The science is clear: We have to start creating our low-carbon future today

October 12, 2018, The Conversation
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

This week's release of the special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put scientific evidence on the front page of the world's newspapers.

As Australia's Chief Scientist, I hope it will be recognised as a tremendous validation of the work that scientists do.

The people of the world, speaking through their governments, requested this report to quantify the impacts of warming by 1.5℃ and what steps might be taken to limit it. They asked for the clearest possible picture of the consequences and feasible solutions.

It is not my intention in this article to offer a detailed commentary on the IPCC's findings. I commend the many scientists with expertise in climate systems who have helped Australians to understand the messages of this report.

My purpose is to urge all decision-makers – in government, industry and the community – to listen to the science.

Focus on the goal

It would be possible for the public to take from this week's headlines an overwhelming sense of despair.

The message I take is that we do not have time for fatalism.

We have to look squarely at the goal of a zero-emissions planet, then work out how to get there while maximising our economic growth. It requires an orderly transition, and that transition will have to be managed over several decades.

That is why my review of the National Electricity Market called for a whole-of-economy strategy for 2050, to be in place by the end of 2020.

We have to be upfront with the community about the magnitude of the task. In a word, it is huge.

Many of the technologies in the IPCC's most optimistic scenarios are at an early stage, or conceptual. Two that stand out in that category are:

  • carbon dioxide removal (CDR): large-scale technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
  • carbon capture and sequestration (CCS): technology to capture and store from electricity generation.

It will take a decade or more for these technologies to be developed to the point at which they have proven impact, then more decades to be widely deployed.

The IPCC's pathways for rapid emissions reduction also include a substantial role for . Behavioural change is with us always, but it is incremental.

Driving change of this magnitude, across all societies, in fundamental matters like the homes we build and the foods we eat, will only succeed if we give it time – and avoid the inevitable backlash from pushing too fast.

The IPCC has made it clear that the level of emissions reduction we can achieve in the next decade will be crucial. So we cannot afford to wait.

Many options

No option should be ruled off the table without rigorous consideration.

In that context, the Finkel Review pointed to a crucial role for natural gas, particularly in the next vital decade, as we scale up renewable energy.

The IPCC has made the same point, not just for Australia but for the world.

The question should not be "renewables or coal". The focus should be on atmospheric greenhouse emissions. This is the outcome that matters.

Denying ourselves options makes it harder, not easier, to get to the goal.

There also has to be serious consideration of other options modelled by the IPCC, including biofuels, catchment hydroelectricity, and nuclear power.

My own focus in recent months has been on the potential for clean hydrogen, the newest entrant to the world's energy markets.

In future, I expect hydrogen to be used as an alternative to fossil fuels to power long-distance travel for cars, trucks, trains and ships; for heating buildings; for electricity storage; and, in some countries, for .

We have in Australia the abundant resources required to produce clean hydrogen for the global market at a competitive price, on either of the two viable pathways: splitting water using solar and wind electricity, or deriving hydrogen from and coal in combination with carbon capture and sequestration.

Building an export hydrogen industry will be a major undertaking. But it will also bring jobs and infrastructure development, largely in regional communities, for decades.

So the scale of the task is all the more reason to press on today – at the same time as we press on with mining lithium for batteries, clearing the path for electric vehicles, planning more carbon-efficient cities, and so much more.

There are no easy answers. I hope, through this and other reports, there are newly determined people ready to contribute to the global good.

Explore further: Climate change: 1.5 C is worth striving for – but is it feasible?

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2 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2018
At present our only carbon-free option is nuclear energy. Another gen of advanced designs should bridge the 60-80yr gap between current tech and fusion.

And it will sustain this technology until we begin to use it to power space colonies as it will be the ONLY option off-world.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2018
So what about:- Legally reducing disposability of goods; all of which take energy to produce.
Reduce plastics production; knowing that fuels have become a low cost biproduct of oil refining: This is keeping fuel unnaturally cheap and inhibiting green technologies.
Reduce population growth. The fastest way to triple your carbon footprint is to have a child and a grandchild.
Invest 'Manhattan project style' in critical green technologies like batteries and motors. The avoidable costs of storm or fire damage and sea level rise will be astronomical.
(The cost of a single F35 invested wisely could have given us lithium-sulphur solid-state-electrolyte batteries by now.)
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 12, 2018
The science is definitely NOT clear. Dishonest journalism.
4.4 / 5 (7) Oct 12, 2018
The science is definitely NOT clear. Dishonest journalism.

It certainly is, unless your eyesight is tainted by politics.
1 / 5 (6) Oct 12, 2018
The climate fraud is clear.
1 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2018
So what about:- Legally reducing disposability of goods; all of which take energy to produce.

Careful. Take the shopping bag example: it takes 40 - 80 re-uses of a canvas bag to offset the greater amounts of energy and materials spent on making it. Often these "re-usable" things don't last long enough, or are otherwise discarded, before the payback or soon after.

All goods are disposable - the question is merely about time.
5 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2018
Paper and canvas are both biodegradable. I have canvas bags in my closet that I have been using for 20 years. I don't find too many canvas bags hung up in the bushes in my front yard. Lots of plastic bags blow in from the surrounding streets. It is not just about energy.
3 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2018
WEll hopefully along with the reduction in carbon we;ll also have a reduction or complete elimination of those gases no one likes to talk about:
Benzene, Carbon monoxide, particulate matter, ethylene , toluene , acetylene , m,p-Xylenes, propylene and i-pentane. These are some of the most dangerous compounds released and I suspect them to be highly active in the triggering of asthma, breast cancer, lung cancer and heart attacks. Yet no one involved or concerned about global warming is raising any stink about these things. Just goes to show how biased people are in their reporting and news propagation. The money of corporations speaks loudest, I guess, nevermind all the medical expenses incurred by individuals. Maybe it's even good that people get sick - so the medical fraternity can keep on living in luxury. GPs and nurses excepted.
Mark Thomas
5 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2018
only carbon-free option is nuclear energy

We should use everything we have to fight global warming, including nuclear energy, but it is NOT the "only carbon-free option." Solar and wind are already less expensive, but they suffer from being intermittent. Energy storage solutions combined with wind and solar energy may ultimately make nuclear commercially irrelevant on Earth.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 15, 2018
Paper and canvas are both biodegradable. I have canvas bags in my closet that I have been using for 20 years.

That's great. Now, what do you use for bin liners?

The irony is that the plastic shopping bag folds easily and fits nicely in your back pocket, so it's actually easier to re-use than the canvas bag. I re-use mine a couple times and then put them in the trash bin. I have one tucked under the seat of my bike, another in my jacket...
not rated yet Oct 17, 2018
That's great. Now, what do you use for bin liners?
I use plastic trash bags - what is your point? I was just comparing the use of plastic shopping bags, to canvas ones. You said the canvas ones only last 40 uses. I find lots of plastic shopping bags hung up in the front yard. Seems to me that using reusable shopping bags is a small step in reducing pollution. One step at a time.
Phyllis Harmonic
5 / 5 (2) Oct 17, 2018
Seems to me that using reusable shopping bags is a small step in reducing pollution. One step at a time.

The thin plastic shopping bags are outlawed where I live and stores charge $.05 per paper bag. Some of the folks here were so upset at having to pay an extra nickel for a paper bag, it was ridiculous. But after a couple years, no one even thinks about it. And yes, many of us use reusable bags, boxes, and totes.

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