Blog | 10th Feb, 2014

The top five climate challenges for Australia

It has been a busy time for those at the, ahem, coal face of action on climate change. Backward steps being taken at almost every turn. While dealing with spot-fires, it can be hard to keep one’s eyes on the prize: what we as Australians need to make happen as our contribution to a safe climate.

1.   Getting off coal

Australia’s emissions come predominantly from burning coal for electricity. The likely soon-to-be-dismantled carbon price was designed to send a clear price signal to coal-fired power stations by charging them for each tonne of CO2 emitted. This signal was partly masked by unnecessary compensation arrangements with the most polluting plants, but recent figures show the carbon price is having some success at reducing emissions.

As a replacement climate policy, the Government’s proposed Emissions Reduction Fund will, at best, tinker around the edges of an electricity generation system that needs wholesale change to achieve credible emissions reductions. At prices likely to be available under the fund, old coal-fired power stations will have few opportunities, let alone the incentive, to reduce their emissions.

While we continue to burn coal, power station efficiency and technical advances will only get us so far. The importance of maintaining a price on carbon can’t be overstated.

2.     Getting on to renewables

Where, then, does our energy come from? Three studies have now demonstrated the technical viability of a 100% renewable electricity grid. In the scenarios from the grid operator AEMO, it appears that 100% renewables wouldn’t even cost that much more than business-as-usual (since many existing generators would need to be replaced anyway). So what is standing in the way?

Threats to break an election promise and weaken the Renewable Energy Target are damaging investor confidence in renewables projects. Plans by the Abbott government to conduct its own review of the RET (hot on the heels of the Climate Change Authority’s legislated review) are compounding the problem. The survival of a strong RET is essential for continued investment in non-polluting energy.

Barriers to uptake of renewables are also found in state planning policies first implemented in Victoria (and now being adopted or considered in other states). By allowing a single local resident to veto a wind project and otherwise restricting where wind turbines can be located, these policies are actively inhibiting the roll-out of wind farms, at the cost of higher emissions and lost regional investment. In these states, it is now easier to dig a new coal mine than to build a wind farm.

3.     Ending fossil fuel subsidies

Discouraging the production and consumption of fossil fuels, in all their forms and applications, goes hand in hand with other efforts to reduce domestic emissions. Currently, the Federal Government provides around $10 billion each year encouraging more fossil fuel use: including rebates to make fuel cheaper for large industries and tax loopholes for mining, oil and petroleum companies, amongst a host of others.

The International Energy Agency has calculated that removing fossil fuel subsidies, globally, would create enough disincentive to their continued use to provide around half the necessary cuts to emissions to stay under two degrees of warming.

Australia, through the G20 (of which we are the current president), committed in 2009 to removing fossil fuel subsidies, but little action has been taken. Now that we’re in a phase of ending corporate welfare, it seems like a good time to unwind these most perverse of handouts. A win-win for the climate and the budget.

4.     Stop facilitating the emissions of others

When you take into account the coal we export, our contribution to global climate change becomes very significant – around 5%, and that’s from about 0.3% of the global population.

Plans to massively expand existing export markets in both Queensland and NSW are leading to local health problems and damage to the soon-to-be-less-Great Barrier Reef. There are also massive global consequences, in the form of guaranteed emissions. Not wanting to miss out, the Victorian Government (in a previously non-coal-exporting state) is considering export proposals with the state’s particularly emissions-intensive brown coal.

This all comes at a critical juncture in international energy markets. The cost of solar and wind energy is getting sufficiently low in many countries that it can compete on price alone with new coal plants (without even considering externalities of pollution). Windows of opportunity for new coal investments are closing, but if these projects go ahead, our exports could be locking other countries into a polluting energy trajectory for decades to come.

Unless we acknowledge this issue and take action, climate change will come to us as the ghost of coal exports past.

5.   Get ready

Even if all emissions are stopped tomorrow, there is likely to be enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere already to push the limits of the internationally agreed “guard rail” of two degrees of warming – considered the difference between dangerous climate change and extremely dangerous climate change.

With that kind of change effectively locked in as a result of our past actions, strategies to adapt to future climate will be essential. The IPCC says that 3-5 degrees of warming is possible, if not likely, and there are big question marks over how well human civilization can adapt to a 4+ degree earth.

Its important to understand that the impacts of climate change will be society- and economy-wide: health, insurance, construction, banking, transport… Even the Australian Open tennis isn’t immune.

Critically, its also not clear what we’re adapting to. How does one make good decisions under such uncertainty? We need to start figuring that out, and we need to start acting on the answers.

Some solutions are simple: energy efficient homes keep us cool during heatwaves while also saving money and reducing strain on electricity infrastructure. Other solutions will be much more complicated, like how to deal with sea level rise in communities where people want to live on the coast but don’t want to know about risk to property.

Getting on with it

It’s worth pointing out that, despite my top 5 list here focusing on electricity generation, there are other challenges: reducing our demand for electricity, and broader influences such as population and economic activity, for starters. These ought to be part of the debate.

For the most part, the solutions to reducing our emissions already exist. It’s whether we choose to act. Either way, it is important to acknowledge that there is no more status quo. Change is inevitable. It’s how much change, and how we respond to that change, that will define all our futures.