Jun 16, 2015 - 8:00am
This article first appeared in ABC's The Drum on 16 June 2015.
CEO, The Climate Institute
Last week I stood in a field of more than a million photovoltaic solar modules and felt like I was touching the future. Erected within 18 months at the Nyngan Solar Farm, this utility scale solar power plant can power more than 50,000 homes. Many more of these can and should be built.
With such a sun-drenched country and with more than a million Australian homes now with solar panels, it is little surprise that the latest Lowy poll out today shows almost half of Australians think solar will be the primary power source in a decade.
Solar's appeal is broad. Studies have shown photovoltaic (PV) panels are more likely to power up on the roofs of families in lower income suburbs than in wealthier suburbs. Solar has the allure of the future, but also of independence. Full independence from the grid and electricity bills may not be there for most just yet, but battery storage costs are beginning to plummet as much as solar costs have recently.
Wind power's appeal is broad too. Last year polling for The Climate Institute showed 64 per cent of Australians had wind in their top three energy sources. Solar was in the top three of 82 per cent (15 per cent had coal). Indeed, more than three quarters of Australians wanted governments to do more for renewable energy "like wind farms". With their enigmatic mix of a sleek industrial aesthetic and a primal connection to a natural resource that is also free, wind farms are a crossover technology that inspires many. And infuriates some.
But our energy system remains dominated by aging, inefficient and polluting coal-fired power stations, with some still using hardware from the 1950s.
Modernising our energy system towards the predictions uncovered in the Lowy poll will require a program of retirement of these plants whose sunk costs mean they can out-compete modern, cleaner technologies for a while yet. With political uncertainty about policies for solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies, investors will remain wary about financing the alternative.
The latest Lowy poll also confirmed a trend our own polling has shown of a rebound in support for action on climate change, "even if this involves significant costs". Support is back to levels not seen since 2009.
After the toxic carbon politics of the last few years it is easy to forget that in early 2009 there was bipartisan support for emissions trading that made big polluters begin to take responsibility for their emissions. Today, deep divisions remain amongst our politicians, some of whom appear so engaged in past battles they risk missing clear trends in support, not just for renewable energy, but also climate action.
Lowy's poll also demonstrated strong support for Australian climate leadership internationally. Almost two thirds of Australians said that Australia should have "significant emissions reductions so that other countries will be encouraged to do the same".
This interest and accountability is important as Federal Cabinet will very shortly be considering the scale of Australia's commitment to reduce pollution for after 2020. At an international meeting over the last fortnight the Government indicated that it was reviewing its 2020 target as well as the post 2020 target it has promised to share internationally next month.
Australia and almost 200 other nations have said they support the goal of avoiding global warming of two degrees above pre-industrial average. After some confusion, there is now clear and welcome bipartisan support for this goal.
Demonstrating that Australia is, or is capable of, doing its fair bit towards that goal will be the primary test of commitments and policies for 2020 and beyond. This is challenging for Australia as our economy is one of the most emissions intensive, per dollar of GDP, in the developed world. As the 13th largest polluter in absolute terms, Australia's pollution per person is also globally high.
The Climate Institute's guide to the forthcoming targets released last week shows just catching up with progress the US is projected to make by 2025 on these indicators would require Australian pollution reduction targets of 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. Based on a carbon budget approach with 75 per cent likelihood of avoiding two degrees warming, our estimate of Australia's fair share would require 45 per cent reductions.
These reductions are achievable, especially if we can link in with international carbon markets while modernising our energy system.
But this is no longer a question of percentages in reductions. Once considered extreme, the realisation is growing that avoiding two degrees warming requires decarbonisation of economies to zero emissions and below (with technologies stripping pollution from the atmosphere and storing it). Last week the leaders of the G7 called for decarbonisation "over the course of this century". Some in the scientific community say that for a lower risk chance of avoiding two degrees warming, net emissions from energy and industrial activities need to be zero by 2050.
The challenge for our political and business leaders is that these aspirations can't be achieved without significant improvements in government and investment policies.
Yesterday, the International Energy Agency essentially backed the vision of Australians. Avoiding two degrees warming would see a world with more renewable energy than coal fired energy by 2030. Australians are ready for the change, can our political and business leaders bring it about?
John Connor was CEO of The Climate Institute from 2007 to March 2017. Whilst qualified as a lawyer, John has spent over twenty years working in a variety of policy and advocacy roles with organisations including World Vision, Make Poverty History, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the NSW Nature Conservation Council. Since joining The Climate Institute in 2007 John has been a leading analyst and commentator on the rollercoaster that has been Australia’s domestic and international carbon policy and overseen the Institute’s additional focus on institutional investors and climate risk. John has also worked on numerous government and business advisory panels.