Professor Peter Newman

There’s so much pessimism around right now in the wake of the latest missive from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So, who do you ring? Professor Peter Newman of course. He’s the man who doesn’t look on the bright side like some sort of one-eyed optimist, but one who backs up his statements with science and the evidence that’s often well ahead of the pack.

During a particularly dark patch during Tony Abbott’s reign as Enemy of the People No. 1, we went to hear a talk Newman was giving at the University of NSW, feeling down in the dumps, (contrary to all our promises to always be optimistic).

“What are you so depressed about?” he chortled. “We’re winning!” Before proceeding to rattle off a list of good news on the turning of the tide on coal fired power stations in China,  young people’s changing habits on car ownership and other good news pieces.

We ran an article on his outlook, copped some flack and within a few months the regular amalgamators of data proved him right.

Today (Tuesday) I called Newman who’s based at Curtin University in Perth, to see what he says now that Australia has registered 1.4 degrees warming and the rest of the world 1.1. He was on a train with his small grandson, who could be heard happily buzzing around him, elucidating the same calm views on the prospects for this planet and the amazing ingenuity of humans determined to survive.

As his train ambled along it passed the site, he said, of a still-under-wraps new town for 10,000 people that would be off grid, with vastly reduced energy and water consumption and electric powered shuttle busses to take residents to one of two stations in its patch.

I mentioned to him that for the first time in climate reports I’d latched on to the skerrick of hope in one of the comments that if we met our carbon targets by 2050 – carbon neutrality at the very least – the planet may start to cool again by the end of the century. The source was CSIRO’s Dr Pep Canadell. “It’s not too late” he said in the article.

Newman said it was interesting that the mood in the IPCC report clearly showed the need for acceleration of our carbon abatement targets, but there was also emphasis on how acceleration of action seems feasible.

“The scenarios were not quite as disastrous as in previous years, when they said if we keep going like this we’ve got no show.

“It’s very clear that every part of the earth is warming.” The first signs are in, but now “we’ve got a chance to change”.

The thing the report can’t do is detail how we might change, Newman said. That’s something for the mitigation report due later this year, of which Newman will be part. 

This report does mention mitigation and adaptation but it is primarily scientific.

“What the authors are saying is that we have to get to net zero and then below it. 

So, what are our chances given that Australia is already at 1.4?

Quite a lot actually. There’s the solar and battery revolution, which Newman says has been “extraordinary”. 

“It’s now the cheapest power in the world. It’s dropped 89 per cent in cost in 10 years. There’s been nothing else like that and it’s swept everything else away.

“You cannot talk any more about a gas transition or nuclear. They are three to four times the cost of solar and you can put solar in overnight. Nuclear takes 17 years. They’ve totally missed the boat. Gas would take 5-10 years to roll out an alternative.”

The gas industry lobbying is no more than a “desperate effort” to remain viable but it’s failed everywhere.

“You can see they won’t get their money.

“The gas lobby will continue fighting to save their assets but they’re now stranded.”

Extracting carbon

The big question is what we can do to not just abate our carbon emissions or get them to net zero but to extract carbon from the atmosphere given the legacy already embedded in the system.

The answer, says Newman, is trees, trees and more trees. Forget the furphy that they burn down, so it’s all a waste. In Australia trees burn but they’re designed to regenerate. Their roots go deep into the earth and they come back strongly.

“Its’ not such a bad story,” Newman says.

“It’s the best technology for carbon sequestration, far better than anything the engineers have come up with.”

For instance, the Gorgon gas project has failed, he said, referring to the Chevron owned Barrow island project in Western Australia that tried to sequester carbon. “They’ve had 20 years to sort that out and they’ve failed.”

But while the sun and trees do this effortlessly, for Chevron to do so takes a lot of energy, Newman says. “Then you’ve got to liquify it and put it down seven kilometres or so and hope it will stay.”

Other engineer-derived solutions include those in Switzerland and Sweden where there’s attempts to extract carbon from the air. “They’re sucking carbon out of the atmosphere at great expense and lots of energy…to convert to synthetic fuel and hoping that will replace diesel.”

It’s not working well, Newman says. It’s not attractive – again, the process uses large amounts of energy and it’s at a high cost.

Around so many processes clean fuel is winning the war on coal and gas.

Lighter vehicles right up to heavy trucks and buses can all now be powered by electric motors, leaving only ships and planes, still dependent on fossil fuels.

Hydrogen is another part of the story, useful for industrial processes and to make green steel, green fertiliser and so on, Newman says.

And Twiggy (Andrew) Forrest the Western Australian mining billionaire is turning heads with his foray to use hydrogen to make ammonia that can replace diesel. Newman says he’s already shown how this can work with long haul trains.

These trains can go down to the ports where ships can be refuelled alongside planes. 

“So regional ports will become very important in the future.”

Newman says this has big implications for cities and the built environment.

Development will occur around regional ports with train connections to hydrogen generation centres, and distribution channels to industry.

So taking Australia’s abundant solar to make hydrogen, ammonia and anything else that’s needed.

Newman envisages a good future for the regions near major ports, connected to inland mineral extraction areas and processing plants. 

The regions will become centres of economic growth with “large numbers of jobs and opportunities”.

Politics is getting more interesting

There’s a political message here that is probably the most interesting for those viewing the hopelessness of the past decade or two in the way the major parties have botched our response to climate change.

Newman sees the power of economic progress wrought by the clean energy revolution will leave the politicians no choice. And it’s already showing. 

In WA he says the state government is in a kind of nuanced intersection between action and inaction. It’s announced, along with every other state and territory a net zero target, but not made a big song and dance about it. However, what the commitment has done is require all the lower levels of government and agencies to report on their progress towards the target – in this case net zero by 2050. 

On gas the state government is not doing anything to stop the oil and gas industry from any investment. But the gas industry, seeking a chunk of investment nine times the size of the Adani coal mine in northern Queensland, will fail. In Newman’s view, “they won’t get their money”.

Nationally, the same inevitability is at play.

He says the National Party will have to face up to the facts and he thinks both the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the National’s newly re-elected leader Barnaby Joyce are positioned just right for a shift. 

First is the global pressure on Morrison. As he heads into the Glasgow COP 26, Newman says, “He will buckle, otherwise it’s only him and Saudi Arabia [holding out against strong climate action]. He’s under enormous pressure – when you get Boris Johnson pressuring you realise time’s up.”

The real surprise, to some, will be what Newman expects will happen next. He tips Joyce will step forward as the man who will “save the day” – a hero type. He will say something like, “I’ve had several restarts in my career (marriages included) and I’m not averse to change,” Newman tips.

He thinks Joyce will cite the advantages in Australia’s hands –  to the economy and to regional farmers – and the nation’s attributes with all the right trees, sun and space to create solar energy and hydrogen. 

Australia is brilliantly positioned to reap the rewards, Newman says Europe doesn’t have all those attributes, neither does North America. And eventually the politicians will have no choice.

Watch this space.

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  1. Good to have a cool and informed eye on Earth’s climate; thank you Peter.

    There’s some different data and another reading on what’s happening to Earth in this article, though, such as:

    “China, having already quadrupled its coal-fired power generation capacity so far this century, has more new capacity under construction or planned than the entire generation capacity of the United States.”

    https://www.smh.com.au/business/markets/china-s-long-awaited-market-opens-with-a-whimper-not-a-bang-20210719-p58ay1.html

    1. Yes Michael, but don’t forget that they build whole cities they don’t need. Uninhabited cities need non-operational power stations and together they have fairly low running-emissions (as opposed to the construction emissions). Given their propensity for pump priming infrastructure projects we need to pay more attendion to how much fossil fuelled power they generate and actual emissions than to their fleet’s nameplate potential emissions.

  2. We need to be optimistic about the technologies and the changes that we can make in response to the climate challenge. But we also need to be realistic about the political, business and media forces that are fighting desperately to resist change.