13 Jan 2020

Australia can show the world how and why we need to fight climate change

From Summer Times 2020/2021, 9:30 am on 13 January 2020

Australia can have a big influence on larger countries’ efforts to decarbonise their economies, and it has the potential to be a green energy superpower, an economist says.     

Peter Martin from the Australian National University says although Australia represents only 0.3 percent of the world’s population, and 1.3 percent of the world’s emissions it can be a climate change leader.

He believes Australia can have an influence on much larger economies such as China.

He's outlined his argument in this piece for The Conversation.

Firefighters tackle a bushfire in thick smoke in the town of Moruya, south of Batemans Bay, in New South Wales on January 4, 2020.

Photo: AFP

“If you look at what Australia has done, and when it's done it, it seems to have had a huge, surprisingly big effect.

“If you just had to look at one country, you'd look at China, it accounts for 27 percent of the global total. So, it can make a big difference.”

However, those emissions have only come recently, and most greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere were generated by the US, the USSR and the EU, he says.

He says a graph, created by Australian energy policy advisor Ross Garnaut, on Chinese emissions makes for interesting reading.

“You'll see that China's emissions were virtually flat when it wasn't an industrial power, before it modernised and industrialised, which by the way, only happened from nearly 2000s.”

From 2000 to 2003 those emissions raced upwards, he says.

“On the graph they are a 45-degree angle all the way to 2010/ 2011.”

At that point they slowed very rapidly, he says.

“China's emissions stopped growing - stopped. So, you'll see the graph that is spirit level flat from around 2010 to 2011 - it goes horizontal.”

He says it was at this time that world leaders such as Barack Obama and Julia Gillard in Australia were making strong commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions – China followed that lead, he says.

“China made commitments for the first time, China made a commitment for slower growth than usual.”

It turned out that it went far beyond that, Prof Martin says.

“This was beyond what was expected, and it's continued until very recently. Now, it’s started going up again, when you've got a different president in the US, different political leaders in Australia and the US reneging on its climate change commitments.”

A green energy superpower

Wind turbines on the outskirts of Canberra.


Australia has the world's biggest reserves of uranium and is richly-endowed with natural gas and coal. And in terms of renewables, it has also hit the energy jackpot, he says.

North west Australia has a rare combination of both sun and wind, Prof Martin says.

“People talk about a combined solar and wind resource, which is where you've got the two in the one location because obviously the sun goes down certain times of day, and the wind only blows at certain times a day.

“So, if you have the two together, you're in a very good position to make near continuous electricity.”

This electricity can then be used to make hydrogen.

“That can be used to make steel … it’s an emerging technology but it's possible to make steel without coal. You use biomass for the carbon and to make a whole lot of other products.

“We have an opportunity to use the resources we have, the alumina, the iron ore to make very cheap, because of the close to zero marginal cost of the energy, very cheap green steel and other products onsite.”

That makes more sense than exporting the hydrogen, he says.

“Sure you can export hydrogen but you're going to put it in ships and cool it to minus 200 degrees and export it to the rest of the world.”

These emerging renewable technologies are cause for optimism, he says.

“Amid pessimism about fires there's a lot of optimism about how Australia can become a green industrial economy.

“If we could pull this off, this would be amazing. Because we have ridden the China boom by exporting coal and iron ore and we might be able to a ride another one.”

Prof Martin is a visiting fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

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