Australia can stop greenhouse gas emissions by 2050: here’s how

To get to zero emissions, we’ll have to reform our energy sector away from fossil fuels. ccdoh1/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

To avoid dangerous climate change there is a finite amount of greenhouse gas emissions, in particular CO2, that we can add to the atmosphere – our global carbon budget. If we use our budget wisely, we have until about 2050 to transition to zero net emissions. But how do we get there?

For Australia to play its role, we’ll also need to get to zero net emissions by 2050. In a recently launched website from ClimateWorks, we’ve created an online tool to demonstrate that there are various ways to get there. You can create your own way of getting to zero net emissions by 2050.

Internationally the world has agreed to limit warming to 2C. To keep under this limit, globally we can emit around 1,700 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (measured in CO2-equivalent) between 2000 and 2050. This would give us a 67% chance of limiting warming to 2C or less.

Just over a third of this budget was already used up between 2000 and 2012, leaving approximately 1,100 billion tonnes – this is the remaining global carbon budget.

Global emissions are currently projected to rise without further actions, putting us on a pathway to exceed this carbon budget and experience temperature rises of 4C or more.

Australia’s carbon budget

The Climate Change Authority has calculated Australia’s equitable share of the global carbon budget as 10.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent for the period 2013 to 2050. If we continue to emit at our current rate, we will exceed our carbon budget by 2028 – that’s just 13 years from now.

If we are to live within our carbon budget, we must begin to reduce emissions now. This will allow us to use our remaining budget over a longer period of time and enable a smoother transition to a low carbon Australia. If we delay, the transition will need to be faster, meaning more cost and more disruption.

The following infographic produced by ClimateWorks shows the latest science behind the carbon budget.

ClimateWorks Australia

Balancing our carbon budget

The good news is Australia can balance its carbon budget. Research by ClimateWorks and Australian National University has found that Australia can achieve zero net emissions by 2050 and live within its recommended carbon budget, using technologies that exist today, while still growing the economy.

This pathway relies on four “pillars” of action:

  • Ambitious energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport

  • Low carbon electricity, either through 100% renewables or a mix of renewables and other technologies

  • Electrification where possible of transport and energy-using equipment in buildings and industry where possible, and elsewhere switching to low carbon fuels

  • Reducing non-energy emissions through improvements in industrial processes and agricultural practices, and offsetting residual emissions through carbon forestry.

Choose your own pathway

This research is explained in our interactive 2050 Pathways website.

Australia is fortunate to have an abundance of energy and natural resources, providing us with a diversity of choice in reducing our emissions. This means that there are many ways Australia could balance its carbon budget.

The online 2050 Pathways Calculator allows users to create their own pathways to net zero emissions by 2050, staying within our carbon budget.

The levels of activity in each area of abatement can be changed from level one (business-as-usual) to level four (maximum reasonably feasible). Users can change the extent to which each emissions reduction opportunity is pursued and see the impact on demand for energy, on energy supply and on greenhouse gas emissions.

On business-as-usual, we’d blow the carbon budget by 2028. ClimateWorks

As would be expected, increasing the level of effort in some of the opportunities decreases the effort required from other areas of action to stay within the carbon budget.

For example, maximum effort in energy efficiency could enable less reliance on emerging technologies such as geothermal, wave and tidal energy production, or a slower shift away from coal.

Or, if technologies such as batteries or biofuels improved faster than expected, less effort would be required in other areas.

Increasing nuclear in the energy system could help meet the carbon budget. ClimateWorks

The calculator can help users to understand the limitations, trade-offs and inter-dependencies involved in meeting our carbon budget.

Global action

In Paris later this year, more than 190 countries including Australia will meet to confirm their commitment to reducing emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Some countries have already announced their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to emissions reductions.

The European Union has pledged a 40% reduction in domestic emissions by 2030 and the United States has announced a 25-28% reduction by 2025. China has pledged to reduce the emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% by 2030.

Many global businesses are taking the lead through co-ordinated business groupings such as RE100 and We Mean Business.

A few examples:

  • Ikea plans to use 100% renewable energy by 2020, and has 1 billion Euros to tackle climate change, including investing in 700,000 solar panels and 314 wind turbines

  • Google has established agreements to fund over $2 billion in renewable energy projects

  • 100% of Apple’s US operations are powered by renewable energy, with plans to roll this out globally

  • Mars is building a wind farm in Texas that will create enough electricity to power half of all of Mars’ US operations.

Australia’s contribution to balance its share will be reviewed internationally by our allies and trading partners.

An article recently published by the Lowy Institute argued that failure to engage constructively with international climate change negotiations could affect our ability to achieve our national interests in our relations with other countries.

The consequences of not addressing climate change will also be felt at home. Exceeding 2C warming will have serious consequences for our health, agriculture, water supply, natural landscape and lead to an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and bushfires.

Like our national budget, failing to balance our carbon budget will be felt well beyond the current fiscal cycle and would place an unreasonable burden on future generations. The good news is that this is a budget we know we can balance, if we get started now.

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