Australia has nothing to fear from deep global carbon cuts

Moving to a low-carbon economy could attract emissions-intensive industries to Australia to use renewable power. mikeledray/Shutterstock

There is an instinctive fear that overhauling the parts of our economies that emit greenhouse gases would spell economic doom and gloom.

But the reality is much brighter. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported, strong climate action would shave less than 0.1 percentage points a year off the world’s annual economic growth.

What would need to change for that to happen? What would very low-carbon lives be like, and where would our future prosperity come from? And how can we manage the transition from sunset to sunrise industries?

Estimated global costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 2050 (click to enlarge). IPCC, 2014, CC BY

Those are some of the questions that we and other researchers are working on right now. Thirteen of the world’s largest economies – Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and the United States – collectively account for more than 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

As part of the Deep Decarbonisation Pathway Project, experts are working out what we need to do to put each of these economies on a path to deep carbon cuts by 2050.

Led by eminent US economist Jeffrey Sachs – who is visiting Australia this week to discuss development and low-carbon growth – all of our results will be presented to a special United Nations summit on climate change this September.

Some countries have made good progress already while others have further to go. Each will have a different roadmap to a low-carbon future, depending on national circumstances and opportunities.

But there is a common story across all these countries: it will be possible to take the carbon out of the economy, even while the economy keeps growing strongly. What we need to do is get the transition started soon, and to do it in the right way.

The road ahead for Australia

Since the global financial crisis, carbon emissions have declined slightly in most developed countries, including Australia. But slight declines in high-emitting rich countries are not nearly enough to limit global warming to a manageable level. Global emissions need to fall by more than half between now and 2050, implying even greater cuts in developed countries - all while we keep improving material living standards.

The good news is that in Australia we have every opportunity to make a drastic turnaround of our carbon emissions while maintaining the nation’s prosperity.

It might sound like a daunting task: we need to fuel our industry, transport and buildings with energy that does not emit carbon, and make use of our land for sustainable agriculture and carbon forestry.

But just consider how much has already changed just in the past few decades, which have seen remarkable technological, social and economic changes.

For instance, 35 years ago, mobile phones were much less well developed than the electric car is now. When change gets underway, it can get strong momentum.

Between now and 2050, a large share of Australia’s industrial and energy infrastructure will be renewed anyway. The majority of commercial buildings and much of the housing stock will be built new between now and then, and practically none of the cars and trucks on the road now will be still be around in 2050.

This makes it readily possible for our industry and housing to be much more energy-efficient, for electricity to be produced almost entirely from zero-carbon sources, and for transport to shift strongly towards using electricity, gas and biofuels. Large amounts of investment would flow, and new industries would grow. Our service economy would continue to thrive.

Coal would probably have a much smaller market, as our trading partners would demand less of it and much less coal would be used by Australian power and industrial plants.

Spread over more than three decades, the transition will be readily manageable – if Australia is proactive and prepares for it.

A return of high-energy industries?

An intriguing aspect of a very low-emission future is that energy-intensive industries might in fact return to Australia, this time fuelled by renewable energy. If all countries move away from carbon-intensive fuels, then our abundant renewable energy potential could turn us into a zero-carbon energy superpower.

Australia also has great potential for carbon capture and storage, both to clean up remaining fossil fuel use in industry and to lead global technology development.

And there’s another trump card up our sleeve: Australia has tremendous potential for storing carbon in trees and soils. If managed properly, Australia could make a huge contribution in pulling carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere.

In the process, we could see a renewal of rural industries and communities, built around afforestation, the use of sustainable timber and wood products, careful land management, and the building of infrastructure for land-based carbon storage. This could be done in conjunction with improved agricultural output.

But we need to get started on doing all of that, and more. In 2050, today’s 19-year olds will be the same age as our Prime Minister is now. If they were to end up running a country that is as high in carbon emissions as Australia is today, in a world that has not made the switch to low-carbon growth, then climate change could be the biggest threat to their prosperity.