It’s regularly said that Australia’s overall contribution to the climate challenge is small. However, this elides the unique situation the country occupies geographically and culturally, as a developed western nation somewhat surrounded by Asian and African economies that are still rapidly developing. The leadership that Australia can potentially demonstrate regarding high quality of life with sustainably low climate impacts could underpin its twenty-first century legacy.

Australia isn’t there yet. The Renewable Energy Target has been met, and replaced with political divisions instead of new, comprehensive policy. Individual states have 2050 Net Zero Carbon ambitions, but the details are generally as sparse as the urgency. For the last few years, the drive towards national emissions reduction has remained fractured into disconnected targets, schemes and plans.

In 2015 the Council of Australian Governments, through the Energy Council, launched Australia’s National Energy Productivity Plan. The Plan, or NEPP, targets buildings, equipment and vehicles to achieve a forty per cent increase in energy productivity between 2015 and 2030, that is, in fifteen years. As the federal minister claimed at the time, this is expected to:

  • boost our competitiveness — creating investment and jobs;
  • help consumers manage their energy costs to reduce bills; and
  • reduce our carbon emissions — delivering at least one quarter of Australia’s emission reductions to meet our international commitments to 2030.

The official plan document, drawing from work by Climateworks, explains that:

Improving energy productivity requires more efficient investment across both the supply and demand side of energy markets, including: primary energy sources (such as coal, gas, oil, solar and wind); energy supply assets (generation and networks); assets related to energy use (such as more efficient equipment, buildings and vehicles); and avoided energy use. (page 9)

Despite all of this language, what ultimately needs to be increased is the value of this equation:

That is, ideally, enhancing the nation’s gross domestic product while reducing the input of primary energy (in petajoules, PJ). The Department of Industry, Sciences, Energy and Resources publishes the relevant $ million/PJ numbers each year, and by projecting 40% in FY2030 on top of the value in FY2015, the necessary trajectory can be visualised.

If Energy Productivity is inverted, it gives us the Energy Intensity. In FY2018 it was 3,401 gigajoules per $ million. The significance of this is that it’s a component of the Kaya Identity.

KAYA IDENTITY

The IPCC states:

An advantage of analysis that uses the Kaya identity to decompose emissions into four main driving forces is that it facilitates at least some standardization in the comparison and analysis of many diverse emissions scenarios. This decomposition is very useful because it indicates where to seek differences in scenario assumptions that may account for differences in the resultant GHG emissions. However, the identity is not used here to suggest causality. An important caveat is that these driving forces are not independent of each other; in many scenarios they explicitly depend on each other. For example, scenario builders often assume that high rates of economic growth lead to high capital turnover. This favors more advanced and more efficient technologies, which result in lower energy intensities.

Just to be clear, this isn’t an equation to be solved or simplified, but a tool to decompose the main driving forces of greenhouse gas emissions.

CO₂

Australia’s annual CO₂ emissions are graphed at Our World in Data.

We don’t want this to increase. Reducing this rapidly and substantially would help with global atmospheric concentrations, while involving the sort of political and technical ambition that would demonstrate leadership in Australia’s geopolitical region.

Population

All else being equal, Australia is unusual in the OECD as a country with substantial population growth. There are many future projections. The average trend from the last fifteen years could see nearly 30 million inhabitants by 2030.

GDP per Capita

Even as population rises, the nominal share of GDP must stay sufficiently high.

A rigid focus on GDP can often feel like a poor way to measure economic performance.

On the other hand, it’s a factor in the calculation of a nation’s UNEP Human Development Index, along with longevity and educational attainment. (Australia is ranked 6th.)

All else being equal, GDP per capita can’t decrease substantially.

Energy per GDP

As discussed above, reducing Energy Intensity is good for a nation’s competitiveness, and indicates that investments are being made more efficiently and resulting in greater returns. The relevant planning in Australia encompasses transport, buildings, business, mining, etc, as visualised by Climateworks.

It’s now 2020. How are we doing? According to recent literature, Australia is on track to achieve only twenty percent improvement 2015–2030. Analysis puts the annual energy productivity gain at 1.1%, when it now needs to be more like 2.5%. If CO₂ reduction is to rely heavily on increasing energy productivity, and therefore reducing energy intensity, then more instruments on top of BAU are required immediately. Otherwise, the Kaya Identity says there’s only one mechanism remaining.

CO₂ per Energy

This is conceptually simple for electricity, where fossil fuel power stations release net emissions while alternatives don’t. But transport, heating, and industrial processes overwhelmingly depend on combustion, and are the lion’s share of national energy consumption. There are also further greenhouse gas sources like agriculture substantial add to all of this.

Our World in Data

Electrification will in some cases be straightforward and effective. But in others, alternative thermal sources such as hydrogen combustion or high temperature nuclear could be the best approach. Major industries like ammonia production and steel milling demand ambitious action in the near term.

It should be strikingly obvious that this component holds the largest potential for bulk CO₂ reduction, as it is both desirable and conceivably realistic to push it as low as possible. In contrast, reducing PJ/$ million involves diminishing returns once the economy starts approaching significantly better efficiency, which is only after addressing such daunting challenges as e.g. replacing or retrofitting the vast majority of Australia’s housing stock. Australia has had a Plan for this and other measures for half a decade and it’s not on track.

No, it’s the six thousand-odd petajoules of primary energy which needs to be decarbonised by adopting fit-for-purpose and scalable technology that doesn’t release its CO₂ waste product into the air as part of normal operation. In this context, Australia urgently needs coordinated clean energy policy to navigate away from fossil fuel supplies in all energy-related sectors. This obviously needs to build on the current success with solar and wind deployment, but must also involve the removal of arbitrary barriers that continue to halt the comprehensive consideration of modern and upcoming advanced nuclear energy technologies. Lifting prohibitions now will pave the way for necessary skillbase and regulatory preparations, vital community engagement, and partnership development with potential technology vendors.

*

Metric magnitudes of energy

Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 15 years, focusing on nuclear technology for six, with a background in manufacturing and QA. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor (we want your support!) and writes for The Fourth Generation. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.

Eco-modernism, clean energy abundance and enhanced opportunity for future generations.