There’s cause for green energy optimism, despite Australia’s carbon dichotomy

A carbon price mechanism remains, in all likelihood, the most effective way to bring down Australia’s carbon output.

President of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and Monash University energy researcher Dr Roger Dargaville told Cosmos a nation-wide pricing scheme would be the most “economically efficient” way to target the problem of Australia’s carbon output.

But he doesn’t expect either party to head back in that policy direction, given the polarised national debate that led in 2014 to the repeal of the Clean Energy Act – to date Australia’s only emissions trading scheme.

Instead, he feels opportunity may lie in a renewable energy target – which can have a comparable effect on carbon reduction, though it only applies to electricity generators – as well as incentives for industries to move away from carbon power.

“Long answer short, we just need good policy to apply to all sectors to discourage carbon emissions,” Dargaville says.

“Incentives to make electric vehicles more attractive, incentives to move industry away from fossil fuels: so green steel, green aluminium; and a renewable energy sector with a renewable energy target.”

Australia’s energy dichotomy

Although Australia’s climate change discussion has centred around low-ball emissions reduction targets – now increased to a legislated 43% reduction on 2005 levels – the nation is a leader in renewable energy uptake.

Australia has around 20 gigawatts of solar capacity across rooftop and utility-scale electricity generation.

It’s a global leader in renewables uptake. In total, renewables account for around a third of Australia’s electricity generation.

“And it’s growing every year,” says Dargaville.

However fossil fuel sources account for the rest. In 2021, government data showed coal power accounted for more than half of electricity generation, methane gas for around a fifth.

While major energy providers are bringing forward the closure of fossil electricity generation, including major emitters like AGL’s Loy Yang A plant in Victoria and Origin’s Eraring plant in New South Wales. Alinta Energy’s Loy Yang B plant will likely need to close by 2035 in line with Victoria’s 95% renewable energy. AGL’s Torrens Island station – a methane gas facility – will close a decade early in 2026.

In the meantime, the operation of coal power stations will continue Australia’s carbon output.

“And that’s very highly polluting. We have, especially in Victoria, some of the most polluting power stations in the world, in terms of their carbon footprint costs,” Dargaville says.

“We have a very polluting industrial sector and transport sector, because we have no fuel standards and tend to drive big cars long distances.

“As a country, our per capita carbon emissions are among the worst in the world, but we’re leading the world in terms of uptake of renewables. So it’s an interesting dichotomy to be in.”

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Cause for optimism despite fossil persistence

Australian states continue to increase their renewable energy targets, but Dargaville’s ‘energy dichotomy’ is no clearer than state-to-state comparisons.

New South Wales and South Australia plan to halve its carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2030 and be net zero by 2050.

Victoria is more ambitious: holding a minimum 75% reduction on 2005 levels by 2035, and net zero by 2045. The ACT is chasing similar targets, and Tasmania is already carbon negative.

It’s a different story for other subnational jurisdictions.

Queensland has slightly increased its 2030 target to a 30% emissions reduction on 2005 levels – still well short of scientifically backed targets held by Victoria, though it is also aspiring to having 80% of its grid renewably powered by 2035.

Western Australia and the Northern Territory have no cross-industry target.

And while the federal government’s now-legislated ambitions require net zero emissions by the midpoint of the century, outdated renewable targets need to be strengthened – something experts at the AMOS conference are hoping to see sooner, rather than later.

“Australians love renewables, rooftop PV [solar] is extremely popular, we’re about to about one-in-four households across the country having it, and it’s now slowing down,” Dargaville says.

“Most state governments have very strong renewable energy targets. We don’t have a good federal policy on renewable at the moment – we still have old ‘20% renewables by 2020’ legislation in place, and we’ve already met that target.

“We’re looking forward to seeing some very robust federal policy in the energy space before too long.”

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