Australia’s long-awaited commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will allow us to focus our collective thinking on how we get there. Last year the debate was moving from whether to decarbonise to how to do it; that journey is officially complete.
It is widely accepted that we will need to deploy renewable energy at a huge scale to reach net zero – yet renewables make up just 25 per cent of supply to the National Electricity Market. The hardest yards of decarbonising power lie ahead, and we have barely begun on oil and gas.
The policy debate has been dominated by sceptics who recycle flawed arguments against acting, and optimists who assert that the transition will be all gain and no pain and can be done quickly. The implementation debate should occupy the middle ground – recognising that we must act, but that the change will bring serious challenges as well as large opportunities.
So a net zero transition will take detailed planning and careful implementation, including assistance to workers, communities and businesses that face difficult adjustments. They will look to governments for help because this transformation is driven by policy, and because a long-term partnership of governments, business and communities will be crucial. There will be no partnership if the disadvantaged are not helped.
The amount of clean energy we will need to make to achieve decarbonisation is often underestimated. Projections of Australian energy demand often neglect major energy uses (particularly aviation) and make illogical assumptions that we can rely on clean imports or offsets to achieve a significant share of our targets.
If we want to meet our domestic needs with renewables alone, we will need to produce roughly five times more electricity than we make now with coal and gas, which is about 20 times the renewable power we make now. And for resource-poor economies to decarbonise, they will need us to make even more energy, in the form of clean hydrogen from renewables, and from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.
To add to the challenge, we’ll have to rapidly accelerate the construction of this new capacity through the 2020s to have a realistic chance of achieving net zero by 2050. Our energy supplies need to be secured against the intrinsic variability of a growing renewable share. A major change in land use will need to be managed because renewables require far more area to produce the same energy as fossil-fuelled power. And many more high-voltage powerlines will need to be accepted by regional communities, to serve increased demand and share power across regions with different wind and solar patterns.
Australia is well endowed with land relative to our population, but its potential to produce and transport energy economically is limited by several factors. The wind or sunshine levels have to be high enough, the owners of the land have to agree to make the land available (or risk being compelled to), and the power has to be made close enough to where it will be used.
There is a nationwide majority in support of renewables. A recent Lowy Institute Poll found 55 per cent of Australians agreed with the proposition that “reducing carbon emissions” should be the Federal Government’s main energy goal. But general community support may not translate to acceptance of specific projects.
There are many lands whose current custodians may seek to prevent energy production, whether to protect native title, conservation zones, mineral rights or agricultural uses, even if they support decarbonisation in principle. So energy developers and our governments will need to prioritise gaining and maintaining a social licence.
Global experience shows that social licence constraints have grown with higher renewable shares. The UK has introduced more restrictive onshore wind planning requirements and allocated large subsidies to offshore wind. And fossil fuel projects utilising carbon capture and storage, while less land-intensive, also attract controversy.
Community concerns are already emerging in Australia. A wind energy and transmission project proposed for Tasmania’s west coast has been described as an “apocalypse” by former Greens leader Bob Brown. Nationwide, the future impact on the scale and rate of investment is difficult to forecast.
So what can we do about it? The answer lies in better planning and fair sharing of benefits. This starts with earlier and more open engagement with landowners and communities, and proper compensation for hosting new infrastructure. It will also require early mobilisation of energy sources that are less prone to community opposition, such as offshore wind. And workers affected by declining fossil fuel production deserve help to plan and reskill for the future. Better public explanations of the need for and safety of new low-emission fossil fuel uses will also be needed.
Other social licence challenges will come from widespread but unmanaged expectations that households will progressively change their appliances, vehicles and behaviours to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, electrifying a gas-heated house will be an expensive and disruptive undertaking.
Nous Group’s decarbonisation work shows that proponents of energy projects and policies need to put a high priority on building their social licence from the outset. The extreme polarisation that has affected community and political debate for most of this century will make that hard; a more collaborative and honest discourse will be needed.
For Australia to reach net zero, we will need a step change in building new infrastructure. This will produce local tensions that will must be handled with engagement, empathy and pragmatism.
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A version of this article first appeared on Ecogeneration on 9 November 2021.