Address to the Smart Energy Global Race to Zero Summit
By the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull AC
20 October 2021
The stakes have never been higher.
As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned last month, the world is on a catastrophic path to a 2.7 degrees Celsius increase in global warming1.
This is far beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit that was agreed by the international community as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
In 2019, Australia experienced the driest and hottest year on record2. And during the summer of 2019-2020, bushfires burned more than 17 million hectares, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and killed 33 people. Rainforests along the Great Dividing Range, which have been ‘permanently wet’ for tens of millions of years burnt for the first time3; and an estimated one billion animals perished in the fires4.
These fires were not an anomaly,. But a sign of worse to come. The beginnings of a new normal. They are the result of a world already warmed by 1.1 degrees, because of climate change5 - and it’s only going to worsen if we do nothing.
We need a 45 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. This target will not stop global warming, but aims to cap warming to an increase of 2 degrees celsius, preferably 1.56.
The UN Climate Change group estimates that when you look at the group of countries that have new or updated targets, a total of 113 parties which account for 49 per cent of global GHG emissions, their total emissions are expected to decline by 12 per cent by 2030 compared to 20107.
In other words - we are woefully off track from reaching our 45 per cent target.
Even more alarming, is that when the available plans of all 191 Parties to the Paris Agreement are tallied up, this actually leads to a 16 per cent increase in emissions in 2030 compared to 2010, which could result in a temperature increase of 2.7 degrees by the end of this century8.
Nations must urgently redouble their emissions targets if we are to prevent disastrous global warming in the future. And we must do so now - as Prince Charles said: Glasgow is the last chance saloon.
The outlook seems bleak. Can we really abandon coal by 2040, let alone 2030 as the IPCC has called on OECD countries to do?
Yes we can, if we have the will. Because assuredly we have the means.
Wind and solar have never been cheaper, and costs continue to fall.
With record low auction prices of USD1.1 to 3 cents per kWh today, solar PV and onshore wind undercut even the cheapest new coal option without any financial support9.
Within ten years, the cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV fell by 85 per cent, that of concentrated solar power by 68 per cent, onshore wind by 56 per cent and 48 per cent for offshore wind10.
A recent CSIRO study estimated wind and solar generate power at less than $90 per megawatt-hour, even when the cost of transmission lines and backup storage was factored in.
Compare this to a new black or brown coal-fired power plant, which cost at least $90 a megawatt-hour, and up to $140. When carbon capture and storage was included, to supposedly neutralise a plant’s carbon emissions, the generation cost ranges up to $300 a megawatt-hour11.
The key to a successful transition to clean energy is planning. We do not need new technologies - they will come and they will be very useful - but we have the tools to do the job now.
The roll out of wind and solar is going well, but has to accelerate. Right now, my biggest concern is that we are not building enough long duration storage to make renewables reliable.
In almost all cases that means pumped hydro which as you know works by pumping water uphill when electricity is cheap and running it downhill to generate when prices are high.
I realised Australia needed a lot more of pumped storage at the end of 2016 and from that came the Snowy Hydro 2.0 scheme, happily under construction, and the Tasmanian Battery of the Nation plan which, unhappily, is yet to be commenced.
The need for long duration storage is the too often ignored crisis within the climate crisis. We simply aren’t building enough of it. And time is running out.
You can build a solar farm in months, a wind farm in a year or so. But pumped hydro takes much longer, so it needs to be built in advance of variable renewable generation12.
Snowy Hydro 2.0 for instance involves linking two large, existing dams, with over 40 kilometres of tunnels and a giant underground turbine chamber deep under the mountains. From the announcement of the big idea to first power will be close to nine years - and that’s fast.
As Andrew Blakers has demonstrated with his global pumped hydro storage atlas there are hundreds of thousands of sites for off river pumped storage13. There are 4,000 in Australia alone in locations where creating these water batteries would not have adverse environmental impacts.
Hydropower has to be sustainable, and that is the commitment of the global hydro sector14. But pumped storage does not require huge storages, let alone damming rivers and flooding valleys. It simply requires two adjacent reservoirs at differing elevations. Sometimes nature offers a topographical opportunity. Sometimes as Genex15 is demonstrating a disused mine site can offer a deep pit that will serve as the lower reservoir.
But we are not building nearly enough of it.
Hydrogen promises to be the clean fuel we’ve been waiting for - one that’s capable of decarbonising our hard but critical to abate sectors; with use cases ranging from making steel and cement to shipping, aviation and long-haul trucking16.
Almost all hydrogen today is made from natural gas (CH4) in a steam reformation process.. Its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined17.
Andrew Forrest’s FF18I is setting out to replace this so called grey hydrogen with green hydrogen made by electrolysing water to split the H2 from the O. Hydrogen is a highly reactive element, the most common in the universe, but almost always present in combination with something else. Just as you use energy to separate it (in an electrolyser) it creates energy when it recombines (with oxygen) as in a gas turbine or a fuel cell.
Dr Forrest’s green hydrogen ambitions are immense with manufacturing hubs envisioned around Australia and the world. He plans to make electrolysers, better and cheaper, in Gladstone and build solar panels and wind turbines in Australia. He brings at least three attributes to this task, which few others do: enormous financial resources, a passionate commitment to save the planet, and, a company whose business is steeped in engineering, construction, materials and heavy transport.
Green hydrogen is made by using renewable electricity to electrolyse water. No CO2 emissions to make it, no CO2 emissions when it is burned.
However the fossil fuel sector is anxious to market so called “blue hydrogen”. This is the same old grey hydrogen but using carbon capture and storage to put the CO2 under the ground.
This is a scam and a con. CCS is a proven failure. There was a time, years ago, I was John Howard’s Environment Minister when we believed that CCS could work. Billions were invested. But it has failed other than in a few niche applications. It is just too complex and too expensive.
But it is being used by the fossil fuel sector as a distraction to delay the end of burning coal and gas.
To take this con on, we have established the Green Hydrogen Organisation (GH2)19 of which I am Chairman. It will be a global advocate for green hydrogen as the only colour hydrogen that is genuinely clean.
Recent research from Stanford and Cornell University20 found that blue hydrogen is actually more harmful than burning coal; and 60 per cent worse than burning diesel.
Not only does the carbon capture and storage not work but making blue hydrogen also results in ‘fugitive emissions’ - that is, the incidental release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has a global warming potential 86 times higher than CO2 when averaged over 20 years.
The challenge is to lower the cost of green hydrogen to $2 a kg or better. This will make it competitive with fossil fuel derived hydrogen.
The cost of alkaline electrolyzers made in North America and Europe for example, fell 40 per cent between 2014 and 2019; and Chinese-made systems are already 80 per cent cheaper than those made in the West21.
A recent report by IRENA notes that increasing plant size from 1MW, typical in 2020, to 20MW could reduce costs by over a third. Increasing stack production with automated processes in gigawatt-scale manufacturing facilities can also achieve a step-change cost reduction22.
Still, the largest cost component for green hydrogen on-site production remains high electricity costs. And that’s where renewables really come into play.
As we know, the cost of renewables has dramatically declined over the past decade; and with a Levelized Cost of Electricity in the range of $20 MWh, green hydrogen can become cost competitive with grey, let alone blue, hydrogen23.
So we have the tools to do this job: cheaper renewable energy, storage, especially long duration, and green hydrogen.
As usual we are short of the scarcest resource - leadership.
For far too long, action on climate change has been held hostage by right wing politics, vested interests in the fossil fuel sector and right wing media mostly owned by Murdoch. A toxic troika.
Australians are fed up and tired of this lack of action on climate change. Poll after poll continually tell us this24. The Business Council of Australia also recently called for a lifting of Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target to between 46 and 50 per cent below 2005 levels, and a four-fold increase in renewable energy and greater efforts to embrace low-emissions technology throughout the economy.
It looks like the Federal Government is determined to be literally the last people in Australia to support net zero emsisions by 2050.
We are waiting on Barnaby Joyce and the National Party many of whose members deny the reality of global warming and are seeking billions of dollars in subsidies for the coal sector.
Once upon a time, the National Party genuinely sought to represent farmers. Now their only industry affiliation appears to be coal mining. Australia’s farmers know that global warming is real, they know that the climate is getting hotter and drier. It is no surprise to them that recent ABARES modelling estimates that changes in rainfall in the last two decades have cut farming profits by 23 per cent compared to what could have been achieved in pre-2000 conditions25.
The Nationals’ proposal that the federal government should become a financier of last resort for the mining sector via the creation of a $250 billion loan facility is in effect an Australian taxpayer bailout for huge foreign resource companies ranging from Chinese government owned Yancoal to Glencore, Peabody Coal, Mach Energy and Shell to name just a few..
Of course we need to commit to net zero by 2050 at the latest. Of course we need to step up our ambition for 2030. We took 26-28% cuts (from 2005) to Paris. Now we should lift that to well over 40%. That radical band of greenies otherwise known as the NSW Liberal National Government have already committed to a 50% 2030 cut.
Right now this enervating endless groundhog day of climate lunacy in Canberra has created a policy vacuum that has gone on for years. So it is now wonder that the States and Territories have stepped up on energy and climate, just as they did on the pandemic.
Australia has never been so out of step with its friends and allies on a major global issue as it is today on climate. While our closest partners take increased 2030 NDCs to Glasgow, Barnaby Joyce (the real arbiter of energy policy) has ruled one out.
It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. Well climate action delayed is equally climate change denied. If we keep pushing back larger cuts to emissions into the future we will never reach net zero emissions.
And if playing our part to save the planet does not inspire, delaying action will mean that when the end of coal and gas does come we will not be ready for it. Just as we said in 2007 when John Howard’s plans for an ETS were set out, there is an a clear advantage to make the transition sooner.
I have noticed that the latest fashionable, intelligent sounding thing to say is that the transition will not be linear. This means that if you assume we are to get to net zero in 2050, the curve of declining emissions from now to then will not be smooth. That’s almost certainly right. Smooth curves work better in theory than practice.
And this is now being used as a way of justifying doing less now and waiting for when, the 2040s, for miracle new technologies to come along and save the day. Delay is the new denial.
But it cuts both ways. Demand for coal and gas will not fade gracefully over thirty years. There will be sharp, fast disruptions as our major trading partners decarbonise. If politicians really cared about regional communities and mining ones in particular they would not be pretending coal goes on forever, but rather putting in place the investments and the plan to ensure well paid clean energy jobs in the future. .
Climate change affects all of us - it is a global problem. And it is one where all nations must play their part and recognise the importance of their contribution to lowering emissions globally.
And to get everyone on board, developed nations need to help developing ones.
Africa, for example, carries the heaviest burden of climate change effects, despite having contributed the least to global warming and having the lowest emissions. It is the most vulnerable continent to climate change - 95 per cent of sub-saharan Africa relies on rain-fed agriculture26.
In 2009, the Copenhagen climate summit agreed developed countries would provide $100 billion per year by 2020. We have missed this target. But we must not miss it again. And we need to keep calibrating the financing required to ensure developing countries are climate change ready.
Failure to do so will only require greater aid and assistance in the years to come. We can expect more natural disasters, greater poverty, internal displacement and climate refugees. If climate change is left unchecked, an estimated 132 million people will be pushed into poverty over the next 10 years. And by 2050, more than 200 million people could be displaced within their own countries27.
We have run out of time. Glasgow must be the galvanising inflection that sets the world on a new accelerated course to cut emissions with an urgency and purpose that transcends the denial, the lies and the political craziness.
The upside of course is that we are in the best position we can be. Renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels. Pumped hydro offers a cost-effective long-term storage solution. And green hydrogen is increasingly cost-competitive and will decarbonise those industries and applications that electrification cannot.
Just because Australia’s government looks set to disappoint at Glasgow, we should not lose hope. Our commitment as a nation is not determined by the spin and obfuscation of Morrison and Taylor. The world knows that most Australians want faster action to cut emissions, it can see our states and territories have higher ambitions and that our businesses are overwhelmingly committed to a zero emission economy.
If Andrew Forrest’s ambitions will not be constrained by the failings of our politics, then neither should ours.