Friday, 20 February 2015

Australia's pathway to deep decarbonisation by 2050

By Catherine Leining, Policy Fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research

Australia's deep decarbonisation pathway to 2050:
Image from ClimateWorks Australia
In December 2014, Amandine Denis, Head of Research at ClimateWorks Australia, gave a seminar at Motu on Australia's participation in the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project (DDPP).  She explained that Australia has the technical potential to achieve zero net emissions from energy (with some offsetting by forestry) by 2050 using a pathway that enables GDP growth at an average annual rate of 2.4% - a rate similar to that of the last five years.

The DDPP was launched by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) to demonstrate how countries can reduce emissions to limit global temperature increases below 2°C.  So far, researchers in 15 countries covering 70% of global emissions have chosen to develop technically feasible national pathways for deep decarbonisation. Participating countries include Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, and the USA.  Researchers work independently from their respective governments.

In 2014, the DDPP released its first report showing the initial results from these studies.  In aggregate, these countries identified the potential to reduce CO2 emissions from energy by 45% between 2010 and 2050, representing a 56% reduction in these emissions per capita and an 88% reduction in the carbon intensity of GDP.  Countries could not achieve these reductions acting alone. In that regard, the studies adopted the following assumptions:
  • All countries take strong, early, and coordinated actions to achieve deep decarbonization. 
  • All countries adopt adequate nationally appropriate policies, regulations, and incentives. 
  • Financial flows are re-directed from high-carbon to low-carbon portfolios and projects.
  • Financial support is provided to developing countries as they appropriately require financial support to implement mitigation policies and finance low-carbon investments.
  • Low-carbon technologies become available and affordable to all countries, for example through a technology cooperation mechanism and fund, which shares equitably the costs and benefits across countries.
In Australia's case, the emission reductions could be driven by four "pillars" of transformation: reducing energy demand through energy efficiency; shifting to low-carbon electricity through renewables or a mix of renewables, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear energy; fuel switching to low-carbon electricity and biofuels; and reducing non-energy emissions through industrial improvements/ CCS and switching from livestock grazing to carbon forestry.  While the fossil fuel sector would be negatively affected, sectors such as non-hydro renewable electricity, forestry, gas extraction, mining and passenger rail transport would be boosted.  More detail is available in the presentation slides, which can be downloaded from Motu's website here.

In its 2014 report, the DDPP authors make two useful recommendations for a successful global agreement on climate change in Paris in December 2015:
  1. Country DDPs: A shared global commitment that each country will develop and make publicly available a (non-binding) DDP to 2050 that is consistent with the 2°C limit and their national circumstances. Official country DDPs (as distinct from illustrative DDPs, developed by researchers) would, hopefully, be predicated on a shared commitment to the global target and to all aspects of global cooperation needed to achieve it, including technology cooperation, financial support, and capacity building.
  2. Global, large-scale RDD&D of low-carbon technologies: A massive and sustained global international collaborative public-private effort to develop, demonstrate, and diffuse various low-carbon technologies that are not yet technically mature or economically competitive with fossil fuel based technologies, and are key to the success of deep decarbonization. A global technology cooperation and fund mechanism will also be necessary to make sure these technologies are accessible and affordable for all countries.
The next phase of work by the DDPP will be to refine the analysis of technical feasibility and extend the research focus to the economic and social costs and benefits of deep decarbonisation.

The DDPP invites researchers and organisations in other countries to join the initiative.  This seems like an opportunity which New Zealand's talented and growing climate change research community should seriously consider.


  1. I'm all for collaboration, but will it take account of the declining net energy that we face, and the probable effect of that on economic activity and the therefore emissions 'growth'?

    This blog post ( gives a reasonable overview of some of the considerations that should be included:
    "We are bumping up against limits in many ways not modeled in the IPCC report. The RCP2.6 Scenario comes closest of the scenarios shown in providing an indication of our future situation. Clearly the climate is changing and will continue to change in ways that our planners never considered when they built cities and took out long-term loans. This is a problem not easily solved.

    One of the big issues is that energy supplies seem to be leaving us, indirectly through economic changes that we have little control over. The IPCC report is written from the opposite viewpoint: we humans are in charge and need to decide to leave energy supplies. The view is that the economy, despite our energy problems, will return to robust growth. With this robust growth, our big problem will be climate change because of the huge amount of carbon emissions coming from fossil fuel burning.

    Unfortunately, the real situation is that the laws of physics, rather than humans, are in charge. Basically, as economies grow, it takes increasing complexity to fix problems, as Joseph Tainter explained in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Dissipative structures provide this ever-increasing complexity through higher “energy rate density” (explained in the Chaisson article linked above).

    Now we are reaching limits in many ways, but we can’t–or dare not–model how all of these limits are hitting. We can, in theory, add more complexity to fix our problems–electric cars, renewable energy, higher city density, better education of women. These things would require more energy rate density. Ultimately, they seem to depend on the availability of more inexpensive energy–something that is increasingly unavailable.

    The real issue is the danger that our economy will collapse in the near term. From the earth’s point of view, this is not a problem–it will create new dissipative structures in the future, and the best-adapted of these will survive. Climate will adapt to changing conditions, and different species will be favored as the climate changes. But from the point of view of those of us living on the planet earth, there is a distinct advantage to keeping business as usual going for as long as possible. A collapsed economy cannot support 7.2 billion people.

    We need to understand what are really up against, if we are to think rationally about the future. It would be helpful if more people tried to understand the physics of the situation, even if it is a difficult subject. While we can’t really expect to “fix” the situation, we can perhaps better understand what “solutions” are likely to make the situation worse. Such knowledge will also provide a better context for understanding how climate change fits in with other limits we are reaching. Climate change is certainly not the whole problem, but it may still play a significant role."

  2. Thank you for your comment. You are touching on some challenging issues around multiple drivers of energy supply and demand. The International Energy Agency and others have published some interesting studies on technically and economically feasible energy pathways consistent with 2 degree scenarios, and also on implications of "peak cheap oil." The cost of renewable energy has been dropping much faster than forecasted and uptake is accelerating. Attractive future pathways remain within our grasp but we have to be willing to change with speed and coordination. We will require "whole systems" approaches to align the technology, economic, behavioural and political changes necessary to transition constructively toward zero net global emissions in a way that meets development needs.

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