Zero-emissions solutions are ready to roll, right when the economy needs them most

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A nationwide charging infrastructure to support electric vehicles. Efficient split system air conditioning and heating, solar hot water or heat pumps, superior insulation, rooftop solar PV and battery systems deployed across our building stock, starting with the most vulnerable households. Investment in sustainable agricultural practices, fertiliser management and carbon forestry.

These might sound like key planks in a post-COVID-19 stimulus package. But each element actually comes from new analysis by ClimateWorks Australia: research that shows how we can ensure good climate outcomes while rebooting the economy. That is, modelling in the Decarbonisation Futures report shows that, if we’re to restrain global warming to less than 2 degrees, Australian emissions must be halved by 2030.

To keep the rise under 1.5 degrees – a temperature at which we might retain some of the Great Barrier Reef – we need a 74% cut in the same timeframe.

ClimateWorks published a similar report back in 2014. Since then, a continuing rise in emissions has materially reduced the global carbon budget.

The devastation caused by coronavirus shows why we can’t afford further delays.

Scientists say that global warming will increase the severity and frequency of extreme weather events. Until recently, many of us had little personal experience of the stress that intensified bushfires, floods and heatwaves and other calamities might place on our social and economic systems.

COVID-19 changed that. As astrophysicist Adam Frank argues, the pandemic should be seen as ‘a fire drill for climate change’, with a lack of preparation for an outcome widely anticipated by experts resulting in an overwhelming emergency.

Yet the pandemic also means that economic and environmental imperatives align, with the measures we need to reach net zero emissions ideally suited to re-awaken economies sent into hibernation by the virus.

A proliferation of technological advances has made decarbonisation far more technically and economically feasible today than in 2014. Most strikingly, renewables now offer a definitively cheaper source of electricity than new fossil-fuel generation, even when accounting for hours of storage, and batteries cost just one-fifth of what they did a decade ago. And now electrification can help reduce emissions throughout the entire economy.

The modelling in Decarbonisation Futures shows that, to get to net zero in time to stay under global climate limits, we must accelerate deployment of mature zero-emissions solutions, and invest in the rapid development and commercialisation of emerging zero-emissions solutions in harder-to-abate sectors.

That’s become far easier, since, for the first time, ‘no regret’ green options can be identified across every sector of the economy – in some sectors those can already deliver zero-emissions, while in others they can deliver demonstrably lower emissions today and facilitate a shift to zero emissions in the coming decades.

For instance, while some three million electric vehicles now operate across the world, there are now also electric ferries, trucks and electric planes in demonstration too.

Decarbonisation means, then, embracing a future that’s already visible: going harder and faster to back electric and fuel cells for light vehicles and short-haul, while developing, on a commercial scale, biofuels, synfuels and other alternatives to power heavy transport and long-haul.

As we rebuild after the pandemic, some governments might be tempted to take what the Economist describes as ‘the lazy way, the easy way’: that is, channelling resources into carbon-intensive enterprises in the hope of creating jobs.

Such a choice would lock us into high-emissions infrastructure, right at the moment we need to decarbonise. There is an alternative, as many commentators are insisting.

Stimulus funding could instead be directed to support the development, demonstration and deployment of energy productivity, renewable technologies, and nature-based solutions. Such goal-oriented investment signals would thus facilitate the transition to a zero-emissions economy, while also bringing ‘shovel-ready’ projects into an economy needing a kickstart.

Around the world, many governments and companies have already committed to net zero emissions by 2050. Every state and territory in Australia similarly aims to achieve net zero by or before 2050. Some of Australia’s largest businesses – including software company Atlassian, property companies Dexus and Mirvac, resources company Rio Tinto and Qantas airlines – have made similar pledges.

The scenarios modelled in Decarbonisation Future rely on everyone – governments, businesses and individuals – going ‘all in’ to meet the ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

Not so long ago, that might have seemed unrealistic.

Yet in response to the coronavirus we’re seeing, all around us, that businesses, individuals and all levels of government are willing to support each other and work together in response to a crisis.

In this changed context, a chance exists for a fresh approach to climate, building on the cooperation currently being forged between businesses and politicians at federal, state and local level.

If we can come together to manage a pandemic, we can show the same bipartisanship as we decarbonise.

The schemes on which the jobless of the Great Depression laboured created the Australia we now take for granted. In the 1930s, unemployed men found work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, both of which transcended the moment of their construction to become treasured infrastructure for the nation.

We have a unique opportunity to do something similar: to build, out of the tragedy of COVID-19, a resilient, zero-emissions society in which our children can flourish.

The disastrous bushfire season of 2019/20 focussed public attention on the need to intensify responses to climate change. In the midst of the pandemic, the focus on climate might have dissipated – but the need for action has not.

We know, across each sector of the economy, what needs to be done to reach net zero. The need for stimulus creates an opportunity to deploy established, off-the-shelf technologies, while accelerating R&D to bring emerging solutions to market.

We’ve been presented with an unexpected chance to address climate change. It might not come again.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.