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There are more horses in the energy race, but are they fast enough?


Central to Taylor’s speech was the announcement of a hierarchy of funding priorities. Technologies seen as not yet mature but with the potential to have “transformational impacts” in reducing Australian carbon emissions and benefiting the broader economy will be placed at the top. Technologies judged to be no longer in need of government support – such as coal, gas, wind and solar – are ranked last and would only attract funding in the event of market failure.

In energy and reductions policy, Taylor said the nation needs “more horses in the race” and identified clean hydrogen, electricity from storage [such as batteries], the development of processes to make low carbon steel and aluminium, carbon capture and storage, and increasing the carbon content of soil in agriculture as tier one priorities.

The problem is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that the world must start significantly reducing carbon emissions now if it is to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and set a pathway to keeping global warming as close to 1.5 degrees as possible.

Many experts propose that to meet these targets nations should be aiming to cut their emissions in half by 2030 and in half again by 2040.

By then the key technologies identified may not yet have reached scale. Clean hydrogen may need years of work in the development of electrolyzers to produce the gas.

Green steel, says Jotzo, has huge potential for reducing Australian emissions and boosting our industrial output but could still be 20 years away.

Tony Wood, director of the energy program at The Grattan Institute says he is inclined to “give the government the benefit of the doubt” for the plan. He says the technologies identified by Taylor are those he would pick.

“Of course any one of those horses could turn out to be a dog, and the government is going to have to be disciplined about killing it off and taking it to the knackery if that happens,” he says.

He acknowledged the monumental political problem Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Taylor face in corralling their party room to support any carbon abatement plan.

Perhaps most crucially he says there is potential for carbon abatement to accelerate once breakthroughs are made, especially given the huge amount of resources going into it around the world.

But both men are frustrated by what is not in the plan.

A carbon pricing mechanism – either in the form of a carbon tax or incentives paid to clean industry actors – would significantly speed up the transition to clean, they say.

“You could just stick all the policies we’ve tried over the years on a dartboard and pick one,” says Wood. “They work.”

Similarly, there is no incentive mechanism to drive coal out of Australia’s energy system. At present major coal-fired power stations are still expected to be churning away as late as 2048.

A plan with a spirit of urgency would include these measures, Jotzo says.

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