Professor Andrew Blakers. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Emissions reductions are at our fingertips

Rapid, deep and cheap emissions reductions aren’t very hard. It would be nice if the Australian Government got on board or got out of the way, Professor Andrew Blakers writes.

The Commonwealth Government’s recently revealed ‘net zero plan’ is a distraction. Sure, a commitment to net zero emissions in 2050 is nice, but at this critical stage, it’s almost irrelevant. Of far greater importance are deep emissions reductions by 2030. But this ‘plan’ made no change to Australia’s inadequate 2030 emissions reduction target.  

The first priority of a credible plan would be the elimination of coal from electricity generation. It would focus on the overwhelming dominance of solar and wind for mitigating emissions in Australia, supporting the elimination of fossil fuels. But the government’s plan doesn’t go there.  

Perhaps the purpose of the plan is to keep fossil fuel mining going for another decade by dangling the promise of magical solutions. I recall the rearguard actions from another smoking industry, tobacco.  

For the next five years, the key Commonwealth Government priority should be to bring new solar and wind power into cities. Congestion in the existing transmission system is the main constraint on rapid continued deployment of solar and wind.  

The second priority of a credible plan should be displacement of oil from land transport through electric vehicles, and gas from heating through electric furnaces and heat pumps. From 2027 onwards, the Commonwealth and state governments need to strongly discourage new sales of fuel vehicles and gas heaters, and facilitate their replacement by electric equipment powered by solar and wind. When we have achieved this, then 70 per cent of emissions will be gone at low or zero cost. 

Australia is a global pathfinder in solar and wind 

Solar and wind in Australia are riding right over the top of fossil fuel generation because of their compelling economics. Australia is installing solar and wind three to five times faster per capita than Europe, Japan, China or the USA. About 90 per cent of the world’s solar cells use the Australian-developed PERC design.  

In 2020, Australia deployed about seven gigawatts of new solar and wind power. That’s equivalent to about one million solar rooftop systems.  In the National Electricity Market, renewables, mostly solar and wind, have reached a share of 36 per cent and are tracking towards 50 per cent in 2025. Gas generation has fallen to four per cent. The Commonwealth Government’s ‘gas-led recovery’ amounts to laughing gas. 

The entry of large amounts of solar and wind into the market has reduced electricity prices. The faster we deploy solar and wind, the faster both electricity prices and emissions will continue to decline. 

My analysis has demonstrated balancing supply and demand with high levels of solar and wind is straightforward and low cost. Using strong transmission can smooth out local weather conditions and demand, while pumped hydro and batteries provide ample storage.  

Solar and wind power constitute 99 per cent of new electricity generators in Australia. Electrification of nearly everything allows cheap and clean solar and wind power to eliminate most greenhouse emissions. 

The compelling economics of solar and wind are pushing coal and gas out of electricity generation; electric vehicles are pushing oil out of land transport; and electric heat pumps and heaters are pushing gas out of heating. 

80 per cent is a piece of cake  

The first 80 per cent of emissions reductions in Australia requires no new technology. It requires neither hydrogen, nor carbon capture and storage, nor soil carbon, nor greenhouse offsets, nor nuclear power, nor a ‘gas-led recovery’, nor any other miracle solution. The only requirement is rapid decline in the use of fossil fuels using off-the-shelf technology.  

In 2020, Australian greenhouse emissions were about 500 megatonnes (Mt). Renewable electrification of land transport and heating would allow an emissions reduction of 70 per cent (350 Mt). All the required technology to achieve this reduction is already produced at vast scale and low cost. Ongoing research and development (R&D) continues to drive these costs down. 

A further 10 per cent of emissions (50 Mt) arise from fugitive methane from coal and gas mining, which will naturally phase out as coal and gas mining (mostly for export) declines.  

The last 20 per cent of emissions (100 Mt) is harder. It includes aviation, shipping, metals, chemicals and the land sector. This will require substantial research and development over the next decade. However, if we get stuck into the first 70 per cent of emissions reductions, then we buy time to solve the last 100 Mt.  

Rapid, deep and cheap emissions reductions isn’t very hard for the most part. It would be nice if the Commonwealth Government got on board.  

The next best option is for them to completely get out of the way of the states, companies and private citizens who are already doing the heavy lifting when it comes to reducing our emissions.  

Professor Andrew Blakers is based at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.