by Jonathan Armstrong, Director, Australian Business at Frazer-Nash
The fact that the Federal Government has committed to net zero by 2050 doesn’t mean it will happen.
There are immense challenges, and the Federal Government is having a hard time convincing Australians and other nations that its climate policy is up to scratch. The debate is not over. The work is nowhere near done. Energy industry leaders and engineers must now step forward and get involved by forging a working partnership with the Government to help Australia achieve some ambitious goals.
It’s one thing for our nation to agree on emission targets decades from now, but to get there requires a total transformation of our complex energy systems.
We are facing a serious, long-term risk and these systems are not equipped for the challenge. Climate change is, to borrow a popular phrase, a clear and present danger that threatens global economies and indeed the very future of humanity. The UK government was recently sued over its net zero plan, which lawyers argue illegally fails to include the policies needed to deliver the promised cuts in emissions. The UK’s plan did not explain how the strategy would be delivered, or specify the emission cuts for each sector.
So is Australia doing enough? Are we being a responsible regional and global nation with a clear plan that will work? Our Federal Government went to the COP26 climate summit with a somewhat grudging net zero policy, and its feasibility has been questioned.
The Federal Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, said Australia will play a “leading role in helping to develop low-emissions technologies, such as clean hydrogen, ultra low cost solar, carbon capture, and storage”.
Let’s analyse this. If we invested in enough solar to meet Australia’s domestic electricity consumption, we would need an area the size of Adelaide. If we also produced sufficient hydrogen to displace all remaining domestic fossil fuel usage, we’d need an area five times bigger. An area the size of Tasmania would be needed if we were to produce sufficient hydrogen to replace all fossil fuel exports. These estimates do not include storage to counter daily and seasonal intermittency
But can we afford it? Compare it to the COVID-19 response. Australia will spend around $300 billion on COVID-related measures. The Adelaide example above would cost less than one COVID response, rising to about ten times that for the Tasmania example. This tells us that if we have the collective will, it can be done.
This is immensely challenging but, in principle, possible. It is expensive, but this is not a ‘cost’; this is an investment.
Our country has the money and the skills to meet net zero, however, it’s going to take a bold and purposeful mission. It’s going to take a partnership, because the government cannot, and should not, do this alone. Politics gets in the way. We have many brilliant people in the energy industries, and they need to be front and centre as we work towards Net Zero, bringing their technical expertise to the table as high-stakes decisions are made.
That’s why I’m proposing the creation of a new organisation to bring together policy-makers and technical experts. This organisation will require the courage, systems thinking and narrative to start progressing extraordinary projects, allowing Australia to enter a new phase and truly earn the mantle of the Lucky Country.
Too hard? Too much distance between the technical and political communities to allow for a partnership? Not in my experience working in the UK nuclear industry, clean-tech start-ups and engineering consultancies in the UK and Australia. In all those projects, the defining constant of my career has been to bridge the gap between different communities of people; between policy and engineering investors and technology development, strategy and delivery. That connection has always been vital to getting stuff done, making change happen.
But don’t take my word for it. Here in Australia, we’ve already shown we can do it.
Two summers ago, Australia was ablaze. And how did we get through the crisis? Politicians stood side-by-side with bushfire experts and co-ordinated an astonishing fire-fighting and social recovery mission that continues until this day. They worked as equals; the experts providing the data, the modelling and advice, and the politicians providing policy, action plans and finance. It was a powerful statement of co-operation.
Then, no sooner had the flames died down than COVID ripped through the country. Again, we saw the stage shared by politicians and technical experts – this time the medical community supplying the data and advice, while governments provided leadership and action.
Unfortunately, we lack the same co-operation between governments and the energy sector, partly because it has become a politicised sphere, and also because complex systems for energy transformation and transport are seen as tension between the market and government. Also, climate change lacks the immediacy of bushfire, floods and COVID. But that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.
However, when it comes to climate change and net zero, we must put these issues aside. That’s why independent climate change experts, engineers and energy leaders should be involved at the highest level, and in a very real way. Engineers will be the ones expected to deliver the required outcomes, but currently they are not part of the conversation. A new organisation could deliver social, economic and technical changes on the immense scale that is needed.
We’re used to quick technological changes driven by entrepreneurs – look at the rapid evolution of new smartphone generations – but what about long, slow changes? Well, we now have the collective will to do something but it requires a radical change in scale and pace.
Two essential words: ‘scale’ and ‘pace’.
The only actor with sufficient breadth of influence to deliver both is the Federal Government. Firstly, the Government can manage the enormous scale of investment required. Secondly, the Government has the cut-through required to change regulations and allow faster planning and permission processes. Time is of the essence.
The COVID pandemic has revealed the capacity of this country to fund essential projects for the common good. In other words, we can find the money when we need it. The COVID virus will eventually reach an equilibrium in global societies, but climate change grows worse by the day.