On Tuesday, 27 October 2020, ClimateWorks and the British High Commission held the first of the ‘Building Our Future’ webinar series: ‘Clean technology: energy and industry transitions’.

The panel featured Professor John Loughhead, Chair of the International Mission Innovation Steering Committee; Jo Evans, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Industry Science Energy and Resources; Ita Kettleborough, Deputy Director of the Energy Transitions Commission; and Anna Skarbek, CEO of ClimateWorks Australia, in a wide-ranging discussion about the potential of clean energy, the progress made around the world, and the challenges that remain.

Brian O’Callahan, lead of the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project, chaired the event. He began by outlining the meeting’s premise.

‘Clean technology can,’ he declared, ‘boost the vitality of our economy, catalyse new industry and labour market strength, and help us reach our decarbonisation potential.’

The first speaker, Professor Loughhead, explained the work of Mission Innovation, an initiative announced at the Paris climate conference in 2015. Originally slated for five years, the program has had its tenure extended. Today, he said, Mission Innovation focuses on ‘specific outcome based efforts in a selected number of areas to provide solutions that the members say will be needed in order to meet some of their respective targets.’

Professor Loughhead spoke about the UK’s energy transition process, which, he argued, began 12 years ago with the passing of the Climate Change Act. That committed the government to meeting specific emissions reduction targets: initially an 80 percent reduction against the 1990 baseline by the year 2050 but recently adjusted to net zero emissions by 2050.

‘[T]he existence of specific targets has… provided an environment where the trend towards low emission or zero emission technologies is now permeating much of the consciousness of the population at large,’ he said.

Asked about the lessons for Australia, Professor Loughead emphasised that the transition is ‘an opportunity as well as simply a cost and a drag’. In the UK, he said, the emergence of a political consensus has meant actions can be ‘encapsulated in quite firm policies that the government has been able to develop in conjunction with industry and then put in place market mechanisms to support them’, which has, in turn, meant ‘public engagement with the whole activity’ manifested in, for instance, the take up of battery-driven vehicles.

Jo Evans then talked about the Australian government’s low-emissions technology statement, which, she explained, stressed clean hydrogen, long duration energy storage, carbon capture and storage; low-emission steel and aluminium production and soil carbon measurement.

‘Those are the five things very much predicated on getting great abatement in Australia, getting great abatement globally,’ she said. ‘So we don’t just have a domestic focus with these goals. We expect and hope that they will support Australia continuing to be a provider of energy and other resources to the world, and so we want to see them taken up globally.’

In response to a question from Brian O’Callahan, she emphasised the importance of putting industry at the heart of carbon abatement.

‘We’ve always taken a market based approach in Australia… What [the government is] interested in is having processes and policies that enable industry to take up the opportunities that are there for them. And that’s the approach they’ve always taken.’

When Professor Loughead asked about the opportunities arising from the pandemic, Ms Evans affirmed the government’s desire to ‘build back better’ but also to ‘follow the technology, allow that to bring down costs that enable [solutions] to be picked up by the market and then build industries off that.’

Ita Kettleborough talked about the work of the Energy Transition Commission: ‘a coalition of about 43 leaders from across the energy intensive industries, finances and civil society’.

She stressed the ETC’s conviction that decarbonisation was now technically possible, with the ‘technologies and business solutions… either already available or very close to being able to be brought to market.’

A net zero economy meant, she said, electrifying where possible.  

‘But we also deploy new technologies and processes in sectors that can’t be electrified where it’s harder. So we’ve done a lot of work looking at heavy industry, long distance shipping, aviation, and looking at the opportunities to use hydrogen to use syn fuels, to use ammonia and to use sustainably sourced biomass… And carbon capture CCS, especially around industrial processes. And so when you add up that all together, you end up with a radically different shape of the for the global energy system.’

Ms Kettleborough spoke of the need for two sorts of innovation investment: ‘the incremental improvements that will enable the technologies we already have to play the role we need them to play by mid century’ but also an ‘investment in new technologies and bringing those new technologies to market.’

Anna Skarbek discussed the steps for Australia to accelerate its clean technology transition. She stressed, in particular, the necessity of rapid deployment. ‘It’s really about putting the foot down on the pedal and trying to harness all of those opportunities… to get the mature ones already rolling out across our own economy and the emerging ones rapidly established so that they can supply the world with that opportunity set that we talked about.’

In response to a question about how government policy could interact with business incentives, Ms Skarbek talked about the need ‘to move faster than where the customer is at… being more more proactive and leaning in to help move the market and the customer to adopt the zero emissions options.’ That, she said, was something both governments and businesses could do.

‘Decarbonisation, unfortunately, is a proactive activity… [Governments] can help make the market move by demanding the zero emissions version for any supply chain purchase, at least asking for it. And then if it isn’t the most cost effective one, crafting a blended finance solution so that then it’s in the market, others can point to it and say that’s how it works, it de-risks it for the next round.’

She acknowledged that COVID-19 distracted attention from climate but stressed it also provided an opportunity, one that could help Australia reach the Paris goal of emissions level compatible with a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees.   

‘We called it the “all in” scenario, really accelerating investment support for technologies in every sector. Now, coming out of the pandemic, that’s what governments are doing, throwing investment into economies, trying to bring forward investment, infrastructure, technology across every sector. So I’m crossing my fingers… for all our sakes, health, safety and prosperity, that indeed the solution to the pandemic in terms of economic stimulus is exactly what the doctor ordered for accelerated climate action as well, if we get it right.’

She concluded by noting the increasing momentum in civil society, business and government.  

‘Every state and territory has a net zero emissions goal,’ she said. ‘So on the destination, our record is strong…  Where the progress is mixed is on the pace of delivery. So there is consensus around the end goal, but on the journey, we’re not yet moving fast enough.’

Anna Skarbek then asked Professor Loughhead about the progress in clean technology that most excited him. He mentioned the UK’s achievements in cost reductions in offshore wind reduction and noted that the Indian government had set a challenge of reducing the cost of cooling by 80 per cent. ‘To my astonishment, people have come up with solutions that look as though they might be able to do that… As we set the targets, it is amazing what comes out of the woodwork.’

The session concluded with the panel responding to audience questions.