A 2050 vision for our climate

Anna Skarbek
Anna Skarbek

It is well known that Australia’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are among the highest in the world, driven by coal-based electricity, agriculture and industry. Now an innovative project is taking an active approach to decarbonising our energy economy to ensure we meet our international obligations by 2050.

Monash alumna Anna Skarbek (BCom(Hons) 1998, LLB(Hons) 2000), executive director of ClimateWorks Australia, is leading the charge. Here she explains the reason for that optimism.

Global decarbonisation will have positive and negative implications for the Australian economy, and managing the transition will demand significant investment.

I am very confident our economy is flexible and resilient enough to deliver. A key will be our abundant natural resources – solar, wind, biomass and the potential of carbon forestry – and I suspect they will provide us with a comparative advantage.

Last year, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network appointed ClimateWorks Australia and the Australian National University to lead a project called Deep Decarbonisation Pathways. It’s pretty clear how thorough this project is going to be, given the title. The aim is to show how the world can still limit global warming to two degrees Celsius by 2050 to avoid the worst climate change risks and impacts.

While some people feel the quest to limit global warming is a near impossible task, it’s worth realising that the technology already exists to achieve the goal and there is brilliant work being done right now. In the 36 years ahead we will see technology continue to change quickly. If you think back to 1978, we hadn’t heard of email accounts or smartphones. A solar panel cost a bomb and we were still thrilled by man walking on the moon.

But there is much to be done; in fact the project team has already identified three pillars to help Australia build a pathway towards a low carbon economy by 2050: substantial increases in energy efficiency, a shift towards low carbon energy sources and a reduction in agricultural and industrial emissions.

The UN recently reported that 15 countries, including Australia, could halve emissions while tripling economic output. The solutions differ according to each country’s unique characteristics, but all show great increases in energy efficiency across the economy, an almost carbon-free power system, and switching to low carbon energy sources in transport, buildings and industry.

The US, for example, could see energy emissions reduce by 85 per cent while GDP almost doubles. Its power system in 2050 could comprise 40 per cent renewables, 30 per cent nuclear and 30 per cent carbon capture and storage on coal and gas – and there is no fossil fuel use for electricity without carbon capture.

Australia has more renewable energy options than some countries, and we can achieve near-zero carbon electricity through renewables alone. Or we could introduce some carbon capture and storage, or nuclear, into the energy mix. As electricity is decarbonised, other fuels such as petrol and gas can be substituted for electricity in vehicles, buildings and some industrial processes.

Australia’s 2050 pathway delivers a 71 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions from energy, while the economy grows by almost 150 per cent. Through additional land-based carbon sequestration, it would keep Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions within the 2-degree budget identified by Australia’s Climate Change Authority.

It’s incredibly exciting. I welcome comment from Monash alumni as we work with government and industry to encourage vigorous economic growth while accelerating new technologies. I suspect some of these technologies will be incubating at Monash right now.

Find out more about ClimateWorks Australia