The politics of reaching net-zero

Jun 7, 2021

Rapid technological change is necessary but not sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. Policies to encourage selective consumption and reduced total consumption are also needed.

Recently, Alan Finkel published in Quarterly Essay (Issue 81, 2021) an article entitled ‘Getting to Zero’, a comprehensive, well-informed, up-to-date review of the technological changes needed to transition Australia’s energy sector to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. He argues that 100% renewable electricity is technically feasible and affordable, with solar and wind providing bulk energy, and outlines a pathway for electrifying transportation and heating, building an export industry for renewable energy and, even better, exporting products such as steel and aluminium made with renewable energy. So far, I agree.

However, in several places, it appears his role as an advisor to the Coalition government has made him too supportive of the government’s pro-fossil-fuel rhetoric and ineffective energy ‘policies’. For example, under the cloak of “technology agnosticism”, he declines to dismiss the possibility of new coal-fired power stations, on the grounds that carbon capture and storage (CCS) might somehow become technologically feasible and economically viable, despite its failure over the past 20 years. Furthermore, he endorses the claim of the nuclear lobby that small modular reactors may one day become commercial and economically competitive with renewables but seems to be unaware that the timescale for their possible commercialisation and certification would make their arrival too late to play a significant role in keeping global heating in check.

With climate change and its impacts growing rapidly, and the likelihood that climate may cross a tipping point in the near future, choices of technological pathways must be made urgently. Indeed, Finkel himself states that “We need to target technologies for investment”, choosing hydrogen technologies, a constructive position that contradicts his earlier claims of technological neutrality. He even attempts to justify producing hydrogen initially from fossil fuels with CCS, despite the fact that CCS is not commercially available and, even if it could become so, would still involve significant emissions of CO2.

The principal limitation of Finkel’s essay is his assumption that the transition is a purely technological problem, proclaiming “Technology to solve technology’s problems”. In reality, the “technological” transition will involve social, economic-system and institutional changes, social justice and ethical issues, and of course political struggle. The latter is unavoidable, especially in a country where the fossil fuel industry is so politically powerful.

Consider for example the following ethical/social justice question, which has implications for the socio-economy and politics as well as technology: What would be a fair contribution by Australia to global emissions reduction? The standard assumption is that our country has the same responsibility as every other country, that is, to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and hence keep global heating as far as possible below 2°C. (Keeping heating to 1.5°C is now almost certainly a lost cause, according to leading climate scientists such as Will Steffen and Timothy Lenton.) An alternative ethical view is that, because Australia is one of the highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, it should reduce its annual emissions much more rapidly than the global average. A very limited global carbon budget remains for meeting the above target.

Therefore, an ethical alternative to the standard assumption is that every person in the world is entitled to an equal share of that budget, a position that’s consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and embodies the concept of Contraction and Convergence. On that basis, if Australia continues in its recent trend (excluding the main COVID year, 2020) of approximately constant total annual emissions, its share of the remaining global carbon budget for 1.5°C would be exhausted before 2030. Assuming a linear reduction of emissions to zero, a simple calculation shows that Australia has less than 20 years to cut emissions to zero to achieve its fair share of the global challenge for a target of 2°C.

The last chance to stabilise Earth’s climate

Even a rapid transition to renewable energy is unlikely to be sufficient for following this pathway. Australia’s total final energy consumption has been growing steadily for decades. From 2005 to 2019, emissions from the energy sector increased by over nine per cent. Thus renewable energy is chasing a retreating target. Emissions from transportation, non-electrical heating and fugitive leaks from fossil fuels are still increasing, outweighing the reduction in emissions from electricity generation.

The complete electrification of transportation and heating will take longer than the transition of electricity to 100% renewables. The introduction of ‘green’ hydrogen for long-distance air and sea transport, and possibly some heavy-vehicle road transport, will take much longer. Therefore, to do its fair share of climate mitigation, Australia would also have to reduce its national energy consumption.

Given the political will, a first step would be well-designed programs to increase the energy efficiency of existing homes, to encourage sales of energy-efficient appliances, to improve urban public transport and facilities for cycling and walking, and to foster a continuation of the shift to working partly from home that was initiated by the COVID pandemic. More generally, policies, such as a carbon tax and dividend are needed to shift economic activity to ‘green’ industries and jobs and, furthermore, to reduce consumption.

Even this is unlikely to be sufficient: we must transition to a steady-state economy with reduced throughput. Unfortunately, this is heresy to both our major political parties and neoliberal economists.

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