Australia will need to speed up and broaden its decarbonisation efforts to achieve net zero by 2050, according to the final report of the Net Zero Australia project, How to make net zero happen. The report builds on Net Zero Australia’s modelling of decarbonisation pathways, released in April 2023.
Net Zero Australia is a partnership of The University of Melbourne, The University of Queensland, Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment, and management consultancy Nous Group.
Chair of the Net Zero Australia Steering Committee, Emeritus Professor Robin Batterham, said more options, stronger investment drivers, and a larger pipeline of projects are needed.
“There are too many uncertainties to map a single path to net zero. We need to keep options on the table, and stay agile,” Professor Batterham said.
“It’s not useful to debate whether we will or won’t make it. Our priority should be to plan well, get on with it, and adapt to the lessons we learn.”
Principal of Nous Group Richard Bolt said all options that can make a serious contribution at a competitive cost need to be accelerated.
“Major investment is needed in solar, onshore wind, batteries, pumped hydro, and transmission. Offshore wind should start producing from 2030. Energy productivity should be boosted. But we’re not investing fast enough; hard as it is, we need to accelerate,” Bolt said.
“We also need to get ready to build a large fleet of gas-fired peaking plants beginning 2030, to back up renewables and exit coal-fired power – but with minimal actual use of gas.
“Carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) basins need to be prepared for large-scale, commercial use by 2030, as do initial clean hydrogen infrastructure projects.
“Nuclear power should not be in our plans, because it’s too expensive and slow. Only a dramatic fall in costs and prolonged renewable constraints would prompt a rethink.”
Independent member of Net Zero Australia’s Steering Committee, Katherin Domansky, said Australia’s energy exports will transition to fuels and minerals made with clean hydrogen.
“Our analysis suggests prioritising onshore processing of Australian ores with clean energy because it is cheaper than exporting ores and clean energy for processing abroad,” Domansky said.
“Some trading partners, notably Japan and South Korea, want to import clean energy from Australia because their domestic sources are limited. This should also be pursued.
“Constructive engagement is needed with trading partners so our export transition contributes to global decarbonisation while supporting their energy security.
“A clean energy export framework should be developed by the Federal Government, in consultation with domestic stakeholders and trading partners, to guide an orderly export transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and minerals.”
Director of the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne Professor Michael Brear said the transition will have large impacts on First Nations, farming communities, fossil fuel regions, vulnerable consumers and the environment.
“Frequent disputes over new infrastructure will not achieve the pace net zero needs,” Professor Brear said.
“Developments on Indigenous Estate should involve First Nations as true partners and provide jobs, infrastructure and services. Equity should be on the table.
“Similarly, farmers and communities will experience diverse impacts. Benefit-sharing agreements should be negotiated early, to build buy-in and partnerships.
“Lower-income households and renters face higher up-front costs and weak incentives to purchase new and efficient appliances. They will need extra support to navigate the transition.”
Associate Professor in Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland, Simon Smart, said fossil fuel regions need to attract new anchor industries that leverage comparative advantages.
“Consideration should be given to locating clean mineral and energy export hubs in fossil fuel regions across all States and Territories, fed by solar-hydrogen hubs inland,” Associate Professor Smart said.
“Policies to achieve net gain for environments and biodiversity will need to be planned and delivered in coordination with the net zero transition’s infrastructure build.”
Senior Research Scientist at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment, Dr Chris Grieg, said that the modelled capital requirement ($1.2 to 1.5 trillion of commitments by 2030, and $7 to $9 trillion by 2060) will not be met at the current rate.
“The gap is enormous,” Dr Grieg said.
Dr Greig, a lead author for the Net Zero America study which influenced the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), emphasised that Australia can’t and doesn’t need to copy the IRA, but can learn from its bold, ambitious, ‘all-options’ approach.
“Governments will have to help unlock the capital supply by reducing fiduciary risks,” Dr Grieg said.
Richard Bolt said that sustained collaboration and coordination will be needed.
“Business and households will play the largest role in the transition, but it is too complex and risky to be mobilised by markets alone,” Bolt said.
“Concerted action is needed by governments to stimulate capital and supply chains, using regulation, underwriting and subsidy. They need to coordinate renewable entry with coal exit, partner with communities and business, support vulnerable consumers, offset biodiversity loss, and inform the public.
“Investment is best accelerated by dedicated and well-resourced government agencies under legislation which sets targets and establishes effective mechanisms to reach them.
“Net zero will have to be a high priority for decades. Governments will need to refresh our infrastructure priorities to rebalance national investment towards this transition.
“This will be one of the largest and fastest economic transformations in history. It requires extraordinary cooperation to build support, coordinate investment and mitigate impacts. This will require a large reservoir of trust to be built up by governments and companies with households and communities.
“We will need to monitor progress and adapt to the lessons we learn over a long journey.”
Net Zero Australia is funded by gifts and grants from its sponsors: Worley, Dow, Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre, Future Energy Exports (FEnEx) Cooperative Research Centre, APA Group and Minderoo Foundation). It has an Advisory Group of representatives of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Climate Council, Energy Consumers Australia, Ethics Centre, National Farmers Federation, and St Vincent de Paul and project sponsors.
Net Zero Australia has consulted widely with the project's sponsors, other Advisory Group members and many stakeholders but is independent of all of them. We do not purport to represent their positions or imply that they have agreed to our methodologies or results.