris are already there. Including a zero emissions goal will give the agreement the strength it needs. The environmental, social and economic costs of not including such a goal will be severe. One can’t imagine a world beyond Paris that does not include such a goal.
Dr Stephen Bygrave is CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions, Adjunct Professor at UNSW, and formerly a climate change senior executive under the Howard, Rudd and Gillard administrations