Finally there is real movement on Australia’s climate policy but time isn’t on our side | Anna Skarbek

Finally there is real movement on Australia’s climate policy but time isn’t on our side | Anna Skarbek

“It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.”

The maxim attributed to Deng Xiaoping comes to mind in relation to the federal government’s technology investment roadmap discussion paper and its response to the King review.

If we look beyond the headlines, both interventions provide some reason for optimism.

As Frank Jotzo notes, the discussion paper acknowledges that Australia’s future lies with low-carbon energy, industry and transport. That’s a step forward – and it should be acknowledged as such.

Some have complained that, by surveying 140 technologies, the paper takes too broad a view.

Actually, the acknowledgement of a wide array of technologies for carbon abatement methods constitutes positive progress given Australia’s climate policy history.

In a report entitled Decarbonisation Futures, ClimateWorks modelled multiple pathways by which Australia might reach net zero emission by the year 2050, in accordance with the Paris climate agreement goal.

Those models show that decarbonisation won’t be the result of a single technology, but rather that different solutions (from renewable power to sustainable transport to new forms of energy efficiency) will play important roles in particular economic sectors.

Fortunately, the priority technologies identified in Decarbonisation Futures all feature in the roadmap discussion paper.

Much commentary has focused on the government allowing the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to support loans for carbon capture and storage.

In the past, that technology was associated with proposals to extend the life of coal-fired power stations. With renewables becoming far cheaper, far more quickly than expected, we now know that CCS is not competitive in the electricity supply.

But that doesn’t mean that it can’t play a role elsewhere.

The Decarbonisation Future modelling identifies CCS as necessary, not in power generation, but in harder-to-abate sectors like heavy industry, where it can help capture non-energy emissions such as fugitive methane from gas extraction and process emissions from cement. That’s a position accepted by both the International Energy Agency and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

If speed weren’t a factor, we could probably rely on the market to incentivise the uptake of green technology at its own pace. Battery costs per kilowatt hour are now 80% less expensive than in 2010; new renewables generate power more cheaply than fossil fuels, and this year the US will probably produce more electricity from renewable power than from coal for the first time.

But time isn’t on our side. We have entered a crucial decade in the race against climate change, with the UN and scientists declaring that emissions must halve in the next 10 years, and halve again in the 10 after.

That’s why the actions arising from the roadmap need to accelerate the deployment of abatement technologies, stimulating the market so widespread deployment occurs, which both brings down emissions and brings down cost.

In an interview with the ABC’s AM program, Angus Taylor, the energy and emissions reduction minister, explained that the government would “love to achieve net zero by 2050”, before adding that the target will “depend on the pathways of technologies to deliver … without damaging the economy”.

In fact, it’s precisely by setting targets that we can ensure decarbonisation and robust economic growth go hand in hand.

Research by ClimateWorks shows that incentives to use technologies matter as much as initial investment in their development, with deployment spurring improvements in price and performance.

Those incentives can take many different policy forms. Investments of the kind discussed in the government’s technology roadmap paper can foster development and commercialisation of zero-emissions emerging solutions like renewable hydrogen and green steel for harder-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry, agriculture and land.

At the same time, commitments in government procurement might, for instance, scale up the deployment of emerging technologies, as might the establishment of industry standards in particular sectors.

By setting targets immediately, decision makers (in business as well as in government), can support technology development, demonstration and deployment, and capitalise on opportunities for investment.

Innes Willox of the Ai Group is right when he says, in his responses to the King review and to the technology investment roadmap, that we still need “a clear long-term vision and strategy”.

Yet behind the government’s careful rhetoric, we can see the first substantive movement on climate policy for some time.

The recommendations accepted by Taylor aim, for instance, to give industry greater incentive to embrace new climate solutions as they emerge, something demonstrably necessary for decarbonisation to proceed on track. Willox cautions – correctly, I believe – that the government must back its vision with “adequate funding”. But if that funding materialises, along with clear signals of longer term demand for the technologies, it could spur the kind of response that rapidly drives down costs of emissions-saving technology.

In that respect, both the response to the King review and the new technology investment roadmap discussion paper provide a better basis for accelerating action than Australia has had for some years.

With the climate clock ticking, now the focus must be on the accelerant that is applied to these foundations. We can’t afford to debate the colour of the climate cat.

It’s way past time to catch some mice.

o Anna Skarbek is the chief executive of ClimateWorks Australia, an independent not-for-profit organisation working within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute

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