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Australia to hit 2012 Kyoto target, but don’t get excited

The recent announcement that Australia is on track to meet its Kyoto Protocol target for greenhouse gas emissions is an indication of satisfactory performance, not an exemplary outcome. The target is 108…

Australia is trying to decarbonise by 2050. The technology is there, but we need an economic revolution. Owen James

The recent announcement that Australia is on track to meet its Kyoto Protocol target for greenhouse gas emissions is an indication of satisfactory performance, not an exemplary outcome. The target is 108% of 1990 emissions over 2008-2012; that is, an actual increase in emissions.

2012 target is sorted, but now we need an economic revolution

Indeed Australia was particularly astute in international negotiations to obtain this target, based on the argument that our economy was highly dependent on coal. It still is. So the Kyoto target, which is a bit of a “straw man”, is almost certainly going to be achieved. No big deal.

What is far more important is the future. The long-term target (2050) is a de-carbonisation of the Australian economy. This requires a new industrial revolution; a revolution in the way the economy actually operates.

It is instructive to look at the electricity generating sector. It is where the major greenhouse gas polluters are. Australia is massively dependent on coal-fired generation (more than 76% of electricity is generated this way - see Table 1). By 2050 we will need to have moved to some form of clean energy generation. What technologies are on the horizon?

Which renewable technologies are ready to step up?

In terms of cost, the best non-polluting technology is wind power. Much higher-cost technologies include solar.

As you examine costs, the important issue to bear in mind is that there are low costs per unit of electricity in currently existing plant. This means that until such plant physically deteriorates (possibly in decades), it will take a large cost incentive or restrictive government policy to get generators to move out of electricity generation using coal.

If you compare wind with coal in the generation of new capacity, then wind is becoming comparable with coal on costs. Wind does have the advantage that it is a zero-emitting technology.

Some question marks have been raised about the ability of wind power to meet base load. The argument runs that it is easy to store a stack of coal for base load in coal-fired generation, but how do you store wind?

However, the Australian continent is large, and we need to take advantage of this. There will be usable wind somewhere at all times. The problem in tapping this capacity is the problem of the lack of connectivity in the electricity grid. If this was overcome, then perhaps 25% of base load could come from wind (which would allow a much higher proportion of overall generating capacity).

A major disadvantage with wind power is that we are starting from a low base in terms of the proportion of capacity that it generates. It will take a number of years to move from the current less-than-2% of generating capacity to the levels required to make wind a major component.

Building a system that supports lower emissions

This raises the question of whether the proposed “carbon tax” pricing regime in Australia - $23/t CO₂ equivalent - will provide the incentive. The estimates that have been made suggest that this will be unlikely, by itself, to bring about the radical changes that are required. Eventually, stronger policy will almost certainly be required, probably in the form of regulation, as an extension to the current requirements that electricity retailers and generators employ a larger proportion of non-polluting technology. Unfortunately, the natural progression from a concern about greenhouse gas emission is to move to a discussion, like the above, about changing the technology that produced the emissions. What has been left out is the demand side of the equation.

Much could be said about this. Suffice it to say here that most households and many businesses could cut their electricity consumption significantly, without any loss in their level of satisfaction (for households) or output (for businesses). Technologies like smart metering, and peak-load pricing can assist us with this. But of course the suppliers of electricity have little interest in such reductions in consumption.

This type of discussion can raise concerns that the implied costs to us all are catastrophic. The media will likely paint things that way. In fact, all the economic analysis done to date suggests that the costs will be small as long as we start the de-carbonisation now. Treasury projections suggest that by 2050 our average income will have risen from about $60,000 to $90,000 (both in dollar values of today) if the world achieves de-carbonisation. Who knows what it might be if we don’t.

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21 Comments sorted by

  1. Ron Chinchen

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    The difficulty in taking us away from cheap carbon based energies is that firstly the average Australian seems to live in the here and now and doesnt consider the long term consequences of continuing to use such sources. Their resisitence to policies aimed at seeking to reduce CO2 levels such as carbon taxing is evidence of most Australian's failure to appreciate the problems that are developping. This is not to say carbon taxing is the best or only solution but no one has come up with a viable alternative…

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    1. Kevin Parton

      Agricultural Economist at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Ron - Many thanks for your comments. Just one additional remark on the issue of the message on climate change policy transmitted by the government. My own research indicates that there are distinct segments of the Australian population with respect to this issue, and that a well targeted media campaign needs to focus different styles of message for each of the segments.
      KAP

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  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    This article seems to be a repeat of one presented a few weeks ago. The 2020 emissions target is usually framed as 5% below year 2000 levels. That's 95% of ~500 Mt CO2e or 475 Mt. Net emissions were 540 Mt in 2010 and 546 Mt in 2011 so we have 8 years to cut another 13% given we are now marching on the spot. That cut seems more likely to come from recession than efficiency gains.

    The problem with 25% windpower is the need for the rest of the generation system to be flexible enough to accommodate…

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    1. Kevin Parton

      Agricultural Economist at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to John Newlands

      John - Many thanks for your comment. Your first point is a key message. It will be more difficult to cut future emissions. I suspect that the government eventually will be forced into a stronger form of regulation policy to achieve this target.
      On the second issue, at first examination, it does seem that some alternative source of base load power will be required to support an increasing proportion of electricity from wind. However, the South Australian situation has provided some positive surprises for wind generation. With close to 20% generated from wind, the impact on required base load has been negligible.
      KAP

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  3. Michael Brown

    Professional, academic, company director

    This article would be more useful with some actual cost data, preferably audited. I don't see any solar panels or wind turbines on commercial premises, suggesting the bean counters are not yet convinced. Let's have a contirbution from the Commerce faculties, Editor - they're very under-represented on the Conversation.

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  4. Roger Crook

    Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

    Considering for many years now, Germany has been seen as the 'green' messiah of the world. Perhaps the Mr Parton would care to put into his search engine 'new coal fired power stations in Germany' and comment.

    I also understand the UK, this past winter used more coal than it has for many a year.

    I fail to understand, considering what is going on the rest of the world, not to mention China, why we waste time on discussing 'little' Australia.

    There are far more important uniquely Australian environmental and agricultural/food security matters we should be discussing.

    My status and lack of the necessary academic qualifications prevents me from raising them in this 'Conversation'.

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  5. Michael Mazengarb

    Masters Student (Climate Change)

    Firstly, how do you manage to publish a table with a spelling mistake? When when its underlined to point it out to you?

    Australia's ability to meet the Kyoto target has little to do with our "reliance on coal". Sure, that was the excuse we used to ensure we have a target of 108%, but the fact is, we have have seen a true growth in emissions of about 30% over the last 20 years.

    We are meeting our Kyoto target due to the way Land-use Land-use Change and Forestry is being accounted for a.k.a. the "Kyoto Australia Clause". Australia was given a 25% head start in our Kyoto targets by allowing use to include LULUCF in the way that our 1990 emissions were calculated. LULUCF emissions have been no were near 1990 levels ever since...

    Heck, even the UNFCCC knows we're fudging our targets...

    Source:
    http://unfccc.int/ghg_data/ghg_data_unfccc/time_series_annex_i/items/3842.php

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Michael Mazengarb

      Sorry, that was an appalling piece of editing by me. I have now reinserted the table minus typo. Thanks for picking it up.

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    2. Kevin Parton

      Agricultural Economist at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Michael Mazengarb

      Michael - Many thanks for your comment. You are correct in pointing out that the achievement of the target has much to do with land use changes. More importantly, such fudging of this past target makes more difficult the achievement of future targets that have actual reductions in emissions.
      KAP

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  6. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    "The target is 108% of 1990 emissions over 2008-2012; that is, an actual increase in emissions."

    Is that a target per capita emissions or gross emissions?
    I was looking at some figures for 2000,2001 and today and - assuming we are comparing apples and apples - the most noticeable is agriculture from 98-105 metric tonnes in 2000 and 2001, down to 78.9- 78.1 in 2010, 2011.

    What might be driving that reduction?

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    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Sorry, Million tonnes, not metric tonnes. Mt CO2 -e (I assume is million tonnes CO2 emissions)

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    2. Kevin Parton

      Agricultural Economist at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Sean - Many thanks for your comment. The target is total emissions.

      Also, with respect to the decline in agricultural emissions, the most recent Australian National Greenhouse Accounts (2012, p.10) has "Since 1990, agriculture emissions have declined by approximately 9.7%, to 78.1 Mt CO2-e in the year to December 2011, compared to 86.5 Mt CO2-e in the 1990 base year (year to June). The largest contributor to this decrease is the 18.8% reduction in emissions from enteric fermentation." http://www.climatechange.gov.au/~/media/climate-change/emissions/2011-12/NationalGreenhouseGasInventory-QuarterlyReport-December2011.pdf
      KAP

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  7. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Our abysmal emissions performance is arguably worse than we think even allowing for the land use fudge. Some climate scientists have said by 2020 we should aim for 25-40% reductions not 5%. Conceivably that means we should get to 300 Mt from last year's 546 Mt.

    Using BREE statistics and engineering toolbox data I estimate that annual emissions from exported black thermal coal, coking coal and LNG adds to about 780 Mt. Our federal energy minister thinks we should also export pelletised brown coal. We know most of that fossil fuel is going to countries without carbon constraints, otherwise the amounts would be going down not up. Australia is thereby worsening the global emissions problem, in legal terms aiding-and-abetting.

    Thus while our domestic efforts are pathetic our carbon exports are breathtakingly hypocritical. A year or so into the carbon tax some beleaguered industries will ask why they are penalised for carbon while foreign companies aren't.

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  8. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

    Always odd and worrying that nuclear power is left out of the energy debate in Australia!

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    1. Roger Crook

      Retired agribusiness manager & farmer

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Well Marc, I got a minus 2 for daring to mention the rest of the world and coal powered generation. Goodness knows what you will get. Australia will lose 17m ha to salinity by 2050. Wonder what that will do to carbon sequestration. But then we don't talk about that, do we?

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    2. Ron Chinchen

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Maybe if it was fusion based power beause that's likely to be generally clean and fairly safe. Fission power has too many complications as the Russians, Americans and Japanese have discovered. Unfortunately fusion power, apparently primarily based on deuterium from sea water (or from Jupiter if we want a lot of it) is apparently years from development and there is no assurance we'll ever discover a means of producing it, without having to use more power to create the reaction than the power return from that reaction.

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    3. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Roger Crook

      focus on just one aspect of the environment certainly is short sighted!

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