Report calls for fossil fuel phase out

July 27, 2012
A concentrating solar thermal power plant in Spain.

A report published on July 23 calls for Australia to institute a moratorium on new fossil fuel developments as the centrepiece of a global campaign to phase out fossil fuels.

Hundreds attended the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane meetings to launch the latest report from climate research group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), Laggard to Leader: How Australia Can Lead the World to Zero Carbon Prosperity.

The Melbourne meeting, with nearly 400 in attendance, was larger than the Climate Commissioner’s Victorian report launch the following night. Lead authors Fergus Green and Reuben Finighan presented the key points of the report, along with responses from Melbourne University academics Robyn Eckersley and Peter Christoff.

The report points out that the current course of UN climate negotiations will not result in emissions cuts until after 2020. But the 2°C temperature goal, which all nations have formally endorsed, requires global emissions to peak and start declining by 2020 at the absolute latest.

The report singles out Australia for making the problem worse. Australia’s coal and gas export emissions are already double its high domestic fossil fuel emissions, and are on track to more than double again by 2030.

If this goes ahead, Australia will export almost twice as much carbon dioxide to the world as Saudi Arabia does today. Australia’s total domestic and fossil fuel emissions in 2030 would total 11% of that year's carbon budget to stay under 2°C.

The report says all emissions in a nation's sphere of influence should be considered its responsibility. This includes exported fossil fuels and the embodied emissions in imports. Waiting for a UN agreement that may never materialise is not accepted as a valid excuse.

"Cooperative decarbonisation" is the term adopted for Finighan and Green's bottom-up style of national leadership on climate change. This is to replace waiting for the "grand bargain" of a top-down, binding UN agreement. This could see regional or sectoral agreements between nations to collaborate on replacing coal, developing renewables, and assisting the poorest nations to develop equitably without fossil fuels.

The report suggests that an Australian moratorium on new fossil fuel export developments would help to stabilise the (currently falling) price of traded coal, making renewable energy relatively more attractive. Because our coal and gas is such a large part of the international market, we can influence world prices. A reduction in Australian exports could not easily be filled by other suppliers, as it takes time to develop new coal and gas resources.

In keeping with BZE's earlier research, it suggests Australia could invest heavily in Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) power plants, which can operate day and night. Combined with the moratorium on new coal and gas developments, this would help make renewable energy cheaper than coal. As the authors put it in the launch presentation, new technology costs are brought down by deployment and further research. US climate writer Joe Romm was quoted: "Deploy, deploy, deploy, research and develop, deploy, deploy, deploy."

"The greatest gift that sunny Australia could give to the world would be to repeat for CST what cloudy Germany did for solar panels: through smart policies and targeted investments, enable the deployment across Australia of enough CST to make this game-changing technology cost-competitive with fossil fuels everywhere," BZE said on releasing the document.

[The report can be downloaded at BZE's website.]

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