Can innovation disrupt current pathways to net zero emissions?
The science is clear that we must get to net zero emissions if we are to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. For developed countries like Australia, a 2 degree trajectory is generally accepted as requiring net zero emissions by 2050, while the pursuit of a 1.5 degree limit requires an earlier date, hence a more ambitious decarbonisation effort.
A pathway to reaching net zero emissions requires reducing the emissions intensity of the economy at a rate of about 6.0 per cent per year on average – 1.6 times higher than the rate achieved from 2005 to now . Meanwhile, innovative technologies and new ways of doing things which could help are not yet included in policy and investment planning. There is no widely-used climate modelling which incorporates the very real potential within these innovations, to enable and strengthen the rapid shift towards transformative action that is required.
In 2014, ClimateWorks Australia and ANU published the award-winning Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation in 2050 which has since guided major policy commitments and business decisions to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century.
The decision to include only demonstrated technologies in this analysis assured decision-makers this was achievable and that it could begin immediately. Yet in the few years since, promising technological and social innovations have rapidly advanced to offer new potential for major emissions reductions as well as significant disruption risks for incumbents. However no widely-used climate modelling incorporates the very real potential within these innovations. This means governments, corporates and investors are not taking all climate-related risks and opportunities into account when designing their climate policy, planning and investment strategies.
Could we change the game?
In a new Decarbonisation Futures report, ClimateWorks will analyse new technologies, social changes and business models that were deliberately excluded from the original Pathways work. We will assess how such innovation can help us get to net zero emissions sooner, demonstrating the opportunities if policy and investment planning take next generation technologies into account, instead of basing decisions on last decade technologies. This research will also highlight the risks associated with failing to proactively adapt to likely economic and societal changes such as locking-in unnecessary emissions with outdated policy settings.
For example, mainstream climate models do not include autonomous vehicles and their potential impact on personal and freight transport services. Similarly, 3D printing is often ignored, even though it could significantly change the structure of the manufacturing industry, delivering step changes in energy and material efficiency.
More specific technologies could also disrupt surrounding industries. For instance, cross-laminated timber could significantly reduce demand for steel in construction, and create new revenue sources for carbon forestry.
Our new work will therefore analyse the potential of innovative technologies along with social and economic practices, and develop scenarios to illustrate a range of possible trajectories compatible with both 2°C and 1.5°C climate goals.
This project has the potential to play a significant role in Australia’s transition to net zero emissions, guiding the next wave of policy and investment decision-making.
In November 2018, the first stage in development of this new work was completed, with the launch of two summary reports that begin to explore the future of decarbonisation across ‘Buildings’ and ‘Industry’ sectors. These mini-reports (downloadable from this page) will be included as part of the full Decarbonisation Futures report, to be released in early 2019.
ClimateWorks Australia 2018, Tracking progress to net zero emissions: National progress on reducing emissions across the Australian economy and outlook to 2030 ↩