How could Australians move from being some of the most polluting global citizens, to effectively emitting nothing, in just 30 years?
The federal government says it has a plan.
It doesn’t contain any new actions or dollars. Instead, it tallies up what’s already being done by agencies, some which this government has tried to close in the past.
It relies on six key technologies the government hopes will become so cheap that markets embrace them, without any further mandates or incentives.
And while the talk has focussed on technology, the biggest identifiable ingredient, contributing more than any single technology, is an enormously expanded role for “offsetting”.
The plan is also relying on “global technology trends” and “further technology breakthroughs” getting us about a third of the way from here to net zero.
Is it the right approach? And if the net zero plan is successful, what would it involve?
The plan needs to be turned upside down: expert
The focus on technological development is completely back to front, says Andrew Blakers, an expert in low emissions technology at the Australian National University and a lead researcher at the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics.
“CCS (carbon capture and storage), hydrogen, soil carbon, a ‘gas-led recovery’ and ‘new technology’ are irrelevant for the first 80 per cent of emission reductions,” Professor Blakers says.
He says 70 per cent of current emissions come from electricity, land transport and heat.
“These are easily eliminated by solar and wind pushing coal and gas out of generation; electric vehicles replacing fuel vehicles; and electric heat pumps and heaters replacing gas heating. The net cost will be about zero because solar and wind is so cheap,” he says.
Professor Blakers says the thing needed to accelerate that is investment in transmission lines, then incentives to push electric vehicles into the market.
The next 10 per cent of emissions comes from coal and gas extraction.
“This trends to zero as coal and gas mining trends to zero. Nothing to invent,” says Professor Blakers.
The final 20 per cent is from aviation, shipping, metals, chemicals and the land sector. Those are harder and require research and development.
Professor Blakers says if we do the easier emissions reductions in the 2020s and simultaneously invest in the research, then we should be able to tackle those harder sectors in the 2030s.
But if we do approach things the other way around, as the government proposes, what could it look like?
Technology Investment Roadmap
The Technology Investment Roadmap does the most work in the government’s plan, assumed to cut emissions in half between now and 2050.
The government says it’s a $20-billion investment — but it’s an investment by agencies like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Through the roadmap, the government is doing two things. Firstly, it’s tallying up the work those agencies were already doing. Secondly, it’s directing the agencies to focus their existing budgets on particular measures.
So let’s break down the roadmap.
The newest addition to the list of technologies in the roadmap is “ultra-low cost solar”.
The government has tallied up the work being done by agencies, saying it wants to get solar energy down to $15 per megawatt hour, which is about half what it costs now.
“Ultra-low-cost solar is a worthy goal,” Professor Blakers says.
But he says we’ll probably get there in the 2030s anyway.
“Solar at $25 per MWh is far cheaper than coal and gas for electricity generation, and also kills gas heating in buildings and in industry,” he says.
“Solar at $15 per MWh allows us to think about sucking CO2 back out of the atmosphere.”
But Professor Blakers says the cost of solar is not the main roadblock to its accelerated rollout.
“The chief impediment is lack of transmission to bring the new cheap solar power from where it is generated in the countryside into the cities,” he says.
“Australia is building new highways, an inland rail [and] the NBN to de-congest transport and IT. Now it needs an NTN — National Transmission Network — to de-congest electricity,” he says.
Investing in soil carbon
Another priority investment in the roadmap is “soil carbon”.
Carbon gets sequestered in soil when plants grow in it. It’s lost from the soil when the ground cover dies and isn’t replaced, when the soil is turned over or when it washes away.
The government hopes that by making it cheaper to measure the amount of carbon in the soil, it will become profitable for farmers to change how they manage their land, and get carbon credits for sequestering carbon.
The idea is to use remote and proximal sensing — think satellites, drones or truck-mounted sensors — to estimate how much carbon is in a farmer’s soil.
The aim is to get the cost of measurement down to $3 per hectare.
Polly Hemming, who until 2019 worked on the Carbon Neutral Program for the Department of Environment and Energy, says the plan around soil carbon is enormously unrealistic.
Ms Hemming says in the most optimum conditions — which will not apply to most farmland — croplands can sequester up to 1.1 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, while grazing land can sequester up to 1.8 tonnes.
She says the net zero plan assumes every single hectare of land in the intensive agriculture zone will sequester 1.4 tonnes of CO2 every year.
“This just does not pass even the most basic assessment,” says Ms Hemming, who is now at The Australia Institute.
The biggest carbon credit splurge in history
Before the last election, the government was highly critical of plans to buy foreign carbon credits to meet emissions targets.
But now carbon credits bought in Australia and overseas account for up to a quarter of the government’s net zero plan.
The most important thing with carbon credits is that they are generated by activities which genuinely reduce emissions.
In Australia, one of the biggest sources of carbon credits is “avoided land clearing”. That has recently come under scrutiny, as experts argued there could never have been as much land clearing in Australia as was claimed to have been avoided.
Australian carbon offsets are considered among the world’s most reliable. So the quality of any credits bought overseas will be even more difficult to count on.
Over the six years since 2015, Australia has issued just over 100 million tonnes of CO2 offsets. That’s an average of more than 16 million tonnes per year.
By 2030, the plan expects to generate 63 million tonnes of CO2 offsets every year through tree planting alone. More will be needed from other sectors, continuing indefinitely until emissions from farming and mining are eliminated.
Ms Hemming says that is implausible.
She says the plan assumes each hectare of tree planting sequesters more than four times what it usually does at its peak.
“There won’t be enough offsets,” she says.
And then there’s the question of who will pay for the offsets. If the government doesn’t force polluters to buy them, then perhaps it will continue to spend taxpayer money on the offsets.