Residential and commercial building energy use would halve and rooftop PV increase 10-fold if an ambitious plan to decarbonise Australia by 2050 is realised.

The report by ClimateWorks and the Australian National University, Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation in 2050: How Australia can prosper in a low carbon world, which is to be presented to the UN Climate Leaders’ Summit in New York today (Tuesday), finds that deep decarbonisation could happen with existing technologies, and without major structural changes to the economy.

“There are many pathways for Australia to substantially reduce emissions but all include greatly improved energy efficiency across the economy, a nearly carbon free power system and switching to low carbon energy sources in transport, buildings and industry,” ClimateWorks Australia executive director Anna Skarbek said.

“Taking the carbon out of our electricity system provides the largest reduction in emissions. Then we can use the carbon-free electricity to replace petrol in cars, and gas in buildings and some industrial processes.”

However, the report found that Australia’s energy mix would have to be comprise at least 50 per cent renewables by 2030 for the country to stay within its carbon budget.

In the buildings sector, the report found energy efficiency measures could reduce residential energy use by over 50 per cent, with energy use in the commercial sector reducing by just under 50 per cent per square metre.

“This substantial improvement in comparison to recent trends does not require a substantial technological leap as it can be achieved through ensuring that new buildings are as efficient as possible, and by replacing equipment by best practice models at the end of its useful life,” the report says.

“For example, LEDs can reduce energy use by almost 80 per cent compared to halogen globes, and can even provide 25 per cent savings compared to efficient compact fluorescent lamps. Similarly, 8 star new builds have demonstrated that 80 per cent less energy use for heating and cooling compared with current homes is possible across much of Australia’s climate zones. In most cases, the cost of energy saved over time will more than offset the additional upfront costs at standard rates of return.”

Rooftop solar PV would increase by 10-15-fold across each of three scenarios modelled by the researchers. Gas, meanwhile, would be switched off across the built sector, with a mass electrification of buildings to use low carbon energy from a majority renewable grid.

“A switch from natural gas to a decarbonised electricity supply results in near elimination of emissions from buildings by 2050,” the report says. “This involves a move from gas to electricity for all heating, hot water and cooking equipment.”

ClimateWorks Australia head of research Amandine Denis said the study was able to identify greater emissions reductions than previous work by the Garnaut Review and Treasury due to recent changes including large cost reductions in renewables, technological advancements and better understanding of opportunities in carbon forestry and industrial production.

Frank Jotzo, director of ANU Crawford School’s Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, said Australia could cut emissions while maintaining a strong economy.

“In a decarbonising world, where other countries also act to reduce their emissions in line with what is needed to avoid global warming of more than two degrees, Australia can play its part while sustaining rapid economic growth,” Mr Jotzo said.

“While decarbonisation is a significant transition for Australia, it is achievable. And our economy has proven time and time again that it is flexible, adaptable and resilient.”

The report is part of the UN Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project that involves modelling teams from 15 major emitters.

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  1. This article is about how much we can accomplish with technological changes to reduce energy use. It amplifies a theme developed by Amory Lovins and others in Natural Capitalism, and extended by Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution. This is worth knowing and celebrating. We are in the midst of a Great Transition to a life-sustaining society, provided that global warming does not do us in as a viable civilisation first.

    The article put forward the view that we can grow the economy and become ecologically sustainable at the same time. This sounds like good news – until we notice that they are basing their analysis on limiting global temperature rise to 2°.

    With current global warming at about 1° methane is bubbling up from gas hydrates in the Arctic seabeds. The protective permafrost barrier, long thought to be impermeable, is obviously cracking. Field scientists such as Natalia Shakhova who have watched the development from now methane plumes to massive fields of geysers are visibly worried. They are concerned that we are near or at the beginning of massive ‘methane burp’ that will boost average global temperature by 6°, leading to extreme heat waves, increased storm damage and catastrophically disrupted food supplies.

    In my view this article does a disservice to the environmental movement, because it lulls us into a false sense of complacency. If we are at the edge of catastrophic global warming we need to go into emergency mode now to do all the changes required to reduce CO2 emissions as rapidly as possible, including intentionally slowing the economy.

    This is not a popular view. We should all do our own research to decide whether it is valid or not, and respond accordingly. Obviously I have already drawn my own conclusions.