ROSS GARNAUT. Australia could fall apart under climate change. But there’s a way to avoid it (The Conversation, 06 November 2019)

Four years ago in December 2015, every member of the United Nations met in Paris and agreed to hold global temperature increases to 2°C, and as close as possible to 1.5°C.

The bad news is that four years on the best that we can hope for is holding global increases to around 1.75°C. We can only do that if the world moves decisively towards zero net emissions by the middle of the century.

A failure to act here, accompanied by similar paralysis in other countries, would see our grandchildren living with temperature increases of around 4°C this century, and more beyond.

I have spent my life on the positive end of discussion of Australian domestic and international policy questions. But if effective global action on climate change fails, I fear the challenge would be beyond contemporary Australia. I fear that things would fall apart.

There is reason to hope

It’s not all bad news.

What we know today about the effect of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases broadly confirms the conclusions I drew from available research in previous climate change reviews in 2008 and 2011. I conducted these for, respectively, state and Commonwealth governments, and a federal cross-parliamentary committee.

But these reviews greatly overestimated the cost of meeting ambitious reduction targets.

There has been an extraordinary fall in the cost of equipment for solar and wind energy, and of technologies to store renewable energy to even out supply. Per person, Australia has natural resources for renewable energy superior to any other developed country and far superior to our customers in northeast Asia.

Read more: Australia’s hidden opportunity to cut carbon emissions, and make money in the process

Australia is by far the world’s largest exporter of iron ore and aluminium ores. In the main they are processed overseas, but in the post-carbon world we will be best positioned to turn them into zero-emission iron and aluminium.

In such a world, there will be no economic sense in any aluminium or iron smelting in Japan or Korea, not much in Indonesia, and enough to cover only a modest part of domestic demand in China and India. The European commitment to early achievement of net-zero emissions opens a large opportunity there as well.

Converting one quarter of Australian iron oxide and half of aluminium oxide exports to metal would add more value and jobs than current coal and gas combined.

Australia’s vast wind and solar energy resources mean it is well-placed to export industrial products in a low-carbon global economy. Flickr

A natural supplier to the world’s industry

With abundant low-cost electricity, Australia could grow into a major global producer of minerals needed in the post-carbon world such as lithium, titanium, vanadium, nickel, cobalt and copper. It could also become the natural supplier of pure silicon, produced from sand or quartz, for which there is fast-increasing global demand.

Other new zero-emissions industrial products will require little more than globally competitive electricity to create. These include ammonia, exportable hydrogen and electricity transmitted by high-voltage cables to and through Indonesia and Singapore to the Asian mainland.

Australia’s exceptional endowment of forests and woodlands gives it an advantage in biological raw materials for industrial processes. And there’s an immense opportunity for capturing and sequestering, at relatively low cost, atmospheric carbon in soils, pastures, woodlands, forests and plantations.

Modelling conducted for my first report suggested that Australia would import emissions reduction credits, however today I expect Australia to cut domestic emissions to the point that it sells excess credits to other nations.

Tall white gum trees in northern Tasmania. Australia has huge potential to store more carbon in forests and woodlands. BARBARA WALTON/EPA

The transition is an economic winner

Technologies to produce and store zero-emissions energy and sequester carbon in the landscape are highly capital-intensive. They have therefore benefited exceptionally from the historic fall in global interest rates over the past decade. This has reduced the cost of transition to zero emissions, accentuating Australia’s advantage.

In 2008 the comprehensive modelling undertaken for the Garnaut Review suggested the transition would entail a noticeable (but manageable) sacrifice of Australian income in the first half of this century, followed by gains that would grow late into the second half of this century and beyond.

Today, calculations using similar techniques would give different results. Australia playing its full part in effective global efforts to hold warming to 2°C or lower would show economic gains instead of losses in early decades, followed by much bigger gains later on.

Read more: The science of drought is complex but the message on climate change is clear

If Australia is to realise its immense opportunity in a zero-carbon world, it will need a different policy framework. But we can make a strong start even with the incomplete and weak policies and commitments we have. Policies to help complete the transition can be built in a political environment that has been changed by early success.

Three crucial steps

Three early policy developments are needed. None contradicts established federal government policy.

First, the regulatory system has to focus strongly on the security and reliability of electricity supplies, as it comes to be drawn almost exclusively from intermittent renewable sources.

A high-voltage electricity transmission tower in the Brisbane central business district. Darren England/AAP

Second, the government must support transformation of the power transmission system to allow a huge expansion of supply from regions with high-quality renewable energy resources not near existing transmission cables. This is likely to require new mechanisms to support private initiatives.

Third, the Commonwealth could secure a globally competitive cost of capital by underwriting new investment in reliable (or “firmed”) renewable electricity. This was a recommendation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s retail electricity price inquiry, and has been adopted by the Morrison government.

We must get with the Paris program

For other countries to import large volumes of low-emission products from us, we will have to accept and be seen as delivering on emissions reduction targets consistent with the Paris objectives.

Paris requires net-zero emissions by mid-century. Developed countries have to reach zero emissions before then, so their interim targets have to represent credible steps towards that conclusion.

Japan, Korea, the European Union and the United Kingdom are the natural early markets for zero-emissions steel, aluminum and other products. China will be critically important. Indonesia and India and their neighbours in southeast and south Asia will sustain Australian exports of low-emissions products deep into the future.

An electric car being charged. Australia has good supplies of lithium, used in electric vehicle batteries. Ian Langsdon/EPA

For the European Union, reliance on Australian exports of zero-emissions products would only follow assessments that we were making acceptable contributions to the global mitigation effort.

We will not get to that place in one step, or soon. But likely European restrictions on imports of high-carbon products, which will exempt those made with low emissions, will allow us a good shot.

Read more: Labor’s reset on climate and jobs is a political mirage

Movement will come gradually, initially with public support for innovation; then suddenly, as business and government leaders realise the magnitude of the Australian opportunity, and as humanity enters the last rush to avoid being overwhelmed by the rising costs of climate change.

Ross Garnaut conducted the 2008 and 2011 climate reviews for the Rudd and Gillard governments. His book Superpower – Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, is published today by BlackInc with La Trobe University Press.

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4 Responses to ROSS GARNAUT. Australia could fall apart under climate change. But there’s a way to avoid it (The Conversation, 06 November 2019)

  1. Tony Kevin says:

    My third book ‘Crunch Time’ was on climate change impacts in Australia. It explored the
    ‘Things falling apart’ scenario. It surmised that the main trigger would be sea
    level rise – that by 2050 our seas would have risen by at least one meter and made much of our coastal cities unliveable , forcing a population retreat to higher ground that would result in military government in Australia as the only alternative to murderous anarchy.

    The accelerating melting of the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctic icecaps is making that prediction more likely than it was when I wrote the book.

    Though we are making progress on many fronts in Australia, our continued attachment to coal exports is criminally irresponsible and self-destructive.

  2. Ian Dixon says:

    “Australia’s exceptional endowment of forests and woodlands” has actually been pillaged already IMHO. Our small percentage of tall or dense forest is still being reduced, as are the woodlands. Any Biomass for energy dreamers need to grow their biomass before harvesting; what remains of our natural capital is needed for air, water, soil, fauna and carbon storage … through regeneration

  3. Susie Russell says:

    ‘Australia’s exceptional endowment of forests’… which continent is Ross talking about? Burning trees for electricity is not clean, not green and not renewable on the timeframes we need to pull carbon from the atmosphere. They are far more valuable standing. If left to grow old, like so few are these days, they help keep the rivers flowing, not to mention the habitat they provide. Burning wood produces more CO2 per unit of energy produced than burning coal. It’s a massive carbon fraud that is only making atmospheric CO2 worse.

  4. Dailan Pugh says:

    The promotion of burning native forests for electricity is naive as it does not recognise that we need to enhance the ability of our forests to take up and store carbon if we are to have any chance of limiting heating to less than 2oC. We urgently need to stop clearing and logging native forests and allow the recovering forests to regain the carbon they have lost if we are to have any chance to avert the climate crisis. We also need to undertake massive reforestation.
    One of the 6 recommendations of the 11,000 scientists to avert the unfolding catastrophe is ‘protecting the remaining primary and intact forests, especially those with high carbon stores and other forests with the capacity to rapidly sequester carbon (proforestation), while increasing reforestation and afforestation where appropriate at enormous scales’.
    As the scientists attest, protecting, regenerating and replanting forests can provide a third of the solution to the climate emergency.

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