News & Blog

Here you will find news and views of the Climate & Energy College.

Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


featuring our PhD researcher Mandy Freund and colleague Benjamin Henley

Australia is a continent defined by extremes, and recent decades have seen some extraordinary climate events. But droughts, floods, heatwaves, and fires have battered Australia for millennia. Are recent extreme events really worse than those in the past?

In a recent paper, we reconstructed 800 years of seasonal rainfall patterns across the Australian continent. Our new records show that parts of Northern Australia are wetter than ever before, and that major droughts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in southern Australia are likely without precedent over the past 400 years.

Read more: Antarctic ice shows Australia's drought and flood risk is worse than thought

This new knowledge gives us a clearer understanding of how droughts and flooding rains may be changing in the context of a rapidly warming world.

A history of drought

Australia has been shaped by floods, droughts, and blistering heat. How big and how intense these events were is poorly understood due to the limited historical and observational records.

Historical records provide rough estimates of the extent and intensity of droughts in parts of Australia since the late 1700s. For example, captains’ logbooks from ships anchored off of Sydney describe the Settlement Drought (1790-1793), which threatened the tenuous foothold of early European settlers in Australia. And farmers’ records describe the Goyder Line Drought (1861–1866) that occurred in areas north of the known arable lands of South Australia.

Observational weather records provide more detailed descriptions of climatic variability. However, systematic recording of weather in Australia only began in the late 19th century. Since then many parts of the continent have experienced prolonged wet periods and droughts. The most well known of these are the Federation drought (1895-1903), the World War II drought (1939-45), and the recent Millennium drought (1997-2009).

All three droughts were devastating to agriculture and the broader economy, but each was distinct in its spatial footprint, duration, and intensity. Importantly, these droughts also differed in seasonality.

Recent and historical droughts in Australia for the different natural resource management (NRM) regions. Provided by M.Freund

For example, the Millennium drought, which was most severe in southwestern and southeastern Australia, was caused by poor rainfall during the cool season. In contrast, the Federation drought, which affected almost the entire continent, was predominantly due to rainfall declines during the warm season.

Although the historical and observational records provide a wealth of information about the frequency of wet and dry extremes, they provide only part of the picture.

Lancelot that became a ghost town following the Federation Drought. denisben/flickr, CC BY-ND

Looking back

To understand possible trends in rainfall and assess the likelihood of prolonged droughts, we need to understand the long-term climatic context. For this, we need records that are much longer than existing observational and historical records.

Our new study used an extensive network of tree rings, ice cores, corals, and sediment records from across Australia and the adjacent Indian and Pacific Oceans to extend rainfall records across all of the major regions of Australia by between 400 and 800 years. Importantly, we did this for two seasons, the cool (April–September) season and warm (October–March) season, over eight large natural resource management regions spanning the Australian continent. This allows us to place recent observations of rainfall variability into a much longer context across the entire continent for the first time.

Seasonal rainfall for the past 400 years

We found that recent shifts in rainfall variability are either unprecedented or very rare over the reconstructed period. The two most striking patterns were in tropical northern Australia, which as been unusually wet over the past century, and southern Australia, which has been unusually dry.

Our reconstructions also highlight differences between recent extreme drought events and those in earlier centuries. For example, the Millennium Drought was larger in area and longer than any other drought in southern Australia over the last 400 years.

Our reconstruction also shows that the most intense droughts described in the historical records – the Settlement Drought (1790-93), Sturt’s Drought (1809–30), and the Goyder Line Drought (1861–66) – were limited to specific regions. The Settlement Drought appears to have affected only Australia’s eastern regions, whereas the Goyder Line Drought, which occurred north of the northernmost limit of arable lands in Southern Australia, primarily impacted central Australia and the far north.

Read more: Friday essay: recovering a narrative of place - stories in the time of climate change

These historical droughts varied widely in the area they covered, highlighting at a continental scale the spatial diversity of drought. This spatial variability has also recently been demonstrated for eastern Australia.

Our multi-century rainfall reconstruction complements the recent Climate Change in Australia report on future climate. By providing a clearer window into climates of the past online, we can better see how extremes of rainfall may affect Australia in the future.

Our new study: 1.3m sea level rise in 2100 - unless coal phase out

The study by our own Alexander Nauels on sea level rise projections, featured in the Guardian.

see here:

see also Washington Post article here:

and original article here:

Sea levels to rise 1.3m unless coal power ends by 2050, report says


Photo: Nasa/IceBridge

University of Melbourne paper combines latest understanding on Antarctica and current emissions projection scenarios.

Coastal cities around the world could be devastated by 1.3m of sea level rise this century unless coal-generated electricity is virtually eliminated by 2050, according to a new paper that combines the latest understanding of Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise and the latest emissions projection scenarios.

It confirms again that significant sea level rise is inevitable and requires rapid adaptation. But, on a more positive note, the work reveals the majority of that rise – driven by newly recognised processes on Antarctica – could be avoided if the world fulfils its commitment made in Paris to keep global warming to “well below 2C”.

In 2016, Robert DeConto from the University of Massachusetts Amherst revealed that Antarctica could contribute to massive sea level rise much earlier than thought, suggesting ice sheet collapse would occur sooner and identifying a new process where huge ice cliffs would disintegrate.

But that paper only examined the impact of Antarctica on sea level rise, ignoring other contributions, and didn’t examine the details of what measures society needed to take to avoid those impacts.

The new paper by Alexander Nauels from the University of Melbourne and colleagues uses simplified physical models that allowed them to explore all known contributions to sea level rise, and pair them with the new generation of emissions scenarios which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will use in the next set of reports.

They found that if nothing is done to limit carbon pollution, then global sea levels will rise by an estimated 1.32m. That is 50% more than was previously thought, with the IPCC’s AR5 report suggesting 85cm was possible by the end of the century.

But the extra contribution from Antarctica would not kick in if warming was kept at less than 1.9C above preindustrial levels, the researchers found. Temperatures above that threshold risked triggering the additional processes in Antarctica identified in the 2016 paper, causing much greater sea level rise.

“The 1.5C limit in the Paris Agreement is a much safer bet to avoid this additional contribution than only achieving 2C,” Nauels said.

The work, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, showed that the current carbon reduction pledges which governments have made as part of the Paris Agreement by 2030 – their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – are so weak they would require very deep cuts between 2030 and 2050 to avoid triggering those extra processes in Antarctica.

Since the authors used the next generation of emissions scenarios (the “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways”), which include assumptions about socioeconomic factors that are driving emissions – such as energy demand, energy generation, population growth and GDP – they were able to examine what actions could be taken to avoid the sea level rise.

Those scenarios suggested coal could only make up 5% of the world’s energy mix by 2050 if sea level rise is to be limited to about half a metre.

Similarly, those scenarios suggested a global carbon price would have to be well over US$100 per tonne, since at that cost, sea level would rise by 65cm by 2100.

John Church, a leading sea level rise expert from the University of New South Wales who was co-convening lead author of the chapter on sea level in the third and fifth IPCC Assessment Reports, told the Guardian the work was further confirmation that the world needed to prepare now for substantial sea level rises.

“Under all scenarios we are going to have to adapt,” Church said. “We cannot stop all sea level rise.”

He said the research community was not in consensus yet about the accelerated contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise, identified in the 2016 paper and modelled in this study, but examining the implications of those findings was still important.

DeConto, the lead author of the landmark paper from 2016, said it was important to recognise the good news in his original findings and this extension of that work.

“In the aggressive mitigation pathways, where we assume that the global community gets its act together and we reduce emissions, it’s a much rosier picture. There’s a much reduced risk of dramatic sea level rise from Antarctica,” he told the Guardian. “This study fully reinforces that.”

Nauels said his team’s work assumed that Antarctica would contribute to sea level rise as was suggested by the 2016 paper by DeConto, but more work was needed to confirm those findings. “

We still have to find out what’s going on in Antarctica,” he told the Guardian. “We can’t base all future sea level rise projections on just one paper. And the Antarctic ice sheet community are frantically working on the new insights.”

New Energy Transition Hub

7 July 2017 For immediate release.

The Australian-German College is delighted to be part of (and at the centre of) a new bilateral initiative.


The University of Melbourne and The Australian National University (ANU) will lead the Australian side of a new bilateral research collaboration with top German institutions to build economic and technological opportunities from the global transition to clean energy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted the new Energy Transition Hub, expected to be worth more than $20 million at full funding stage, at the 2017 G20 meeting in Hamburg.

The Energy Transition Hub will generate collaborative and world-leading research to help the technical, economic and social transition to new energy systems and a low emissions economy. It will bring together researchers from The University of Melbourne, ANU and Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Munster University’s Centre of Applied Economic Research, and the Mercator Research Institute of Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).

Researchers from Murdoch University, RMIT, Monash University, the German Aerospace Centre DLR, DIW and the Hertie School of Governance will also be involved, with the Hub open for further partners.

It will include more than 60 Australian researchers and industry partners. The initiative will kick off with joint research on strategic scenario analysis of energy transition issues.

The international board of the Energy Transition Hub will be chaired by prominent economist Professor Ross Garnaut AC. Associate Professor Malte Meinshausen from the Australian-German Climate & Energy College at The University of Melbourne, and ANU Professor Frank Jotzo from the Crawford School of Public Policy will be co-directors.

University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis AC said the Energy Transition Hub would help support a secure, cost-efficient and sustainable energy transition to support the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

“The University of Melbourne is delighted to be a part of this unique opportunity to build long-term capacity and bilateral cooperation in the energy space,” Professor Davis said. ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt AC said ANU expertise would help the world transition to low emissions technology.

Professor Schmidt was a member of the Australia-Germany Advisory Group, which included science and research cooperation as a major theme of its recommendations to Prime Minister Turnbull and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in its 2015 report.

“The Energy Transition Hub is an example of collaboration between Australia’s leading universities, government and industry, fostering an important bilateral relationship. ANU is proud to be a leader in the kinds of research that will help build a sustainable future for our planet,” Professor Schmidt said.

The Australian side of the bilateral partnership is initially funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The University of Melbourne and ANU. Hub chairman Professor Garnaut said Australian and German scholars of energy and climate have much to learn from each other on the energy transition.

“We now have a magnificent institution through which to do the learning. The Energy Transition Hub will play a stellar role in Australia fulfilling the potential granted by our unequalled renewable energy resources: to be the energy superpower of the emerging low carbon world economy,” he said.

Professor Jotzo said that better understanding of the energy transitions in both Australia and Germany can unlock investment opportunities.

“There are many complementarities between the two countries, and similar problems to be solved in market design, policy and regulation. Through the Energy Transition Hub, Australia can tap into German expertise on energy sector reform, picking up from where the Finkel Review left off.”

Associate Professor Meinshausen said vast economic opportunities could be seized by both Australia and Germany in a zero-emissions world.

“The opportunity is to build a new growth vision for Australia that combines the mineral wealth tradition of the past, with the renewable potential of the future,” he said. “If Australia plays its cards right, the economic advantage of low cost renewable electricity can build new growth that includes energy-intensive industries. An energy transition based on tradition.”

The Hub will also provide deep engagement with all stakeholders, including fellow researchers, industry, civil society and government. More information will be available at the Energy Transition Hub website at <> from next week onwards.

For media assistance or to arrange interviews:
James Grubel, ANU Media
T:+61 2 6125 7979
M: 0481 439 181

Nerissa Hannink, University of Melbourne Media
T: +61 3 8344 8151
M: 0430 588 055

Hazelwood closure: what it means for electricity prices and blackouts

Published on the Conversation at:

Victoria’s Hazelwood power station will be shut down this week after nearly 50 years of supplying electricity.

The imminent closure has led to concerns about blackouts, raised most recently by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, and rising electricity prices.

So what does the evidence suggest?

Blackouts ahead?

Last week The Age reported that Victoria is facing “72 days of possible power supply shortfalls over the next two years”. While that sounds bad, it does not mean the state is facing imminent blackouts.

This was based on a report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which is in charge of making sure that Australia’s energy markets work.

Every week, AEMO produces something called the Medium Term Projected Assessment of System Adequacy. This report assesses the expected supply and demand of electricity for the next two years.

In a recent report, AEMO did indeed forecast a “reserve shortfall” for 72 days in Victoria in the coming two years. AEMO has actually been forecasting many days of reserve shortfall, since early November last year when Engie announced the closure of Hazelwood.

AEMO has also been forecasting an even greater number of days of reserve shortfalls in South Australia for well over a year.

The shortfall forecast is based on a combination of factors. This includes the amount of local energy supply, the import and export of electricity from other states, the maximum daily demand for electricity, and the “reserve requirement”. The reserve requirement is essentially “spare” capacity that can be used to maintain a reliable supply if something goes wrong.

If there is not enough supply to meet this requirement, there is a reserve shortfall.

Forecasting maximum demand is incredibly challenging and uncertain. AEMO does it by using probabilities. This gives us a measure of the probability of a particular demand forecast being exceeded in a year.

For example, a 10% chance would be expected to be exceeded one year in ten. A 50% chance would be expected to be exceeded one year in two.

To illustrate the point, AEMO forecast that demand over the past summer in Victoria had a 10% chance of exceeding 9,900 megawatts. In reality, the maximum demand was only 8,747MW. That’s not to say the forecast was wrong, but rather that it was not an exceptional (one year in ten) summer.

In the recent outlook, AEMO has found 72 days on which a reserve shortfall might occur. The likelihood of this happening on any one of those days is low. For a reserve shortfall to actually occur 72 times over two years is incredibly unlikely.

However, AEMO still plans for this possibility. Indeed, this is largely the point of producing these forecasts: signalling potential capacity shortfalls so the market and operator can respond.

What will happen when Hazelwood closes?

Another way of illustrating the role of Hazelwood and the effect of its closure on the broader Victorian energy system is shown below.

In this figure, I’ve plotted the 10% and 50% thresholds for exceeding maximum demand in the coming summer, and also the “load duration curve” for previous years. This curve shows that the periods of greatest demand are also the least common (the left side of the graph). The vast majority of demand is much lower, and the “base load” is about 4,000MW.

† Interconnection capacity (from other states) at times of peak demand is much less than the total theoretically possible. ‡ Firm wind is about 7.5% of total rated capacity in Victoria. Author

I’ve also included “firm capacity” (the minimum power we know we can get) with and without Hazelwood, to the right.

As can be seen, there is more than enough capacity in Victoria to meet the base load. There is even enough local firm capacity to meet the peak load and reserve requirements for the one-in-two-year maximum demand event. For the one-in-ten-year event, power needs to be imported from other states to ensure secure supply at the peaks.

AEMO reaffirmed security of supply in a media statement last week. As noted, Victoria and other states have available power generation resources that are not switched on or are operating at less than full capacity. This electricity can be made available to replace the power that Hazelwood supplies.

What about prices?

The question of what replaces Hazelwood brings us to prices. Many, including AEMO, expect to see increased generation from currently underused power plants. These include New South Wales’ black coal power plants. Last year NSW’s black coal was used at 56% of its total capacity. Bumping up these stations’ output would also reduce NSW’s reliance on Victorian exports.

Reducing the capacity of brown coal will mean logically that Victoria relies on more expensive forms of generation such as black coal or gas. This is particularly so if the availability of cheap imports is limited, and more expensive local generation such as gas is needed.

Black coal power stations generate electricity comparatively cheaply. Even so electricity prices are already so high that an increase in black coal generation may not have a dramatic impact on prices. With NSW prices averaging A$137 per megawatt hour this year, it is clear that the cost of coal is not determining electricity prices.

The Victorian wholesale market will also become a more concentrated market. As a result, there may be more opportunities for market power to be exercised. Perhaps the recently announced ACCC inquiry into power prices will put generators on their best behaviour.

Any price rise may be short-lived. The Australian Energy Market Commission, which sets the rules for the energy market, has reported that more renewable energy supply is expected to reduce wholesale electricity prices.

Hazelwood’s closure should not compromise the security of the Victorian electricity system over the next few years. This is not to say that there definitely won’t be a blackout. A one-in-50-year storm, a plant failure, a flooded mine pit, an interconnector outage – any of these events could strain the system beyond what is manageable.

At this stage, what ultimately happens to prices is anyone’s guess. Whatever the case, it is clear that Victoria has plenty of supply to meet the state’s base load. New capacity might be required to meet the maximum demand – and that new capacity could take the form of energy storage.

Severe heatwaves show the need to adapt livestock management for climate

During the recent heatwave in New South Wales, which saw record-breaking temperatures for two days in a row, 40 dairy cows died in Shoalhaven, a city just south of Sydney. ...Cattle are vulnerable to changes in rainfall patterns (variability and extremes), temperature (average and extremes), humidity, and evaporation.

Read more of this article co-authored by College students Elisabeth Vogel and Christin Meyer and College supervisor Richard Eckard in The Conversation here.

Our power grid is crying out for capacity, but should we open the gas valves?

With high gas prices partly to blame for the electricity blackouts that hit South Australia this month, and gas-fired generators caught short in New South Wales two days later, it is hardly surprising to hear calls for Australia to expand production. ...But how much extra gas do we need? And how do we square this with the equally pressing need to reduce our use of fossil fuels?

Read more of this article authored by Dylan McConnell in The Conversation here.

Paris Equity Check Website

A new interactive website shows how equitable are countries' climate pledges under the Paris Agreement mitigation goals. This website is based on a Nature Climate Change study that compares Nationally Determined Contributions with equitable national emissions trajectories in line with the five categories of equity outlined by the IPCC.

Paris Agreement goals: equitable mitigation

Benchmarks to guide countries in ratcheting-up ambition, climate finance, and support in an equitable manner are critical but not yet determined in the context of the Paris Agreement. Global cost-optimal mitigation scenarios consistent with the Paris Agreement goals have been identified and emissions dynamically allocated to countries according to five equity approaches, which can be seen here.

Read more of this article co-authored by Yann Robiou du Pont in Nature here.

Will the latest electricity review bring climate and energy policy together at last?

Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) is under review following the state-wide blackout that hit South Australia in September.

The review, led by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, will “develop a national reform blueprint to maintain energy security and reliability". Importantly, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) specifically agreed that the review would consider Australia’s commitment under the Paris climate agreement, and how climate and energy policy can be integrated.

Read more of this article by Dylan McConnell in The Conversation here.

Closure of Hazelwood Power Station

What are the implications for Australia's power supply and carbon emissions of the closure of Hazelwood Power Station? Find out from Dylan McConnell, PhD student at the Climate and Energy College, and Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director of the Melbourne Energy Institute and College supervisor, who were featured on ABC's 7.30 (3 November).


Equitably Determined Contributions to reach the Paris Agreement goals - the 1.5°C perspective

What are countries' fair shares of global mitigation to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 °C?
Yann Robiou du Pont, PhD Candidate at the Australian-German Climate and Energy College, presented at the International Conference - "1.5 Degrees: Meeting the challenges of the Paris Agreement", held at the University of Oxford in September. The full session on 'Mitigation Pathways' is available online.

Equitably Determined Contributions to reach the Paris Agreement goals - the 1.5C perspective

After Tasmania’s year of disasters, bushfire tops the state’s growing list of natural hazards

White, Trundle, McEvoy, Corney, and Remenyi


Tasmania has had a damaging year, with the island state hit by a series of bushfires and floods.

Now a comprehensive new assessment of Tasmania’s exposure to natural disasters shows that bushfire remains the number one hazard to people and property, while also highlighting a range of new threats. These include coastal flooding, pandemic influenza and – despite being Australia’s most southerly state – an increasing likelihood of heatwaves.

The 2016 Tasmanian State Natural Disaster Risk Assessment (TSNDRA) aims to provide emergency services with key information to help prepare for and reduce the impact of disasters.

Read more of this article from The Conversation here.

Habitat III: the biggest conference you’ve probably never heard of

Henderson, Trundle, Stephan, Kamalipour and Lowe


More than 25,000 delegates will meet in Quito, Ecuador, in October to set out the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda for member states. The Habitat III conference will mandate the UN’s work in cities and settlements for the next 20 years. But Australia, one of the world’s most urbanised nations, is yet to play a major role in negotiations.

If you haven’t heard of the Habitat conference series, you’re not alone. Steered by one of the UN’s smaller organisations – UN-Habitat – it is the key negotiation process within the UN for planning the development of cities and human settlements.

Read more of this article from The Conversation here.

Online Article
Anita Talberg

As special envoy on climate change to the UN Secretary-General, Mary Robinson negotiated with world leaders ahead of the successful Paris climate summit in December 2015.

Through her work on climate change Robinson is an active proponent of “climate justice”, which advocates sharing the burden of mitigating and adapting to climate change between all parts of society, and particularly between developed and developing nations.

In this article (The Conversation) Anita Talberg, PhD candidate at the Climate and Energy College summarises the key points of Mary Robinson's University of Melbourne MSSI Oration on the 15th March 2016.

ABC 24 TV Interview with Climate & Energy College Director

Global-mean surface temperatures soared February 2016. ABC24 TV interviews A/Prof. Malte Meinshausen.
The interview is in part a reaction to the Q&A discussion the day before, in which Australia's chief scientist Prof. Alan Finkel said that we are loosing the battle against climate change.

Online Article

By Kate Dooley and Doreen Stabinsky. Originally published on 10 December 2015, 2.16 AEDT.

One of the final obstacles in the way of a binding agreement at the Paris climate talks comes down to a simple number: 1.5. Limiting warming to a 1.5℃ temperature rise above pre-industrial levels is one of three potential targets on the table as negotiations approach the crucial final days. The other options are a firm limit of 2℃ and a limit of 2℃ with an aspiration to reduce to 1.5℃ in the coming years.

Releasing the latest draft text on Wednesday afternoon local time, the summit’s president Laurent Fabius listed the target as one of three outstanding major issues, alongside finance and the question of how to differentiate the responsibilities of developed and developing countries.

Many industrialised countries have surprised the world at the talks with a new-found fondness for 1.5℃. The target has long been a key demand of most poor nations, particularly small island states and least-developed countries.

Scientists consider that as 1.5℃ is breached, we will risk passing critical tipping points. In particular, sea level rise associated with that level of temperature increase poses an existential threat to low-lying island states.

Despite more than 100 developing nations being firmly in favour of a 1.5℃ limit, countries came to a political agreement in 2010 to collectively set themselves a 2℃ threshold

Kicking the carbon habit

If a temperature limit of 1.5℃ is fixed in the new Paris agreement, that raises the question of what countries will need to do to stay below that level of warming.

The UN’s top climate science body has shown that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are cumulative, with residence times in the atmosphere of thousands to tens of thousands of years. Temperature rise has a linear relationship with carbon emissions, so we can estimate the remaining amount of CO2 that can be emitted before we risk passing any temperature limit with some probability. For a 50% probability of staying below 1.5℃, there was a remaining carbon budget of 550-600 gigatonnes CO2 in 2011. At current annual global emissions of around 36 gigatonnes CO2, this budget will be used up in less than two decades.

What does staying below 1.5℃ mean in practice? Nothing less than full decarbonisation of the global economy by 2050. We must stop burning all fossil fuels before the middle of the century, along with a massive effort to keep forests standing and protect biodiversity. That is no small feat.

While some say limiting warming to less than 1.5℃, or even 2℃, is out of reach, ultimately 1.5℃ is a political signal for greater ambition, and a more serious global engagement in addressing climate change. Late in the day as this signal might be, it is important that a new international agreement does not include a temperature limit that even the UN has recognised is not a safe guardrail.

But what does this mean in real terms – if a temperature goal is agreed that requires rapid decarbonization: who must do what, and by when?

Fair shares

At the heart of the standoff in the climate talks are fundamental differences over who has more responsibility to act, and what a fair approach to drive greater ambition looks like. A broad coalition of NGOs set out to define a methodology to answer that question, taking into consideration the remaining carbon budget, historical emissions (as impacts on temperature are cumulative, historical emissions matter), and differing capacities between countries.

Their numbers show that the ambition – UNFCCC jargon for emission reduction efforts – of all developed countries falls well below their fair share of what is needed to stay within the remaining budget. Top of the list of offenders are Russia and Japan who are making little to no contribution to what would be considered their fair share of effort, while the US and the EU have pledged around a fifth of their fair share.

In this context, we start to understand why many developing countries might not want to commit to a 1.5℃ limit without clear rules on how to divide up the effort. The current emissions trajectories of developed countries will take up far more than their fair share of the remaining budget, seriously impeding the poverty alleviation and sustainable development aspirations of developing countries.

But development trajectories that exceed the global carbon budget will not work for the planet – regardless of who has done what historically, all countries are now bound by the very limited carbon budget remaining. This means that even for countries who have pledged what is basically their fair share of global action, such as China or India, they will need to do a lot more to keep the world anywhere near a 1.5℃ pathway.

For poorer countries (India ranks 135 on the Human Development Index), committing to do more than their fair share needs to be in the context of international commitment to support.

Collective goals

In the end, the 1.5℃ conversation is not the real debate. The real challenge in Paris is to agree on language for emissions reductions that is even remotely compatible with achieving whatever temperature goal is set. This is referred to as the “collective global goal”.

Options for a global goal include peaking emissions, zero emissions, or decarbonisation or climate neutrality. But without a differentiated long-term goal – one that puts increased ambition in the context of more support for developing countries – whether the goal is for peaking or zero, 2050 or 2100, all becomes meaningless.

Ultimately, the call for 1.5℃ must not become a distraction from the real challenge: agreeing a collective goal that includes both ambition and equity. Without a clear sense of who needs to take the lead, who needs support to do more than their fair share, and how this will collectively keep global emissions within a carbon budget – everyone will lose.

Online Article

By Anita Talberg. Originally published in The Conversation on November 27, 2015, 3:04pm AEDT.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has proposed an emissions reduction target of 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, based on recommendations from the government’s climate change policy advisory body, the Climate Change Authority. Shorten has also pledged zero net emissions by 2050, and ongoing reviews of the target.

In its review, the Climate Change Authority recommended that Australia adopt a target of between 40% and 60% by 2030 on 2000 levels.

Converting this to the 2005 baseline gives a target of around -44% to -63% on 2005 levels. So Labor’s target would match the very weakest within the Climate Change Authority’s range.

We plugged this target into our interactive webtool. The website allows the effectiveness of climate pledges from G20 countries to be assessed using different assumptions of what is a “fair” distribution of emissions reduction efforts.

What we found was that, first, Labor’s proposed 2030 target meets the Climate Change Authority’s recommended 2025 target of -30% below 2000 levels, as you can see in the chart below.

Second, Labor’s target may or may not be sufficient to keep the world within 2C, depending on what you consider a fair distribution of emissions between nations. Let’s unpack that a little more.

Most people agree that globally we should be striving for equal emissions per person. However, there are two broad views on how to get there:

  • Either we acknowledge historic emissions and “punish” those countries that have used a disproportionate amount in the past
  • Or we ignore past emissions and all countries strive for equal-per-capita emissions from now until some point in the future.

Under the latter option, Labor’s proposed target is sufficient to give the world a 67% chance of staying within 2C (see image below). This assumes that Australia adopts Labor’s target and all other countries match the effort of the target by using the same formula for calculating equal per-capita emissions.

However, if historic emissions are included we assume that because Australia has one of the highest per-capita emissions in the world it has a responsibility to reduce its emissions more rapidly and severely. Using this approach, Labor’s target does not do enough (see image below).

Here, again, we are assuming that Australia adopts Labor’s target and all other countries follow suit in a way that takes into account historic emissions and aims for equal, cumulative per-capita emissions. There is of course no guarantee that this will happen.

Essentially, Labor’s proposal improves on Australia’s current target of 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030 and this is one step in the right direction. However, to be considered a good global citizen by factoring in past emissions as well as future emissions, Australia would need to commit to the tighter end of the Climate Change Authority’s target and do even more.

In fact, a target of -64% on 2005 levels by 2030 is what would be needed.

For more information on how to understand and use the mitigation-contributions website see this Briefing Note.

Ocean acidification: the forgotten piece of the carbon puzzle

Originally published on The Conversation, November 10, 2015 6.20am AEDT

Ocean acidification – the rise in ocean acidity due to the increased absorption of carbon dioxide (CO₂) – is often thought of as consequence of climate change. However, it is actually a separate, albeit very closely-related problem.

Ocean acidification is often referred to as “the other CO₂ problem” because, like climate change, it is primarily a result of the increased emissions of this gas. Despite their common driver, though, the processes and impacts of ocean acidification and climate change are distinct. It should not be assumed that policies intended to deal with the climate will simultaneously benefit the oceans.

The current emphasis of global climate policies on a warming target is a case in point.

A narrow focus on temperature stabilisation, for example, opens the door for policy interventions that prioritise the reduction of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. This is because non-CO₂ greenhouse gases — like methane and nitrous oxide, which can arise from agricultural and industrial processes — typically have a higher global warming potential and might even be less costly than CO₂ to reduce.

In addition, several geoengineering schemes have been proposed to reduce the impacts of a warming climate. Yet such schemes often do nothing to address emissions, and may even exacerbate carbon absorption in the oceans.

Reducing CO₂ — the only long-term solution

The most important step in addressing both climate change and ocean acidification, and ultimately the only way to avoid the most serious impacts of both, is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Long-term policy targets designed to guide emission reductions to a level that would avoid unacceptable consequences should consider both ocean acidification and climate change. Interestingly, it is in doing this that we see the solutions to these two global issues converge.

Countries have largely agreed that there is a desire to limit global temperature increases to no more than 2℃ above pre-industrial temperatures. This is a desire that requires us to drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report found that for a 66% chance of remaining below 2℃ we can emit less than 1,010 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, or about one-third of our carbon budget.

In fact, such a target is in line with the most ambitious atmospheric carbon concentration scenario (called RCP2.6) used by the IPCC to model climate impacts.

A recent study in the journal Science conducted by J.P. Gattuso and colleagues modelled this same IPCC scenario and found that exceeding it would have wide-ranging consequences for marine life, marine ecosystems, and the goods and services they supply to humanity. However, as with climate change, many of the worst impacts of rising acidity could be avoided by following or remaining below this trajectory.

The most critical feature of this scenario with regards to ocean acidification is a reduction of carbon dioxide to net zero emissions by no later than 2070.

But, as Gattuso’s team importantly note, even achieving zero emissions within this timeframe would not prevent substantial ocean acidification. Coral reefs and shellfish populations will remain especially vulnerable.

This is true for climate change impacts as well. And it is the reason that many, particularly those living in developing and low-lying island states, wish to see the long-term goal for global temperature rise reduced to 1.5℃.

In effect, this means that reducing net carbon dioxide emissions to zero must happen even sooner than 2070. Ocean acidification, therefore, provides the impetus for additional urgency in agreeing to stringent timeframes for reducing CO₂ emissions.

Net zero emissions on the table at Paris?

We are fast approaching the next round of climate talks on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. If we are to see any meaningful global climate pact emerge, ocean acidification must sit firmly alongside climate change on the negotiation table.

Given the double threat that ocean acidification and climate change poses to some of the most vital goods and services underpinning human welfare, including food security, economic development, and the viability of ecosystems, it is crucial that world leaders set sharp emission reductions square in their sights.

Promisingly, up for negotiation in Paris is language that could see parties agreeing to net zero emissions. This would indeed be a very welcome, and ultimately necessary, development.

Radio interview: Greg Hunt is focussing on 1.9% of Australian emissions

The College is featured in an interview with The Wire.


Greg Hunt is focusing on 1.9% of total emissions

Monday, 9 November 2015

Produced by Francine Crimmins

Listen to the audio here.

The United Nations Climate Summit in Paris is less than 20 days away. So, how is Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt preparing to fulfill his promise of cutting Australia's emissions by up to 28%? Over the weekend he announced his commitment to cutting down hydrofluorocarbons. But controversially, this is only dealing with 1.9% of Australia's emission problems. Image from United Nations Photo on Flickr titled 'Only one earth -The Environment'

Featured in story

  • Malte Meinshausen, Associate Professor at University of Melbourne
  • Professor John Quiggin, University of Queensland Related

FactCheck: does coal-fired power cost $79/kWh and wind power $1502/kWh?

Originally published in The Conversation on 23 July, 2015, 1.37pm AEST

By Dylan McConnell and Alan Pears (RMIT University)

Broadcaster Alan Jones said on Q&A that the cost of wind power far outstrips the cost of coal power. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

80% of Australian energy comes from coal, coal-fired power, and it’s about $79 a kilowatt hour. Wind power is about $1502 a kilowatt hour. That is unaffordable. If you take that power and feed it into the grid, then every person watching this program has electricity bills going through the roof. – Broadcaster Alan Jones, panel discussionon Q&A, ABC TV, July 20, 2015

Alan Jones has told The Conversation by email he acknowledges this comment was made in error and is not correct, saying:

I think you have rightly highlighted a ridiculous mistake that I made… why I said kilowatt-hours and not megawatt-hours and where the 1502 comes from, I have absolutely no idea. What I can tell you is that I’ve used figures for some time now on this issue to merely confirm that renewable energy is many multiples dearer than coal-fired power[…] I previously used that $79 figure but as you can imagine, it’s based on the price of coal. Wind has always been, in my words, three or four times dearer than that.

[…] But if I’ve said that, that is wrong, and I’ll be writing to the ABC to that effect. I have no comment to make other than to thank you for pointing this out to me. I guess we all make mistakes and I’m always happy to correct them when I’m told about them.

Electrical energy is usually measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh) or megawatt-hours (MWh). Kilowatt-hours are the unit generally used for metering and charging residential electricity consumption, and represents the amount of energy a device drawing one kilowatt of power would use in an hour. A megawatt-hour is 1000 times larger, and is typically used to measure large loads or generators. The price quoted (A$79/kWh) is about 300 times more expensive than the typical retail price of electricity paid by residential customers around Australia (and about 2000 times more than current wholesale prices).

Mr Jones' error in saying kilowatt-hours instead of megawatt-hours is an easy mistake to make.

A$79 per megawatt-hour is consistent with the range of costs reported by the Electric Power Research Institute for new coal-fired electricity in 2010, without carbon capture and storage or a price on emissions.

However, even with the right units, the figure of $1502 for wind power did not make sense. Mr Jones was not able to say from what source he got that figure of $1502 for wind power. So I decided to investigate.

The claim that coal-fired power energy costs $79 a kilowatt-hour and wind power costs $1502 a kilowatt-hour pops up a few times on websites of groups opposing the renewable energy target, climate sceptics, and even in Hansard. Mostly, this claim is referenced to an unnamed Productivity Commission report released in 2010.

The source of the $1502 figure on sceptic sites may be a now-corrected Paul Sheehan opinion piece published by Fairfax in 2011. The correction there reads:

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misquoted energy figures. The Productivity Commission said the cost of electricity generated by wind was $150 to $214 per megawatt-hour, not $1502; and solar was $400 to $473 per MWh, not $4004.

So what did the Productivity Commission actually say?

The 2011 Productivity Commission report that the Fairfax correction appears to refer to was titled “Carbon Emission Policies in Key Economies”.

Box 4.1 of that report, titled “The costs of electricity sources” is about the “levelised cost of electricity” (LCOE), a widely-used measure of the cost of electricity generation technologies energy that includes all lifetime costs and factors in the lower utilisation rates of wind power. Box 4.1 says:

The Electric Power Research Institute (2010) reported estimates of the LCOE of various sources of electricity in Australia, including:

  • coal-fired electricity (without carbon capture and storage) — A$78–91/MWh

  • combined-cycle gas turbines (without carbon capture and storage) — A$97/MWh

  • wind — A$150–214/MWh

  • medium-sized (five megawatt) solar PV systems — A$400–473/MWh.

Without being certain, my best guess is that some of the groups or websites using the figures of $79 per kilowatt-hour for coal-powered energy and $1502 per kilowatt-hour for wind powered energy may have based their figures on the now-corrected Paul Sheehan opinion piece.

There is no credible economic analysis that reports wind power costs at A$1502 a megawatt-hour.

As he has readily acknowledged, Alan Jones' figures on the cost of wind energy are not correct.

Are those Productivity Commission figures up to date?

The Commission’s report said that in 2010, the Electric Power Research Institute estimated that the levelised cost of coal-fired electricity (without carbon capture and storage) was between A$78 and $91/MWh. For wind, the figure was between A$150 and $214/MWh. At the time the Commision’s report was released (May 2011), these figures were already higher than other reported costs for renewable energy technology.

More recent costs for new coal plants have been estimated by the former Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics in their Australian Energy Technology Assessment.

This report provides a measure of the cost of a large range of generation technologies, now (or rather, in 2012 when the most recent report was published) and into the future. Using data from Table 5.2.1 of that report, the table below shows the “levelised” cost of energy for some coal and wind technologies.

Levelised Cost of Energy, NSW in 2012 BREE

The chart above, from the Australian Energy Technology Assessment 2013 Model Update(Figure 8) also shows more current levelised costs of energy.

Does 80% of Australia’s energy comes from coal-fired power?

Nearly, but not quite. More than two-thirds of electricity is produced from coal, 19% from gas, and 10% from renewables with the balance from liquid fuels such as diesel, according to the government’s Australian Energy Resource Assessment.

In the National Electricity Market, supplying the eastern seaboard, brown and black coal supplied 76% of output last financial year, and 74% the year before that.

Does feeding renewable energy into the grid drive electricity prices through the roof?

Modelling done by ACIL Allen Consulting as part of the government’s report of the expert panel on the Renewable Energy Target shows that renewable energy generation can represent a net saving to consumers:

The ACIL Allen modelling estimates that repealing the RET would initially result in lower retail electricity prices, however from around 2021 retail prices would be on average 3.1% higher for residential, commercial and industrial customers.

Impact of the Renewable Energy Target on retail electricity costs ACIL Allen (prepared for the DPMC RET review, 2015)


As he has readily acknowledged, Alan Jones' statement on Q&A on the cost of wind and coal powered energy are not correct.

His claim that renewable energy is having a large impact on residential electricity bills also runs counter to modelling commissioned by the government.


This is a thorough FactCheck article. Mr Jones’ cost estimate for coal (assuming it is per megawatt-hour, not per kilowatt-hour) is confirmed by the fact checker. This applies to new coal plant, not existing units.

With regard to the percentage of Australian electricity generated from coal, the FactCheck author is correct. Some people quote higher coal percentages. First, it used to be higher. Second, some people confuse the percentages of input fuel used to generate electricity (historically easier to identify from public data) with the share of electricity actually generated. Since coal plant is less efficient than some other options such as hydroelectricity, this approach makes its share look bigger.

In terms of impacts on future electricity prices, all estimates are based on assumptions. For example, if more old coal generation capacity is retired than some models have assumed, baseline electricity prices could be higher because new generation options of all kinds are typically more expensive than old existing power stations.

Further, the costs of renewable electricity generation are falling, as discussed above. For example, a 2014 Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics study shows 2013 estimates for wind energy cost of A$63 to A$107 per levelised Megawatt-hour of electricity – 6.3 to 10.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, lower than earlier estimates (Figure 19, p.67). – Alan Pears

Have you ever seen a “fact” that doesn’t look quite right? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article.

You can request a check at Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

How much does wind energy cost? Debunking the myths

Tue 23 Jun 2015 - 3:45pm

Orginally published in The Conversation on 23 June, 2015, 3:44pm AEST

By Dylan McConnell

Wind energy will not cost Australians billions of dollars. David Clarke/Flickr, CC BY-NC-NDAre renewables pushing up the cost of electricity? That’s the claim made by Alan Moran in an opinion piece for the Australian Financial Review this week.

Moran, executive director of Regulation Economics and a former director at the Institute of Public Affairs, argues that increasing investment in renewables and particularly wind energy will cost consumers billions of dollars. The high operating costs and requirements for backup when the wind isn’t blowing are the problem, he argues.

But the evidence actually suggests the opposite: wind energy is already competitive with fossil fuels, will reduce electricity prices for consumers, and will play a large role in reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So, let’s go through Moran’s claims one by one.

Claim: [W]indfarms […] need three times the price at which Australian coal generators can supply electricity. Australia’s coal resources are so abundant that across the eastern states that they can profitably supply electricity at a cost of $40 a MWh. Windfarms require $120 a MWh.

It is true that black coal can supply electricity to the wholesale market at A$40 per megawatt hour (MWh). However, new wind farms require much less than A$120 per MWh to be financed. Recent experience shows that new wind farms require A$80-90 per MWh.

But this is comparing apples with oranges. The coal cost refers to what is essentially the cost of fuel. The wind cost is the cost over the lifetime of the project, including capital and return on investment.

If we compare apples with apples, the long-run cost of coal is A$85-$100 per MWh (withouta carbon price), versus A$90 per MWh for wind. The short-run cost of wind is zero: flowing air costs nothing.

Claim: [B]ecause wind generated supply is intrinsically unreliable it needs back-up in the form of fast start generators […] Wind/solar generation in Australia currently has a 7% share of supply. That level requires 6 per cent in additional back-up, according to the estimates by the Australian Energy Market Operator.

This statement implies that additional capacity has had to be installed because of wind. This is demonstrably not true. The Australian Energy Market Operator has stated that there is no new capacity required in the next 10 years, despite the increase in wind and solar.

South Australia is a good example. More than 1,200 megawatts of wind power capacity has been installed, but virtually no new gas plants have been built as “backup”. In the chart below you can see that on the afternoon and evening of Sunday June 7, wind and gas met all electricity demand in South Australia.

Generation by fuel type in South Australia on Sunday the 7th of June 2015. Operations at the Northern Power Station were shut down after an explosion at around midday.

More broadly, redundant capacity is important in the entire electricity system (not just wind). All types of generation have planned and unplanned shortages.

Unplanned outages are more challenging. If a whole generator goes offline, the system must return to normal within five minutes. This is often achieved with a “fast start” generator such as a gas turbine or hydro plant. These contingency plans must equal the loss of the largest generator in the system, usually coal.

No technology is 100% reliable, as illustrated in the graph above. Wind is really quite predictable and reliable compared to coal.

Claim: Wind turbine development has been improved over the past 20 years but is now approaching its theoretical maximum efficiency. It will never be remotely price competitive with conventional generators notwithstanding wishful thinking.

As I’ve shown above, wind is already competitive with new-build coal (and gas) in Australia, and many other places around the world (including the United States). Carbon policy aside, some of the assets are seriously old and are going to be retired anyway.

A new study from UNSW Australia looked at the best energy mix for generation. Even without a carbon price, the research found that the lowest cost mix in 2050 sources only 30% of electricity from gas, with the rest supplied by renewables. About half of the gas capacity is Open Cycle Gas Turbines (for peak demand) that supply very small quantities of energy.

Claim: In aggregate terms, the annual impost on electricity consumers [of the Renewable Energy Target] is therefore from the 33,000GWh and means a cost to the customer of $3 billion a year […]

As I’ve written before on The Conversation, the government’s own modelling shows a net saving to consumers (and so does plenty of other analysis). The ACIL Allen analysis finds the target will cut power bills from 2021 onwards (by up to A$91 per year by 2030) and deliver a net saving to consumers.

Claim: Energy only comprises 25 to 30 per cent of emissions and Australia’s renewable target might therefore reduce emissions by 4 to 5 per cent.

According the Climate Change Authority’s review of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), the RET is projected to reduce Australia’s overall emissions by 58 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent.

The Government’s latest estimate of Australia’s emissions reduction task between 2015 and 2020 is 421 million tonnes. So between 2015 and 2020 alone, the RET achieves at least 13% of the reduction task.

Given the value of emissions cuts, solar subsidies are worth it

Originally published in The Conversation on 27 May, 2:30pm.

By Dylan McConnell

A new Grattan Institute report suggests solar panels in Australia might be more trouble than they are worth. Duncan Rowalinson/Flickr,CC BY-NC

Earlier this week the Grattan Institute released the report Sundown, sunrise: how Australia can finally get solar power right. It looked at the cost of solar subsides and explored emerging challenges and opportunities for solar power to “find its place in the sun”, and generated widespread reports of its headline figure, that the cost of solar photovoltaic take-up has outweighed the benefits by almost A$10 billion dollars.

That figure (A$9.7 billion, to be precise) was generated by comparing the benefits of greenhouse emission reductions from solar, against the capital and maintenance costs. The first part of this calculation is therefore dependent on the assumed carbon price of A$30 a tonne, which gives a total benefit to society of A$2 billion by 2030.

The Grattan Institute’s analysis says that rooftop solar photovoltaic panels have come at a large cost to society. Figures (in 2015 dollars) refer to benefits and costs of solar PV systems installed from 2009. Grattan Institute

But why A$30 per tonne? And what is the actual cost of carbon emissions?

The real cost of carbon

One metric commonly used is the “social cost of carbon”. This is an estimate of the economic damages from the emission of one extra unit of carbon dioxide (or equivalent). There is a huge range and debate about what the social cost of carbon really is.

Earlier this year, a paper in Nature Climate Change estimated the social cost of carbon to be US$220 per tonne. This significantly changes the cost benefit analysis.

Rooftop solar PV has come at a large cost to society Aggregate net present benefits and costs to society of solar PV systems installed from 2009, $2015, with a carbon price of $220 per tonne Authors illustration

Last year, Nicholas Stern and Simon Dietz updated their internationally renowned model, finding that a carbon price between US$32 and US$103 was required today to avoid more than 2C of warming, (rising to between US$82-260 in 2035).

Other work suggests that should global greenhouse mitigation continue to be delayed, a carbon price of US$40 per tonne of CO2-equivalent would reduce the probability of limiting global warming to 2C by only 10–35%.

The Grattan report argued that “subsidies are expensive and inefficient”, but arbitrarily used a A$30 per tonne cost, significantly underestimating the most important subsidy: the fact that polluters are allowed to emit carbon dioxide for free.

While the choice of carbon price and costs significantly changes the calculus, looking only at the emissions and avoided generation really misses the point of the support mechanisms in the first place.

Why do we have renewable energy support mechanisms?

The Grattan report concludes that “Australia could have reduced its emissions for much less money”.

This is undeniably true. As the report points out, the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund has purchased emissions abatement at an average price of A$13.95 per tonne, and the Warburton review estimated the cost of the large-scale Renewable Energy Target to be A$32 per tonne up until 2030.

However, the objective of renewable energy policy is not solely for cheap and efficient emissions reductions. In fact, the objectives within the legislation of the renewable energy target are to:

  • encourage the additional generation of electricity;
  • reduce emissions of greenhouse gases;
  • ensure that renewable energy sources are sustainable.

It is not particularly fair to assess a support mechanism against objectives it was not designed to achieve. Only assessing the efficacy of the renewable energy target against emissions abatement efficiency misses an important component of renewable energy support policy: industry development.

Market mechanisms, such as carbon pricing, are widely acknowledged to be the most efficient method to reduce emissions. However, they are not sufficient by themselves and do not address other market failures.

In fact this is something that the Grattan Institute itself previously reported on in a previous report, Building the bridge: a practical plan for a low-cost, low-emissions energy future, which said:

Governments must address these market failures, beyond putting a price on carbon


…in order to develop, demonstrate and deploy the technologies that are likely to be lowest cost in the longer time frame of meeting the climate change targets, further government action is essential.

As indicated, deployment policies are an essential policy to tool to develop the renewable energy industry, and ensure the lowest cost in the long term. Typically, in the context of renewable energy deployment policies sit between R&D on one hand, and pure market mechanism (such as carbon pricing) for mature technologies on the other.

Such deployment policies are essential to enable learning-by-doing and realising economies of scale. The cost reductions enabled by this simply cannot be developed in the lab, or be captured in the market by individual companies (due to knowledge and technology spillovers and other similar positive externalities).

The cost of reducing emissions

The report concludes that solar schemes have reduced emissions at a cost of A$175 per tonne to 2030. This figure has been derived by using the net present costs and for the emissions abated to 2030, which includes the capital cost of older and significantly more expensive systems.

If carbon costs were price at A$220 per tonne, the cost of abatement becomes negative, that is, a saving.

An alternative measure looks at the subsidy paid today. Households are currently purchasing solar systems subsidised by the RET at rate of approximately A$0.80 per watt installed, while receiving cost-reflective (unsubsidised) feed-in tariffs. Over an expected 25 year life, and an average grid carbon intensity of 0.85 tonnes per megawatt hour, the cost of abatement would be approximately A$28 per tonne.

Comparing this with the cost of abatement only a few years ago (in the order of several hundred dollars per tonne), the support mechanisms look very successful in delivering on objectives of industry development, and delivering cost reductions.

Most would agree that some renewable policies have previously been poorly implemented, and the Grattan report is right in highlighting these. However measuring their costs against objectives they were not intended to achieve is unfair.

The simple cost benefit analysis fails to incorporate all benefits of renewable energy support policy, and underestimates the avoided costs of carbon emissions.

A matter of degrees: why 2C warming is officially unsafe

Originally published in The Conversation on 27 May 2015, 6.08am.

By Kate Dooley and Peter Christoff

We cross the 2C threshold at our peril. Shawn Carpenter/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The goal of international climate negotiations is “to avoid dangerous atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases”. In 2010, Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change formally recognised the “long term goal” of the convention was to hold the increase in global average warming to below 2C above pre-industrial levels.

Is 2C therefore the safe limit above which climate change becomes “dangerous”? A UN expert dialogue of more than 70 scientists, experts, and climate negotiators recently released a final report concluding that 2C is “inadequate” as a safe limit.

The report will feed into a review of the 2C limit, including discussions on a tougher 1.5C warming limit in the new climate agreement expected in Paris in December.

So, what does the evidence say?

What’s the difference between 1.5 and 2C?

It is well known that the risks of climate change can be significantly reduced if warming is limited to well below 2C.

However, the scientific literature related to 1.5C is scarce, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) compares differences along 2C and 4C pathways – somewhat at odds with the current policy debates over temperature limits and danger thresholds.

Global average warming is just that – an average. Regional warming and vulnerability to climate impacts will vary significantly. Therefore the difference in projected risksbetween 1.5C and 2C of warming is particularly important for highly temperature-sensitive systems, such as the polar regions, high mountains and the tropics, and low-lying coastal regions.

At 2C the very existence of some atoll nations is threatened by rising sea-levels. Limiting warming to 1.5C may restrict sea level rise below 1 metre.

Yet even at 1.5C warming, regional food security risks are significant. Africa is particularly vulnerable, with significant reduction in staple crop yields in some countries. Current levels of warming are already causing impacts that many people will not be able to adapt to - more scope for adaptation would exist at 1.5C, especially in the agricultural sector.

Can we limit warming to 1.5C?

The 2C warming limit or “guardrail” has long been controversial. It was rejected by many developing countries at Copenhagen and over two thirds of Parties to the Convention call for a 1.5C limit. So is this ambitious temperature limit still within reach?

The carbon budget approach - adopted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report – defines the amounts of cumulative CO2 emissions which will drive warming to a given global temperature limit. The most stringent IPCC scenario gives a remaining (from 2011) carbon budget of 1,000 billion tonnes of CO2, for a “likely” chance of keeping global temperature within 2°C.

Yet whether a lower temperature limit is still within reach, and the pathway to get there, is debated. The more ambitious mitigation scenarios reported by the IPCC are characterised by overshooting the budget and then removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. This usually means relying on bioenergy plus carbon capture and storage (burning biomass for energy, removing the CO2, and then storing it underground) to remove carbon from the atmosphere - which comes with its own risks.

1.5C pathways which do not rely on negative emissions depend on a much lower remaining budget. Even a 50% chance of keeping below 1.5C requires immediate and radical emission reductions. This would mean unprecedented annual rates of declinewhich are not in line with current levels of energy consumption or ideas of economic growth.

Others suggest that, for fossil fuel emissions and for developed economies, there is already no carbon budget left at all.

Moreover, this discussion doesn’t account for aerosol and particulate pollution masking the impact of greenhouse emissions, which could mean an additional 0.8C of warming is already “locked in”, increasing the scale of the challenge.

The UNFCC expert group recognised that limiting global warming to below even 2C necessitates a radical transition, not merely a fine-tuning of current trends, yet such radical emissions reduction pathways are so far excluded from IPCC assessment, leaving policy makers with little evidence on the impacts and feasibility of lower targets.

Where to from here?

The group concluded that the world is not on track to achieve the long-term global goal of 2C, noting that the longer we wait to bend the curve of global greenhouse gas emissions, the steeper we will have to bend it down later.

The report will feed into discussions in relation to a decision on the global goal, expected at the Paris congress, with the report noting that limiting global warming to below 1.5C would come with several advantages in terms of coming closer to a safer “guardrail”.

However, the expert group falls short of recommending a 1.5C goal, arguing that the science on a 1.5C warming limit is less robust, despite presenting evidence that, in some regions, very high risks are projected for warming above 1.5C.

The idea that the 2C threshold is not safe is not new. Ten years ago prominent climate scientist James Hansen said the 2C threshold “cannot be considered a responsible target” and subsequently called for a 1C limit, with a carbon budget of just 500 Gt.

Only a few weeks ago, Hansen told ABC breakfast radio that it was crazy to think of 2C safe limit.

Others have joined the fray, challenging the acceptance of high probabilities of exceeding 2C, and risky mitigation pathways to get there. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre in Britain has said that 2C represents a threshold, not between acceptable and dangerous, but between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” climate change.

According to the IPCC’s budget numbers, only the very ambitious 1.5C pathway also gives us a high probability of holding warming even below 2C. After decades of procrastination, limiting warming to 1.5C, or even increasing the probabilities of not exceeding 2C, will now require action “faster than most policy makers conceive is possible”.

FactCheck: Has any country bested Australia in emissions intensity reduction since 1990?

From The Conversation,

By Graham Palmer and Roger Dargaville, 20 May 2015, 6.05am AEST

Has any other country achieved a greater reduction than Australia in the intensity of their emissions per unit of GDP over between 1990 and now? AAP Image/Dan Peled

From 1990 to now our real economic growth has been about 88% but our emissions are down. So our actual gross national emissions have gone from about 563 million tonnes in 1990 to 548 million tonnes or thereabouts at the moment. What does that mean? That we have nearly doubled our productivity relative to our carbon intensity. So there are very few countries in the world that have seen that decrease in their intensity… I would challenge you to indicate if there’s any other country that has achieved a greater reduction in the intensity of their emissions per unit of GDP over that period of history. Any other country. – Greg Hunt, Federal Minister for the Environment, to the Australian Emissions Reduction Summit in Melbourne, Wednesday May 6, 2015.

Reduction in emissions intensity is an important measure of how well a country is doing in cutting greenhouse gases while continuing economic growth.

Recent comments by Federal Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, implied that Australia is leading the world in reduction of emissions intensity.

Is that right?

Emission intensity

To calculate emissions intensity for each country, you need its total greenhouse emissions and total GDP. You divide the emissions by the GDP and that tells you how much CO₂ equivalent it emits for each unit of output (for instance, per $US of GDP).

The change in emissions intensity between 1990 and now is calculated by taking a country’s emissions intensity now and dividing by what it used to be in 1990. You subtract that result from one. It’s usually expressed as a percentage, so you have to then multiply it by 100.

For example, say a country’s emissions intensity falls from 0.52kgCO₂ equivalent/$US of GDP in 1990 to 0.08kgCO₂ equivalent/$US of GDP in 2012. That works out to be an 85% reduction in emissions intensity.

The maths in that example would look like this:

0.08 ÷ 0.52 = 0.15

1 - 0.15 = 0.85

0.85 x 100 = 85%.

How did Mr Hunt calculate it?

Mr Hunt’s quote was in an answer to an audience question, and not part of his prepared speech.

When asked by The Conversation for a data source to back up his statement, a spokesman for Mr Hunt sent a table showing how Australia compares with other countries. This table combines data from the Department of Environment, the UNFCCC, the World Resources Institute and the OECD, and uses real GDP (and not nominal):

A spokesman for Mr Hunt said:

Australia is the only developed economy that has achieved positive GDP growth in every year since 1990. Despite this impressive economic growth, the Australian economy continues to become less emissions intensive. Australia continues to rank as a top performer amongst the 196 parties to the UNFCCC in terms of reducing the emissions intensity of the economy… The Minister’s statement “there are very few countries in the world that have seen that decrease in intensity” is absolutely correct.

It’s true there are few countries in the world that have reduced their emissions intensity as much as Australia has.

However, Mr Hunt’s challenge to find any other country that has achieved a greater reduction in emissions intensity since 1990 implies Australia is ahead of the world in that regard. That is not correct, as Mr Hunt’s own table shows.

Our calculations – Australia is not top

Our own calculations also show Australia is not leading the world in reduction of emissions intensity since 1990.

In the most recent National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, emissions (including land use, land use change and forestry – LULUCF – as reported in Australia’s National Greenhouse Accounts) are reported in table 8 as 547.7 million tonnes CO₂ equivalent for the 2014 inventory year and 563.8 million tonnes CO₂ equivalent for 1990, so this confirms Hunt’s figures for total emissions.

Referring to recent UNFCCC data and including LULUCF, Australia ranks 32nd of the 43 Annex I parties (industrialised countries and economies in transition) in the percentage decline in total emissions for the period 1990 to 2012 - a 2.4% increase over the period.

However, if we exclude LULUCF, and therefore consider only energy, transport, agriculture, industrial processes and fugitive emissions, Australia ranks 40th, with a reported 31% increase in total emissions over the period.

(The difference is due to the extensive Australian land clearing in 1990, which resulted in an abnormally high figure - but by the time of the 1997 Kyoto Conference, Australia’s land clearing had declined sharply.)

As for a reduction in emissions intensity, we found that by using OECD GDP data and emissions data from the UNFCCC, Australia’s emission intensity declined from 1.79 kg CO₂ equivalent per US$ GDP in 1990, to 0.56 kg CO₂ equivalent in 2012 (the most recent year for which comparable data is available). That is a 69% decline.

So how does that compare with other OECD countries?

With land-use included, Australia ranks ninth out of 27 Annex I countries for which we have complete data for relative decarbonisation, and ranks 16th if we exclude land use.

It is a feature of developed countries that both the energy intensity of the economy, and the carbon intensity of energy, tends to improve over time, due to technology and other factors. But many of the same drivers of productivity are also driving economic growth, hence the absolute quantity of emissions tends to be more stubborn.

GDP can be calculated in various different ways, but if the same methodology is applied to all countries, the ranking remains much the same. In fact, several European countries do better than Australia regardless of the flavour of GDP used.

For example, the World Bank catalogues the CO₂ emissions per PPP $ of GDP, which contrasts countries using a purchasing power parity, rather than a fixed exchange rate. Or alternatively, the OECD-95 constant-price dataset expresses GDP in real rather than nominal terms, and the relative ranking of Australia is nearly unchanged.

And if we use the Australian Bureau of Statistics constant-price GDP data (A2304334J), GDP has increased by 110% over the period 1990 to 2014, and the emission intensity per unit of GDP has declined by 54%.


Mr Hunt made the valid point that Australia’s economy has substantially decarbonised, relative to each dollar of economic value added, but the same process occurs internationally.

In fact, several countries have decarbonised more in relative terms than Australia has since 1990. This includes a number of Scandinavian countries that had much less carbon intensive economies to begin with. As a nation with a high per-capita emission intensity, Australia’s decarbonisation effort needs to outpace GDP growth much faster than comparable countries.

Mr Hunt’s challenge “to indicate if there’s any other country that has achieved a greater reduction in the intensity of their emissions per unit of GDP” since 1990 implies Australia is leading the world in emissions intensity reduction. That is not correct.


The FactCheck has it right, and the authors have met the Minister’s challenge of naming countries with faster reductions in emissions intensity.

A key reason is that the authors have split the EU into its member countries. Doing so identifies countries such as Poland and Luxembourg that have achieved large reductions in emissions intensity.

If we expanded the list of countries further, there are some non-OECD countries that have also achieved larger reductions in emissions intensity than Australia. Russia is one example.

Australia’s reduction in emissions intensity, while welcome, is thus not particularly special. It is also important to bear in mind that in terms of levels of emissions intensity and emissions per capita, Australia is a big emitter.

Here’s how the states can dodge Canberra’s renewable roadblock

21 May 2015, 12.34pm AEST

by Dylan McConnell

The states could ‘top up’ renewable funding to encourage development.  Indigo Skies Photography /Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Labor and the Coalition government have now agreed to cut the federal renewable energy target (RET) from 41,000 gigawatt hours in 2020, to 33,000 GWh – a reduction of almost 20%. This agreement has been hailed as restoring stability to the industry, after a year plagued with uncertainty and featuring two reviews.

However, this is still a significant cut, particularly as the target is a significant part of Australia’s policy response to climate change.

Meanwhile, Victoria has committed to restoring its own renewable energy target, the VRET, following other states in developing renewable energy policy. However a clause the federal legislation prevents schemes similar to the federal RET.

How can the states get around this and support their industries?

History repeating

Australia’s RET began in 2001 with the Mandatory RET of 9,500 GWh of renewable energy generation by 2020. In 2004 the Howard government rejected the Tambling review recommendations to increase the target.

Following this decision, with a fledgling renewable energy industry threatening to fold, Victoria, NSW and SA all announced their own renewable energy targets and support measures.

In a case of history repeating itself, several state governments have again announced their own targets. South Australia already had a target for 50% by 2025 and the ACT has a target of 90% by 2020.

More recently, Queensland committed to generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and Victoria committed to re-instating a Victorian RET (though no target was specified).

The renewable roadblock

Under the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000, corporations don’t have to comply with the state schemes which “substantially correspond” to the federal RET (in section 7c).

This commitment was part of an agreement between state and federal governments to pursue strong action on renewable energy through a national scheme, finally ending the inaction of the federal government under John Howard. The explanatory memorandum of the amending act expressly states that the VRET “substantially corresponds” to the federal RET scheme.

Victoria’s Energy Minister, Lily D’Ambrosio recently stated, the revival of the VRET is currently prevented by a clause in the federal RET legislation.

The Federal Government must move out of Victoria’s way and change the law. Our state needs a proper renewable energy target, to support the industry and reduce pollution.

However federal environment minister Greg Hunt replied in a letter to D'Ambrosio:

Like the Australian Capital Territory’s programme, the Victorian government could underwrite the deployment of renewable energy by spending Victorian taxpayer funds.

So what can Victoria do?

Topping up renewable funding

The federal RET relies on tradeable renewable energy certificates to reward generators and require consumers to pay.

Section 7c however was “not intended to apply to feed-in tariffs or other support mechanisms”, so schemes that do not rely on tradeable certificates (such as the VRET) are not prevented by the legislation.

State action could rely on feed-in-tariff schemes. These have been used successfully to support the small-scale and large-scale renewable energy in Australia and overseas.

Tariffs in their traditional form rely on the government to set a guaranteed rate of return for renewable generated electricity fed into the grid. While they provide for investment security, overly generous tariff setting, potentially causing unnecessary costs for consumers, has been a consistent critique of the use of tariffs for renewable energy support.

Newer hybridised mechanisms such as contracts-for-difference could provide opportunities for providing cost effective renewable energy support beyond the federal renewable energy target. These contracts combine the best features of tariffs (certainty for project developer) with the best features of certificate schemes (competitively-priced projects).

They also allow a suite of technologies to be supported, unlike certificate schemes, which have historically supported only the cheapest technologies (typically onshore wind).

The contracts-for-difference act as a “top-up” to revenue streams for renewable generators. The “top-up” is effectively the difference between the required revenue (known as strike price), and the value of the revenue in the current market.

If the combination of wholesale prices and certificate prices increase, the top-up required decreases. In fact if prices increase high enough, above the strike price, the project developer would actually pay back the difference.

The challenge lies in determining what the strike prices should be. A reverse auction is commonly used to ensure a competitive outcome is maintained.

How ‘contracts-for-difference’ could work. The strike price is a competitively determined and guaranteed price for renewable energy. If the market value of the electricity is below the strike price, a top up (on top of revenue from certificates) is paid to the generator. If the market value is above the strike price, the generator pays the difference back. Authors illustration
Click to enlarge

Contracts-for-difference are used in other places around the world, particularly the United Kingdom. There they are being used to support a range of technologies, including wind (both onshore and offshore), solar photovoltaic and nuclear energy.

Likewise, the ACT seeks to achieve its ambitious renewable energy target with a tariff that utilises a contract-for-difference approach. The scheme has held two successful auctions to support large-scale solar and wind projects. The ACT scheme is now looking at “next generation solar” (including solar plus storage) in the next round.

The cuts to the federal RET provide an opportunity for Victoria and other state government to take on board policy learning in ACT and Europe and support their renewables industry in a competitive way.

A revival of the Victorian RET is currently prevented by legal barriers. However, as the examples of other states and overseas show, this need not be an impediment to strong and ambitious state action for renewable energy.

BP’s extreme climate forecast puts energy giant in a bind

Roger Dargaville, Research Fellow, Energy Research Institute at University of Melbourne
Annabelle Workman, PhD student, EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges at University of Melbourne
Changlong Wang, PhD Student, The Australian-German College of Climate & Energy Transitions at University of Melbourne
Dimitri Lafleur, PhD student, Australian German College of Climate and Energy Transitions at University of Melbourne
Dylan McConnell, Research Fellow, Melbourne Energy Institute at University of Melbourne
Martin Wainstein, PhD Student, Australian-German College of Climate and Energy Transitions at University of Melbourne
Ryan Alexander, Research Assistant, Australian-German College of Climate and Energy Transitions at University of Melbourne

BP’s energy outlook would make it difficult to keep warming below 2C. EPA/BERND THISSEN

BP’s annual Energy Outlook report, released in February, details the results from modelling of what it sees as the “most likely” energy scenario out to 2035. In this scenario global fossil use increases by 33%, consistent with a scenario the International Energy Agency (IEA) uses to describe the trajectory towards global warming of 6C – far beyond the accepted “safe” limit of 2C.

In its public presentation of the report, and elsewhere, BP admits that climate change is a problem, and that current carbon emission projections seem unsustainable, so what’s going on?

BP forecasts increasing demand driven mainly by non-OECD Asia. BP
Click to enlarge
BP forecasts demand being met by increasing coal, oil and especially gas. BP
Click to enlarge

It appears that BP is working to assure shareholders that the company is “storm-proof”. BP’s modelling is based upon some key assumptions about population growth, GDP growth per capita (particularly in non-OECD countries in Asia), and fossil fuel prices.

This results in energy consumption projections that are consistent with continued growth in demand for BP’s products, primarily gas, and hence healthy future share prices and dividends.

This is understandable, and we can hardly blame a company for wanting to keep their shareholders happy, but BP is walking a climate tightrope.

Betting against climate action

BP’s projected increase in energy demand and associated carbon emissions would result in atmospheric CO2 concentrations in excess of 600 parts per million and a resulting warming of at least 2.5C, and possibly as much as 6C, by 2100.

In 2013 Shell released its Oceans and Mountains scenarios that were similarly inconsistent with restricting warming to 2C.

However BP is not unaware of the risks posed by attempts to keen warming within 2C. To manage climate policy uncertainty, a lot of big corporations operate with an assumed moderate carbon price, around US$40 per tonne or higher. This is factored into the firm’s project-ranking and decision-making process. This kind of risk management allows companies to react quickly to changes in rules by government.

In his introduction, BP CEO Bob Dudley also calls for a global price on carbon, given the scale of the challenge faced by negotiators at international climate talks in Paris in December 2015.

Figure from IEA’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2014 report. In the 2C warming scenario (2DS), renewable share of supply increases to around 40% while coal and oil use decline dramatically. IEA
Click to enlarge

It is arguably in BP’s interest to have a carbon price of around US$40 per tonne. A standard carbon price would increase the profitability of petrol and natural gas against coal. But this only works if the gas price remains low enough.

The 2014 EY Global Oil and Gas Reserves Study shows that BP has amassed significant natural gas reserves compared with other international oil companies, second only to ExxonMobil and far ahead of its main competitors in the international arena.

Carbon prices of US$40 per tonne of CO2 would “likely” limit warming to 2C objective with a probability of more than 66%. However, if global mitigation action were delayed by 10 to 20 years, a carbon price of US$40 tonne would reduce the probability of limiting warming to 2C to only 10–35%.

In this scenario significantly higher carbon prices would be needed, and without significant improvements in energy efficiency, a 50% probability of keeping to the 2C limit may not be achievable.

Renewables get short shrift

There are other problematic assumptions in the report. In particular there is the remarkable decrease in the rate of uptake of renewables in the future. The modelling assumes a decrease from 20% per year currently to just 10% in 2020 and less than 5% by 2035.

Renewables (not including hydro power) in 2035 have a share of only 7% of global primary energy. Why the expansion of wind and solar power drops off is not explained, nor does it explain why new onshore wind today is more expensive than new gas technology.

This doesn’t sit well with BP’s underpinning assumption of continuous technology improvement. It assumes a continuous improvement of fossil fuel extraction technologies, such as unconventional oil and gas recovery techniques, yet it downplays the drastic technology improvements in the renewables arena into the future.

Given that renewables are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, the switch from fossil fuels to other types of energy is going to happen very suddenly, not gradually as the market responds to price signals.

Falling energy demand

In BP’s modelling, demand for primary energy in OECD countries does not decline but remains steady over the foreseeable future. This is despite the observable decline in emissions in Europe since before 1990 and the US since 2007 and even from Australia’s stationary energy sector.

Improvements in energy efficient technology (LED lights, appliances, buildings), increasing electricity prices, and tightening transport emission targets would all point to lower emissions into the future. It’s also striking that oil remains the dominant transportation fuel until 2035 and electrification of transport is hardly mentioned.

Curiously, the report also hardly mentions either carbon capture and storage or hot-rock geothermal energy. Both of these low-carbon energy technologies should be on the radar of a company like BP as they would make use of its considerable experience and infrastructure.

This omission could be interpreted as an admission that carbon capture is not expected to be a major player before 2035, as was hinted by Spencer Dale, BP’s group chief economist in the Q&A session of the Outlook presentation.

Will there be continued growth in demand for fossil fuels, as forecast by BP? In 2014 demand for coal in China did not increase as in previous years, despite plunging coal prices that have now hit their lowest level since 2007. Whether this is an anomaly or sign of a significant shift is yet to be seen.

The BP Energy Outlook calls into question the kind of role BP and other international fossil fuel companies are playing in adapting to a carbon-constrained future. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at their strategy meetings.

Setting Australia’s Post-2020 Target for Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Submission to the Emissions Target Taskforce Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet


Setting Australia’s Post-2020 Target for Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By: Annabelle Workman (1,3), Cathy Alexander (1,9), Ryan Alexander (1,7), Peter Christoff (4), Roger Dargaville (2), Kate Dooley (1,4), Jen Drysdale (1), Robyn Eckersley (5), Adrian Ford (1), Fiona Haines (5), Ben Henley (2), Ove Hoegh-Guldberg (6), David Karoly (1,2,3), Ellycia Kolieb (4), Dimitri Lafleur (1,2), Malte Meinshausen (1,2,7), Alexander Nauels (1,2), Graham Palmer (1,2), Chris Ryan (8,1), Robyn Schofield (2), John Wiseman (9)

(1) Australian-German College of Climate & Energy Transitions, The University of Melbourne

(2) School of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science, The University of Melbourne

(3) EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges, The University of Melbourne

(4) School of Geography, The University of Melbourne

(5) School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne

(6) Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

(7) Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

(8) Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, The University of Melbourne

(9) Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne

Summary of submission

  • It is imperative that Australia’s post-2020 target for greenhouse gas emissions supports the international objective of limiting global temperature rise to within two degrees Celsius (2°C) of pre-industrial levels.
  • An emissions reduction target of 60 per cent based on 2000 levels by 2030 represents a fair contribution from Australia.
  • By 2025, an Australian emission reduction target of at least 30 per cent below 2000 levels (or 36 per cent below 2005), would put Australia’s per-capita emissions on the same level as those of the United States (US).
  • The proposed target would facilitate Australia’s transition to a post-carbon economy. This is a transition that will positively impact Australia’s long-term standard of living because avoiding dangerous climate change is in Australia’s national interest.
  • Setting a clear long-term pathway could accelerate investment in low-carbon energy, industrial production, energy efficiency, and forest and land management. Conversely, a lack of certainty and clarity in Australia’s carbon pathway could increase long-term costs for Australians.

Summary of recommendations

To protect Australia’s national interests, it is recommended that the Australian Government:

1. submit an intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC that commits to an emissions reduction target of 60 per cent based on 2000 levels by 2030, and at least 30 per cent based on 2000 levels by 2025

2. reaffirm a commitment to a post-carbon economy through strong policy action, specifically by:

  • investing in technology transfer and rigorous emission standards;
  • re-introducing a carbon price mechanism; and
  • preserving and strengthening Australia’s existing Renewable Energy Target (RET).

3. complement the Government's Direct Action approach with the additional energy measures suggested above, and the implementation of adaptation policies based on the best available evidence across all sectors.

International efforts to address climate change

The Australian Government has formally recognised the international objective of limiting the global temperature increase to within 2°C of pre-industrial levels. Australia’s post-2020 target should reflect this commitment.

Established consequences of anthropogenic climate change, including sea level rise, ocean acidification and an increase in intensity and/or frequency of extreme weather events (IPCC, 2014), have and will continue to negatively impact Australians if global warming progresses unabated.

As it stands, projections for Australia include a continued increase in the number of extremely hot days; decreased average rainfall in southern Australia coinciding with increased heavy rainfall across most parts of Australia; and continuing sea level rise (BoM & CSIRO, 2014). The potential social, health and economic costs for Australians are significant if global warming exceeds 2°C (CCA, 2012).

As a developed country with the world’s highest per-capita emissions, Australia has both the opportunity and a responsibility to ‘catch-up’ with other industrialised nations by reducing its per-capita emissions to similar levels. Going forward, Australia must shoulder its burden of responsibility for reducing emissions. Indeed, as a developed, wealthy country with a highly educated population it may reasonably be expected to take a leadership role in per-capita emissions reduction.

Of the global carbon budget for a 2°C world, 65 per cent has already been spent (IPCC, 2014). Limiting warming to within 2°C - or in fact any level - will ultimately require a phase-out of unabated fossil fuel emissions. After 2011, at current emission levels, the remaining 2°C-consistent carbon budget (IPCC, 2014) of 1,000 GtCO2 will be exhausted by 2035-2040. If, on the other hand, global carbon emissions are decreased linearly to zero, the budget will be spent by 2050-2060. Climate scenarios where global greenhouse gas emissions peak, then begin to reduce, and ultimately reach net-zero emissions by 2055-2075, retain a good chance of limiting global average warming to 2°C (UNEP, 2014).

The Paris agreement and a long-term target

As a fair commitment, Australia’s post-2020 emissions reduction target should strive for a 60 per cent reduction on 2000 levels by 2030, supported by a target of at least 30 per cent by 2025.

The Australian Government has acknowledged the UNFCCC’s expectations that nations move beyond their current emissions reduction commitments when they submit their INDCs prior to international climate agreement negotiations in December 2015.

Per-Capita Emissions of Australia, USA, EU28

Figure 1 | Per-capita greenhouse gas emissions for Australia and other industrialised countries historically (1990-2012) and projected under their respective 2025/2030 emission reduction INDCs and announcements (dashed lines). (Download free-to-use vector & high-resolution version of Figure)

A 30 per cent reduction based on 2000 levels (36 per cent below 2005) places Australia at around 15tCO2eq per person by 2025, on par with the US (assuming the US reduces emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels, as announced) (CCA, 2015). A reduction of 60 per cent of 2000 levels would enable Australia to 'catch-up' with the lower per-capita emission levels in other major industrialised countries, by 2030.

In addition to the post-2020 emissions reduction targets, countries will discuss a long-term target. It is in Australia’s interests to support a long-term goal that embraces the inevitable: the full decarbonisation of the world’s economy early in the second half of the 21st century.

Australia’s national circumstances

While helping to stabilise global temperatures to within 2°C, Australia should participate in the global long-run strategy of fossil fuel divestment.

Treasury’s econometric modelling suggests that an early transition to a low-carbon economy reduces economic costs by around 15 per cent, while nations that transition later are burdened by costs that are approximately 20 per cent higher (Gruen, 2008).

Supported by a strong economy, now is the time for Australia to introduce policies and incentives that will facilitate a long-term transition culminating in a post-carbon economy.

This will undoubtedly involve a significant transition for Australia’s energy exports. However, by providing a clear and firm long-term pathway, industry will have adequate time to plan and adapt accordingly, and can harness Australia’s economic potential as a resource-rich continent by focussing on minerals, solar, wind etc (AAS, 2009) - rather than gas and coal.

It is understood that the Renewable Energy Target (RET) constitutes one instrument to complement the Government’s Direct Action approach. To assist Australia in meeting its emission reduction targets and its transition to a post-carbon economy, this submission supports the legislated, bipartisan large-scale renewable energy target (LRET) target of 41,000 GWh introduced by the Howard Government.

A fixed target of 41,000 GWh provides certainty for renewable energy investments. A welcome additional trend of reduced electricity consumption is no reason to lower the LRET target. In light of Australia’s record-high per-capita emissions, and the job opportunities in the renewable energy sector, it is in Australia’s interests to further support its progress towards a low-carbon electrical energy system (BZE, 2012).

Australia’s action on climate change

Australia stands to gain from ambitious climate change action.

There are significant benefits for Australia in pursuing an ambitious emissions reduction target and complementary climate policies:

Reputationally, Australia stands to gain from ambitious climate action, particularly given Australia’s current emissions target and mechanisms have recently been questioned by nations including the European Union, the United States, China and Brazil in March 2015 through the UNFCCC (UNFCCC, 2015).

Headlining the Direct Action approach, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) requires attention. On its own, the ERF is insufficient to achieve Australia’s emissions reduction targets. Economic modelling suggests that the current design and budget of the ERF would fund around 50 per cent of Australia’s abatement commitments as specified under the Kyoto Protocol (Clarke et al, 2014).

To meet the target suggested in this submission, the ERF needs expanding and strengthening. Alternatively, a more economically efficient option could be to replace the ERF with an emission trading scheme or other carbon pricing instruments supported by additional measures.

Specifically, the Australian Government could consider:

  • enabling increased investment in, and transitional subsidies for, low-carbon and renewable energy technologies;
  • more rigorous emissions and efficiency standards for vehicles (ClimateWorks, 2014); and
  • the re-introduction of a carbon pricing mechanism. Explicit carbon pricing has been shown to be a cost-effective abatement strategy (PC, 2011).

The Australian Government’s decision to contribute $200 million over four years to the Green Climate Fund is welcomed. While this contribution will assist vulnerable countries in meeting their own mitigation and adaptation efforts, further contributions from Australia towards international climate finance goals could be scaled-up to be commensurate with Australia’s international obligations as a wealthy developed nation, without reducing overseas development aid.

In Australia, adaptation is being incorporated into some planning processes. However, implementation of specific adaptation policies is gradual and there are barriers to implementation that warrant attention (Riesinger et al, 2014). Australia could benefit from the Government continuing to pursue strong adaptation policy development and implementation across all sectors, supported by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility as well as other institutions and individuals with adaptation expertise.

See below the PDF submission for references.

Explainer: how countries could come to a global climate deal in 2015

12 March 2015, 6.25am , first published in the Conversation (there with links).

by Anita Talberg and Malte Meinshausen

Ahead of meetings at the end of this year in Paris, countries will submit draft contributions for a global climate deal. The goal: reducing greenhouse gases beyond 2020, and ultimately keeping global warming below 2C.

Countries are working towards meetings in Paris in November that could see the first global climate deal since the Kyoto Protocol.

At the end of this year, 196 countries from around the world will meet in Paris for the first attempt to reach a global deal on climate action since the much-hyped climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009. Hope is building that Paris will see an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020, and ultimately keep global warming to below 2C.

In the lead-up to the meeting, countries will submit intended contributions to a global climate deal, known as INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. These may be targets and baselines (for instance, greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030), but may also take other forms.

Essentially, an INDC is a public pledge from a country on how it plans to play its part in post-2020 collective action on climate change.

It is hoped that all countries that intend to publish an INDC will do so well in advance of the upcoming climate conference in Paris in December 2015. The secretariat to the UN’s climate change body is to produce a report on the total effect of INDCs submitted by 1 October 2015.

To date, Switzerland and the European Union have submitted INDCs and the majority of country submissions are expected before September.

But how will these INDCs fit into a global climate deal?

Paris goes more bottom-up

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, is often considered a top-down treaty because all the rules and parameters were agreed internationally. In practice there was still a strong bottom-up element, with countries setting their own emissions-reduction targets. A true top-down treaty would begin with a collective target (say, of staying below 2C) and then derive from that each country’s reduction commitment according to some internationally agreed method.

The successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the new climate agreement to be finalised in Paris, is shifting the weight further away from the top-down towards the bottom-up. INDCs are the bottom-up elements (self-determined targets) and a consistent accounting approach across the board (such as the scope and type of target, or whether credits can be substituted) could be a thing of the past. The degree to which common rules for monitoring and verification will be part of the Paris agreement remains to be seen.

Emission reduction targets and more…

What should be included in INDCs? The outcome of the most recent major climate talks in Lima in 2014 explicitly requested that countries:

  • Include in INDCs how they plan to contribute to stabilising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (see Article 2, page 9 of this document)
  • Include an explanation of how the INDC contribution is “fair and ambitious”, in the context of national circumstances
  • Consider including an adaptation component
  • Communicate in such a way that “facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding” of the INDC
  • Include where possible quantifiable information such as reference years for emissions reductions, time frames, inclusions and exclusions, assumptions, and methods used for estimating greenhouse gas emissions.

Many developed countries are likely to prioritise aspects of emissions reduction and particularly those that are quantifiable. For example the European INDC targets an emissions reduction of at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 for domestic action. Switzerland’s INDC targets a reduction of 50% below 1990 levels by 2030, but includes the use of international market mechanisms.

In contrast, many developing countries are calling for INDCs to provide information on adapting to climate change, financial support needed or to be given, and technology transfer.

In response to these differences of opinion, German-based think tank Climate Action Tracker is pressing for governments to ensure that INDCs are based on “rigorous and scientifically sound emissions information”. At the same time, there is a recognition that countries differ in their abilities and capabilities to provide measurable, reportable and verifiable information.

Alongside this discussion on content, there is also an ongoing debate on what should be the legal forms of both INDCs and the overarching Paris agreement.

Keeping warming below 2C

As the “i” in INDC indicates, INDCs are proposals but are not yet set in stone.

These proposals will be assessed collectively to determine the resulting global effort. In all likelihood the collective effort will be insufficient to stay within the 2C guardrail.

So how will INDCs help a deal to keep warming below 2C? It is anticipated that in Paris countries will agree on an assessment process to compare INDCs, with a view to “ratcheting up” the effort. This iterative process aims to produce ambitious collective global action before 2020, when the agreement will come into force. It is not yet clear how the INDCs will be assessed, though. Will only emissions reduction targets be counted? How will unquantifiable targets (such as peaking emissions before a certain date) be measured? How will targets that are conditional, for example on international finance, be considered? Will emissions reduction and financial support needed/proposed be assessed in tandem? Will all elements of the INDCs (which will unavoidably differ between countries) be assessed? And if so, how? Discussions on these sorts of issues are expected in the lead-up to and in Paris.

Another big question is whether major economies will indeed strengthen their emission reduction commitments in response to the collective effort being deemed insufficient.

What about Australia?

In climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, Australia committed to a short-term emissions reduction target of 5% on 2000 levels by 2020. Then, for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol-covering 2013 to 2020 Australia pledged a 0.5% reduction on 1990 levels, which is equivalent to a 2% reduction below 2000 levels.

Post-2020, Australia’s commitment is undecided. Under the previous government a long-term target of 80% emissions reduction below 2000 levels by 2050 was legislated in the Clean Energy Act 2011. However, that legislation has been repealed.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop asserts that Australia’s INDC will be announced by mid-2015. She also says that a taskforce has been established within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to “consider a new post-2020 target for Australia”.

The taskforce is not listed on the government’s website but is said to include “people from different departments … within PM&C [Prime Minister & Cabinet] and working closely with DFAT [Department Foreign Affairs and Trade], the Department of the Environment, the Department of Industry and Science and the department of the Treasury”.

The government has also requested that the Climate Change Authority review “what future emissions reduction targets Australia should commit to”.

For a reasonable chance of staying within the 2C limit, global emissions need to return to at least 1990 levels by 2030* and be halved by 2050 (which is equivalent to a 60% reduction below 2010 levels). Australia is one of the wealthiest nations and has, for its population, the highest emissions in the developed world. Australia’s INDC will need to reflect its fair share of this collective effort.

The Climate Change Authority’s recommendation is a target of between 40% and 60% below 2000 levels by 2030. While 40% would represent a straight-line trajectory towards an 80% reduction by 2050, most effort-sharing proposals (see here for example) put Australia’s fair share at the 60% side or even well beyond that range.

*This figure was corrected 12 March. It previously stated “global emissions need to return to at least 1990 levels by 2010”

FactCheck: are Australian and US climate targets the same?

First published on The Conversation

by M. Meinshausen & A. Talberg (Climate-Energy College)

To match the US, Australia would have to increase its emissions reduction target to 25% below 2000 levels

If you use the full Kyoto period — 1990 to 2020 — the US is minus 5% and Australia is almost exactly the same. Environment minister Greg Hunt, Radio National, November 17.

We and the United States are pretty much on the same page. Over a 30 year period from 1990 to 2020, we have the same — roughly the same — reduction … If you compare apples with apples, the American position and our position on reductions are effectively the same. Treasurer Joe Hockey, Radio National, November 13.

Treasurer Joe Hockey and energy minister Greg Hunt were responding to claims (see here and here) that the US-China climate deal put pressure on Australia to revisit its efforts to reduce emissions.

The US target is a 17% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 and, as pledged last week, a 26-28% reduction by 2025.

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Australia pledged an unconditional target of 5% reduction below 2000 levels by 2020, potentially moving to a target of 15% or 25% depending on international factors.

The current Australian government mentions the 5% target only, implying that conditions for moving to the 15% and 25% levels have not been fulfilled (the Climate Change Authority disagrees on this).

A key aspect of the recently announced US target is that it is for 2025. Australia has a long-term 2050 target of 80% below 2000 levels, and a range of short-term 2020 targets, but no mid-term 2025 target.

It is therefore impossible to compare Australia’s target directly with the just announced 2025 target of the US.

Comparing 2020 targets

In order to make a comparison for the 2020 targets at least, we need to apply a number of adjustments. This will allow us to compare the US and Australian targets over the 30-year period up to 2020, as Joe Hockey put it, like with like, apples with apples.

To do this we need to:

a) take account of the fact that Australia got a specific clause under the Kyoto Protocol to calculate the base year emission level

b) set the base year against which the target is compared to 1990

c) factor in population growth.

Australia’s deforestation history

An important part of this comparison is the impact of deforestation emissions. This factor was not taken into account in Table 3.1 of the International Climate Action Research Paper (page 21), which is presumably the basis for the ministers' statements.

Australian deforestation emissions 1990 to 2011. Adapted from Climate Change Authority Targets and Progress Review, Figure D.39, showing historical data until 2011, i.e. without projections.

In 1990 and 2000 Australia’s emissions from deforestation were significant, but are substantially lower today.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Australia negotiated a lenient second sentence in Article 3.7 (sometimes referred to as the “Australia clause”) that allowed Australia to include 1990 or 2000 deforestation emissions in the base year.

Including deforestation increased the reference level against which the Australian target is compared to, as you can see in the figure below. The blue and grey dot for 1990 and 2000 at the top represent Australia’s emissions including deforestation, while the solid blue line represents Australia’s emissions without deforestation.

Australian and US historical greenhouse gas emissions and 2020 targets. How the government compares them (left grey box) and an apples-with-apples comparison (right grey box). Australia’s Kyoto Protocol baseyears (KP baseyear) are shown as dots for 1990 and 2000. Own calculations based on UNFCCC National Inventory Submissions and Initial Reports by US and Australia.
Click to enlarge

For all other developed countries, large deforestation activities stopped a long time ago and therefore do not increase base year emissions.

Thus, while Australia compares future climate targets against past emissions that include those deforestation emissions, other countries — such as the US — do not.

It is a good thing for the climate that Australia’s substantial deforestation activities have become a thing of the past. However, because emissions from deforestation have declined, Australia was able to substantially increase emissions in fossil fuels, industry, waste and agriculture, and still meet the 5% target.

Deforesting some land in 1990 does not necessarily lead to more deforestation (and more emissions) in the future. In fact, it might lead to less because less forest is left over. Thus, high deforestation emissions in the past are little reason to provide lenient rules for future emissions.

In contrast, high-emitting fossil fuel infrastructure with trucks, coal power plants and LNG facilities leads to higher emissions now and for some time into future — essentially until that fossil fuel infrastructure is retired again.

Long story short: an apples-with-apples comparison would compare the US and Australia on the same footing. Thus, we account for US and Australia here basically as the accounting works for all other parties under the Kyoto Protocol i.e. excluding deforestation and forestry from the base year.

Emissions since 1990

Australian and US emissions developed similarly from 1990 to 1996. Thereafter, Australian emissions continued to increase, while US emissions levelled off and started to fall after 2007 (see image above).

The US’s -17% target for 2020 now stipulates a further 1.1% reduction per year from 2012 to 2020 (relative to 2010 emission levels). The US just pledged to increase that reduction rate thereafter to 2.3-2.8% to 2025 in order to reach its 26-28% target.

In contrast, Australian emissions can stay roughly constant — at 30% above 1990 levels — and still meet the 2020 target of 5% below the 2000 Kyoto Protocol Base Year.

Thus, Australia’s 5% target represents vastly different levels of effort compared to that of the US with its nominal 17% reduction by 2020. US emissions must return to below 1990 levels (4% to be precise) while Australian emissions can stay at 30% above 1990 levels.

Australia’s population growth is higher, though

To be fair, Australia’s population by 2020 is projected to be almost 50% higher than in 1990, while the US population will likely increase by only a third (UN 2012 medium population projections).

There is therefore some good reason for Australia’s emissions to increase a greater rate.

An apples-with-apples comparison would therefore look at per-capita emissions since 1990.

It turns out that the US still outperforms Australia by a good margin over the 30-year period to 2020 (see figure below). While under its 5% target Australia will likely decrease its per-capita emissions to 2020 by 12% compared to 1990 levels, the US will do so by 28%, i.e., more than twice as much (under its 17% target).

Australia and US per-capita greenhouse gas emissions. Own calculations based on UNFCCC National Inventory Submissions by the US and Australia, as well as [UN World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision](, Author provided
Click to enlarge

Meeting criteria for a more ambitious target

Even before the US-China deal, the Climate Change Authority concluded that the conditions set under the UNFCCC for the 15% target have been fulfilled, namely:

a global agreement which falls short of securing atmospheric stabilisation at [450 parts per million CO2 equivalent] under which major developing economies commit to substantially restraining their emissions and advanced economies take on commitments comparable to Australia’s

Every aspect of this condition has been met - or in fact over-fulfilled. We have just demonstrated that the US as an advanced economy has not only a comparable, but a more ambitious commitment than Australia’s 5% goal.

For Australia to match the US efforts over the 1990 to 2020 period in terms of absolute greenhouse gas emission reductions, a 29% reduction below Australia’s 2000 base year would be needed.

Even if the legitimate argument were brought forward that population increases are expected to be greater in Australia than in the US, the 5% Australian target is no match to US’s 17% target. A 21% Australian target would be needed.

As such, of Australia’s three proposed targets, only the 25% option would be sufficient to meet (and beat) US ambitions.


An apples-with-apples comparison shows that Australia lags far behind the United States in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its energy, transport and industrial sectors.

To match US efforts, Australia would have to increase its 2020 ambitions from the current 5% below 2000 to 21% or even 29%, depending on whether different population growth is taken into account, or not.

Of its three proposed targets, Australia would therefore have to move to the most ambitious 25% by 2020 to approximate the US’s target.


The conclusion is correct that Australia’s current 5% reduction target (for 2020 compared to 2000) is weaker than the United States’ 17% reduction target (for 2020 compared to 2005).

The Fact Check also correctly notes that the conditions for Australia moving to a higher point in its target range, a 15% reduction or more, have been fulfilled. This has not only been pointed out by the Climate Change Authority, but it has long been argued by academics including Prof Ross Garnaut, myself and others.

It is important to recognise that the US target announced at APEC is not the 17% target for 2020, but a 26-28% target at 2025 (compared to 2005). The Australian government has not made a post-2020 emissions reductions commitments. All countries are called on to submit their pledges early in 2015. The Australian Climate Change Authority has recommended a 40-60% reduction at 2030 compared to 2000.

The Treasurer’s and Environment Minister’s assertion that the targets are “effectively” or “almost exactly the same” rely on comparing the 2020 target emissions levels for both countries to a 1990 base year, and including all emissions sources. This distorts the picture, as in 1990 deforestation was still a large source of emissions in Australia, as the Fact Check points out.

The Fact Check points out that Australia’s population growth rate tends to be higher than that of the United States, so if countries were aiming for the same reduction in per capita emissions then Australia’s absolute emissions target would be somewhat less stringent than that of the United States.

While this is correct in itself, it omits an important factor going the other way: Australia’s per capita emissions level is higher still than that of the United States. In a world that is gravitating towards equal per capita emissions allocations (with trading of allocations between countries to accommodate differences in physical and economic structure), the higher the per capita emissions level, the faster the required rate of reduction.

Which of the two effects is stronger depends on the timeframe for convergence of per capita emissions. As a working assumption, we may assume they roughly cancel out, and go straight back to a comparison of reductions in absolute emissions levels.

Bottom line: Australia’s 2020 target is weaker than the existing US 2020 target, and a much stronger target will be required to match the US post-2020. — Frank Jotzo

Have you ever seen a “fact” that doesn’t look quite right? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they really are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article.

You can request a check at Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Why fixate on 20% renewables? It’s never been the actual target

By Dylan McConnell on 12th November 2014.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Protesters say the government’s planned cuts to the Renewable Energy Target will endanger Australian jobs in the sector. AAP Image/NewZulu/Josephine Lim

Labor has walked away from negotiations with the government over changes to the Renewable Energy Target, saying the proposed cuts of almost 40% are too deep.

Industry minister Ian Macfarlane says he is only trying to bring the scheme back into line with its “original bipartisan intent” of 20% renewable energy by 2020.

Yet this wasn’t the original intent. The Renewable Energy Target has gone through a variety of iterations over its lifetime, but never has it been officially defined in terms in terms of a percentage target.

In 2000, Parliament agreed on a fixed target of 9,500 gigawatt hours (GWh) of new renewable generation by 2010, under the original Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET). This was implemented by the Howard Government in 2001 and was intended to increase Australia’s renewable energy supply by 2%.

In 2003 this target was reviewed for the first time, by a panel chaired by the Country Liberal Senator Grant Tambling. This Tambling Review made 30 recommendations, including this one:

MRET targets to continue to be expressed in gigawatt hours and not as a percentage of overall electricity demand.

The key rationale for this recommendation was that percentage-based targets would have an adverse effect on market certainty. The inherently uncertain nature of electricity projection would result in regular revision of the MRET, increasing financial risk and reducing the prospect of attracting the required financial backing for projects. The review reported that:

… a fixed target is more compatible with market certainty, with MRET’s industry development objective, which defines a level of renewable electricity generation rather than a percentage of a fluctuating electricity market over which the industry has no control.

In response, the Howard government reconfirmed its commitment to the MRET at the level of 9,500 GWh.

Expansion plans

The MRET was expanded in 2009, with the parliament legislating a 2020 target of 45,000 GWh. This expanded scheme and the 45,000 GWh target was meant to deliver the Rudd Government’s policy commitment of at least 20% renewable generation by 2020.

The 2020 target was later split into two parts: the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) and the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET), the latter with a revised target of 41,000 GWh. When the Climate Change Authority reviewed this target in 2012, it also recommended that:

… the form of the target should remain fixed in terms of gigawatt hours … a one-off change to the level of the target risks damage to investor confidence and possibly more so if the target was expressed as a percentage, or in gigawatt hours but adjusted over time.

Interestingly, at the time of the Tambling review, many different groups supported an increase to the 9,500 GWh target, as this would be met well ahead of the 2010 target date. Based on projections at the time, a “real 2%” target would equate to around 12,800 GWh in 2010 – an extra 3,300 GWh of renewable energy.

Funnily enough, energy company AGL argued at the time against revising the target. According to the Tambling Review, AGL “expressed a preference for the retention of the current target”, whereas others “accepted that it should be retained on the basis of sovereign risk”.

A percentage-based target has previously been identified as having adverse impacts and damaging investor confidence - even when hitting the percentage target would mean revising the gigawatt-hour target upwards.

Now we have the opposite situation, with calls to revise it downwards to hit an arbitrary percentage. This could potentially be even more damaging to investor confidence - yet those previous recommendations seem to have been entirely lost in the current discussions about the “real 20%” target.

FactCheck: does Australia have too much electricity?

By Dylan McConnell on 10th September 2014.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

We have 9,000 megawatts (nine big power stations equivalent) of excess capacity in electricity generation … We have more than 15% overcapacity in generation in Australia - Industry minister Ian Macfarlane, ABC Radio, September 9.

Capacity and supply

In electricity markets, “capacity” is used to describe the total potential technical capacity (in megawatts) of a system. The total capacity in the National Electricity Market (NEM) is approximately 50,000 megawatts. “Energy” is often used to describe the output, or the electricity that is actually delivered.

The National Electricity Market is an “energy-only” market — capacity isn’t traded. We consider these markets in balance when there is 15% more capacity than the expected peak demand for electricity. The NEM has been in a state of structural over-supply for some time now — currently close to 30% over expected peak demand.

A key aim of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) is to “promote efficient investment in and operation of Australia’s electricity and gas markets”.

As part of this AEMO, prepares an “Electricity StatementOpportunities”, that highlights generation and demand-side investment opportunities. In the latest update, rather than investment opportunities, Australian Energy Market Operator reported on the surplus capacity throughout the National Electricity Market:

“There is potentially between 7,650 megawatts and 8,950 megawatts of surplus capacity across the National Electricity Market in 2014–15. Approximately 90% of this is in New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria.”

The operator modelled three economic scenarios — high, medium and low growth. For the first time in the history of the National Electricity Market, the modelling shows that no new capacity is required over the next ten years. The figure below illustrates that this surplus capacity may increase or decrease, depending on the scenario.

Range of surplus capacity forecasts in the National Electricity Market over the next 10 years. AEMO

Enter the RET

This is a point echoed by the latest Renewable Energy Target review from a panel led by businessman Dick Warburton. The current levels of oversupply are used to argue for no new investment in renewable energy:

In a market environment where capacity is already oversupplied and demand may continue to decline it is quite reasonable (and efficient) for no new investment in capacity to occur.

This may be true. However this argument confuses the role of the RET with the role of the National Electricity Market. As the Panel’s report points out, the “NEM was designed to correct [oversupply in the market]”. The objectives of the RET, on the other hand are to:

  • encourage the additional generation of electricity
  • to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases
  • to ensure that renewable energy sources are sustainable.

Given that they are the objectives of the legislation, these represent a useful measuring stick to evaluate its performance against. The legislation itself actually provides guidance on the review process, including:

the Climate Change Authority must conduct reviews of the following: (a) the operation of this Act and the scheme constituted by this Act …

Minister Macfarlane also claimed that the government was “simply keeping to the legislation” in reviewing the target.

But as we’ve seen the supply-demand balance of the market does not feature in the RET’s remit. And nor should it — that is after all the purpose of the NEM.

Does Biochar hold the key to natural carbon sequestration?

By Laura Porter-Jacobs on 10th September 2014.

Biochar technology is a novel approach to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations by retaining carbon in soils. Biochar is a manmade substance, an organic matter that is transformed into a charcoal by pyrolysis, the thermal decomposition of organic material, in a low oxygen (O2) environment. This process occurs at a relatively low temperature, below 700°C.

The product of this pyrolysis has a high chemical stability with a carbon content that can reside in soils for decades as evidenced in the discovery of Amazonian Dark Earth. This Amazonian Dark Earth otherwise known as 'terra preta do índio' is a soil that was developed by Amazonian civilisations hundreds of years ago in order to improve the fertility of the poor and acidic tropical soils in the region. A key component of the soil is its biochar.

This soil, and the biochar it holds, have remained stable for hundreds of years with sizeable deposits still found today, as shown in the below photo. Current research is analysing the persistence of biochar in a range of soils and ecosystems. To date, biochar has been determined as significantly more persistent in soil than any other organic matter.

Pre-Columbian biochar found in Kuelap, Amazonas, Peru, picture by Laura Porter-Jacobs

To read the entire article, click here.

Pumped hydro – the forgotten storage solution

By 2 July 2014

This article was origninally published in RenewEconomy.

Storage is in the energy news now, in more places than can be listed.

To pick a few, here is recent news from Europe,Tesla, and Queensland. Everyone is looking to the day when battery technology can economically partner with the popular yet variable renewables: solar PV and wind.

But what if today there was a proven way to store vast amounts of energy at capital costs lower than what battery technologists hope they might achieve in 20 years time? A technology with high round-trip efficiency and one heck of a lifespan: 85 years and counting!

If you have read this article’s title, then you know where we are going with this: pumped hydro.

You may know, in energy terms, pumped hydro can be enormous (the Bath County Virginia facility with 3 GW of generation capacity and 30 GWh of stored energy is said to be the “world’s largest battery”), or niche (the 11 MW El Hierro pumped hydro facility, partnered with wind, now makes that Canary Island 100% renewable).

Possibly you already know that pumped hydro – with 140 GW of generation capacity installed globally – dwarfs all other forms of frequently and deeply cycled, on-purpose energy-storage technologies such as batteries, compressed air, flywheels, molten-salt-thermal storage, or synthetic chemicals created to store energy, combined!

Why? Because for so long pumped hydro has been the cheapest. At the University of Melbourne Energy Institute (MEI) we surveyed literature costs for pumped hydro projects globally and found capital costs as low as $100 to $200 capital per kWh of useable energy stored. Chemical battery makers are aiming for costs in the range of $200 to $500 capital per kwh (useable) to be on the market in 2025.

Due to this technology-cost gap and other factors such as the growing penetration of renewables, you may know pumped hydro is resurging globally: in China and Europe, and it is again being considered in Japan, Canada, and the US (California, Hawaii, North Carolina, and even in the desert state of Arizona.)

You may know Australia already has three large-scale pumped hydro facilities in Queensland and New South Wales, operating for more than 30 years: Shoalhaven (240 MW), Wivenhoe (500 MW), and Tumut 3 (600 MW).

However since we haven’t built any large-scale pumped hydro in Australia for 30 years, you may think that’s it. We live on a flat continent, a dry continent, and we won’t be damming the Franklin River in Tasmania any time soon. No we won’t. One reason being, we don’t need to. Because here are three things you don’t need for pumped hydro: a lot of land, a lot of water, or even a river valley.

Small footprint: Pumped hydro differs from conventional hydroelectricity in that it doesn’t need to store a lot of water. Whereas Lake Eucumbene in the Snowy Mountains might meet the irrigation needs of downstream farmers by storing massive amounts of seasonal rain and snow-melt in a 15,000 hectare lake, useful pumped hydro reservoirs might be only 50 hectares, or even as small as five.

Small water top-up: With pumped hydro, water is recycled over and over again from the upper to the lower reservoir and back again. Other than the first fill, the only water top-up required is to balance evaporation and leakage versus rainfall. Nearly all of the world’s pumped hydro facilities use freshwater, but if you prefer to use saline or seawater, the coastal cliff-top seawater pumped hydro facility on Okinawa has been helping to keep that Japanese island powered since 1999. In the case of Okinawa, the lower reservoir is quite large, because it is the Pacific Ocean.

Pumped hydro is no turkey: Rather than damming a river valley, many pumped hydro facilities around the world use water storages that would be known in Australia as “turkey-nest” dams: water reservoirs built on flat ground by excavating earth from the centre of the reservoir and moving it to the edge to help form the dam walls.

What you do need for low-cost large-scale pumped hydro are two ponds separated by an elevation of at least 100 meters in a near-the-grid location where the two ponds are not more than three kilometres apart. Be assured, there are thousands of such sites in Australia. It can be more challenging to work out ways to reject sites than to find them, as ROAM Consulting learned when they undertook their review of pumped hydro for the Australian Energy Market Operator’s eastern states 100% renewable energy study.

With limited time and budget, ROAM had to devise a computational way to reduce the number of sites analysed from “over 100,000 sites” down to around 70. We had the same problem when we mapped coastal sites in South Australia and western Victoria. Beyond the eastern states, suitable pumped hydro sites have also been described in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

But there is one more thing you need for economic pumped hydro: the right market incentives. Our pumped hydro energy-arbitrage analysis found times and places where, if there was more pumped hydro in the National Electricity Market (NEM), it would play a role in balancing electricity supply/demand and in moderating wholesale prices, for example, during summer heat waves when electricity prices spike to over $10,000 / MWh.

However given falling electricity demand and excess generation capacity now in the NEM, it isn’t surprising that you don’t hear many commercial firms openly talking about investing in new pumped hydro for Australia. Although there was the recent Leyshon Resources Ltd. media release about re-purposing two dis-used gold mines at the fringe of the Queensland grid.

And who can predict the future around renewables and other aspects of our Australian energy markets? Pumped hydro arbitrage value may be on the rise again as renewables penetration grows and El Nino approaches. For those Australian energy users and suppliers that would like to see the grid be stable, better-utilised and not “abandoned”, now is a good time to examine the future role to be played by pumped hydro.

Australia Should Pursue Ambitious Climate Change Mitigation Policies

From an international perspective, Australia’s climate change policies have been all but consistent over the last decade. In 2004, when countries responsible for 55% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions accepted the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), thus bringing the Protocol into force, Australia refused to do so. It was only in 2007 that Australia signed the Protocol, which was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. This occurred shortly after both major Australian parties, Labor and Coalition, made election promises to implement a national Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). Yet, it was not until 2011 that ETS legislation was finally passed by Parliament as part of the Clean Energy Act. And today, that ETS, as well as a myriad of other long-running climate and energy policies, face an uncertain future. Sadly, the current domestic push to dismantle major pillars of Australia’s climate policies falls counter to evidence provided by the latest available science.

Global Action is Needed

The latest scientific data has recently been compiled and collated by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the third instalment of its 5th Assessment Report: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. The report outlines the types of measures needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Despite having been approved by all governments in April this year as a document that represents one of the most comprehensive scientific assessments of relevance for political decision-making, it received surprisingly little attention in the media. Nothing in the more-than-one-thousand-page-long report supports a laissez-faire approach to climate change policy that would refrain from strong government incentives to reduce fossil fuel demand. The key headline is, in fact, very straightforward: in order to prevent dangerous levels of global warming, ambitious national and international efforts to reduce emissions are needed now.

This message, together with the finding that a continued delay in emission reduction efforts results in increasing financial damages, should in itself motivate country leaders around the globe to engage in constructive negotiations for ambitious international emission reduction efforts. What’s more, even when the focus is purely on national interests, the IPCC report provides countless reasons why Australia should support ambitious climate policies.

The world has seen a rapid increase in CO2 emissions over the last decade (on average 2.2% per year between 2000 and 2010), mainly driven by an increase in per capita GDP. The burning of coal, by far the most carbon-intensive way of producing energy, represents an increasing share of the observed emissions growth. In order to successfully meet a UNFCCC target of limiting global warming to within 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, energy sectors around the world will have to be transformed in a fundamental way. A wide array of technological measures, as well as major behavioural and institutional changes, is required to entertain a likely chance (more than 66% probability) of meeting this target. According to thousands of scenarios analysed by the IPCC for the 21st century and beyond, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced by 40% to 70% by 2050, compared to 2010 levels. By 2100, they will need to reach near-zero levels. Depending on the success rate of global emission reduction efforts, even negative emissions—for example, through bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)—may be required.

Australia’s Fair Share: 30% by 2030

The newly founded Australian-German College of Climate and Energy Transitions recently hosted a public seminar that was particularly resourceful in capturing Australia’s part of the equation in mitigating dangerous climate change.

Frank Jotzo, a climate change policy expert from the Australian National University, and one of over 200 lead authors of the IPCC assessment, presented the key findings of the report. According to Jotzo, for Australia to meet its fair share of the UNFCCC target, an emission reduction of around 30% by 2030 is needed, relative to 2010 levels. The seminar’s speakers included another lead author: energy expert Damon Honnery of Monash University. He highlighted that the global share of renewable energy, a crucial element to achieving required emission reductions, increased from 6.8% to only 8.5% over the last 20 years. This, explained Honnery, is far from the target the global community (including Australia) should be aiming for. Currently, only 13% of Australia’s electricity comes from renewable energy sources like solar and wind, despite the enormous potential Australia has in this respect.

Yet, around 90% of Australia’s energy mix is still fossil fuel-based, a condition that cannot be changed quickly or easily. In the words of Sandra Kentish, carbon capture and storage (CCS) expert from the University of Melbourne and third speaker at the seminar, coal remains the ‘elephant in the room’. Kentish was clear that CCS will play a crucial role in any Australian emission reduction effort. Coal-fired power plants equipped with CCS technologies allowing CO2 emissions to be pumped underground will be important in transforming Australia’s energy system.

…And It Is Affordable

But could a major push to reduce emissions and a switch to clean energy be affordable? According to the latest IPCC estimates, costs do not need to be large. In an idealised policy setting, 2% to 6% of the global GDP in 2050 would be required to finance adequate mitigation efforts. This translates to less than 0.1% GDP per year for the respective scenarios. Jotzo stressed, however, that these calculations exclude the costs of damages related climate change impacts.

In the end, it is precisely the damage from projected climate change impacts that should be the fundamental driver for strong emission reduction efforts. As the final seminar speaker Ross Garnaut reminded us, Australia is exceptionally vulnerable to the physical and economic impacts of climate change. Garnaut, whose government-commissioned 2008 Garnaut Review and its subsequent update in 2011 served as important milestones towards more ambitious climate change policies in Australia, linked Australia’s future to that of the Asia-Pacific region more generally. On the one hand, he warned that if climate change intensifies unmitigated, climate extremes, like droughts, rising sea levels, or the destruction of important natural assets like the Great Barrier Reef, will pose a serious threat to Australians, as well as severely restricting the country’s potential to cope with such scenarios. On the other hand, Garnaut also highlighted that Australia is prone to face major economic risks related to climate change and noted that “The problems of our neighbours will be our problems”, pointing to the complex economic interdependencies in the region.

Main Barrier Is Political

A successful transformation of the energy system needed to avoid dangerous climate change will ultimately depend on the will of society to vote for a political agenda that comprises a plurality of efficient climate policy instruments. Such policy instruments will, amongst other things, rely on cost-effective market mechanisms, such as a carbon pricing scheme. Weak short-term proposals, like the Direct Action Plan proposed by the current Australian government, are very unlikely to be effective or adequate.

It is in the best interests of the Australian society and economy to prevent severe long-term damage caused by ignoring the threat of dangerous climate change. Let alone, it doesn’t even have to be a painful transition; the science tells us that it is very much affordable. As Garnaut concluded during the seminar, Australia has the potential to be a global superpower in renewable energies as much as it currently is a fossil fuel superpower. What is currently lacking is will power.

A full recording of the seminar “IPCC Working Group III: What’s in it for Australia?” by the Australian-German College of Climate and Energy Transitions is available at this link.

About The Author ():

Alexander Nauels studied Geography in Berlin, Germany, and Climate Science in Bern, Switzerland. Before starting his PhD at the Australian-German College of Climate and Energy Transitions, University of Melbourne, he worked at the IPCC Working Group I Technical Support Unit during the Fifth Assessment cycle. Currently working on synthesizing knowledge about long-term sea level rise projections, Alex hopes to contribute to a better understanding of the physical implications of different climate futures.