Achieving net zero: Legislate targets or target legislation? Opinion Editorial

As Australia undergoes another stable, peaceful transition of government, the crisis in Ukraine and Europe demonstrate that the choices made by governments, even well-intentioned ones, can have significant, unintended consequences for their citizens.

The majority of Germans who supported Chancellor Merkel at successive elections, while increasingly concerned by rising power costs, most likely also supported her energy policies. They probably had no inkling that the primary focus on emissions-reduction could have so significantly undermined sovereign energy security. While prices and emissions rise as a result of the crisis, the world is also observing the serious implications of Germany’s policy for national security and geo-strategic outcomes.

In this context, Australians should consider the key election commitment from the Albanese Government to legislate targets for emissions reduction. Given the numbers in the Senate, the Government’s bill to give effect to this commitment is likely to be passed into law early in the 47th Parliament. Regardless of how Australians voted at the election, there are some key questions they should now be asking about the Government’s plan for implementation.

How will the government meet the targets? Is the evidence underpinning their policy choices credible and complete? What will be the impact of their policies on: the price and reliability of power; the cost of living for families; the viability of small business; the security of Australian jobs in energy-intensive industry sectors; national security; and the environment?

Given the scant media coverage it received, even those Australians who have been pondering these questions probably missed the release in April this year of a key report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—a global advocate for climate action. Their report on meeting climate change targets is an authoritative assessment of key issues relating to energy policy and creating sustainable low-carbon economies.

Referencing research, modelling and reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) amongst others, much of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) report covers familiar ground regarding their view on why urgent global action is required. There are major elements of the report, however, that challenge the Australian Government’s stated approach to reducing emissions. At the heart of these elements are three statements.

First, “decarbonising the electricity sector in a cost-effective manner while maintaining high levels of electricity security requires policy makers to recognise and equitably allocate system costs to the responsible technologies”.

Second, “while all technologies impose some systems costs, variable, intermittent, and uncertain sources of power generation impose far greater grid-level system costs, which is why it is so important to take a systems level perspective when comparing costs of variable renewables with nuclear, baseload hydro and fossil generation”.

Third, “All low carbon technologies, including nuclear energy must be included in relevant discussions about the energy transition in order to maintain the integrity and evidence base of the policy dialogue”.

The report conducts a comprehensive analysis of the levelized and systems costs of power generation across 20 IEA member states. They also consider the environmental impacts of grid-scale options for power, and for variable generation (e.g., wind and solar) as primary sources of energy include measures required for firming. The variation in requirement for critical mineral, for example, is surprisingly large. A minimal impact in the order of 15kg/MWh for nuclear, as compared to 155kg/MWh for solar PV or 180kg/MWh for onshore wind. As the percentage of variable renewable generation (and associated firming) in a grid increases, the volume of mineral extraction and processing required becomes immense. Similar analysis for land footprint quantifies the large-scale environmental impact of solar, wind and hydro. The OECD report also provides a detailed assessment of recent technology developments and real-world outcomes from policy and investment decisions around energy and emissions.

Based on quantified and repeatable analysis, their evidence should shake the paradigm that Australia has allowed itself to adopt over past decades. The OECD report demonstrates that:

  • The levelized cost per MWh of electricity from long-term operation of nuclear generators is lower than fossil fuels, hydro, wind and solar,
  • All credible models (eg: the 90 IPCC pathways to limit warming to 1.5⁰) show that nuclear energy is required to effect climate change mitigation by 2050,
  • High levels of variable renewables in the energy mix makes the cost of reaching net zero likely prohibitive, and
  • Recent developments prove nuclear energy can be a low-carbon technology with rapid delivery times.

In the light of the facts presented by the OECD report, it is clear that much of the public debate on energy and emissions in Australia demonstrably fails to recognise and equitably allocate system costs to the relevant technologies. Evidence to the 2019 inquiry by the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy showed that even Australian Governments over recent decades have failed to maintain the integrity and evidence base of the policy dialogue due to bodies such as CSIRO and AEMO not including nuclear in the options to be modelled or compared. The omission is because of the prohibition on nuclear power that resulted from legislative trade-offs with minor parties in the Senate over 20 years ago. The prohibition on nuclear power generation is primarily given effect by Section 10 of the Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and Section 140A(1)(b) of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The omission of nuclear options is at odds with Australia’s long-held position that policy development should be evidence based. In highlighting the importance of evidence underpinning policy, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have a quote on their website “when we develop policy we want a solution that actually fixes the problem and …. that can avoid unintended costs and consequences”.

Given the serious implications of unintended consequences for cost of living, energy, economic and national security, it should cause alarm that the Government’s energy and emissions policies are not based on complete and comprehensive evidence. On such an important issue, it seems absurd that critical facts have been omitted because of the political position of minor parties over 20 years ago.

Australians should demand evidence-based policy, transparently based on unbiased advice to Government regarding the true balance of risks and benefits of all available energy options.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a well-established “Milestones Approach” which enables a phased, comprehensive method to assist countries that are considering nuclear power. It lays out a detailed process to assess a broad range of relevant factors including safety, international obligations, and community support before a decision to launch a nuclear power program is taken.

In getting to Milestone 1, a fact-based analysis of all evidence may well conclude that nuclear power is not the best option for Australia. Like many Australians, I expect that is an unlikely outcome, given the energy challenges facing Australia and the facts contained in the OECD report.

The point is, we will never know unless the prohibition on nuclear power generation is lifted.

Australians should demand effective policy that is transparently based on all available evidence. This will only be possible if the Government acts to repeal the outdated, politically-driven barriers to evaluating the option of nuclear power generation.

If Australia is serious about achieving net zero while still having, affordable, reliable power with minimal environmental impact, our focus should be more on targeting legislation than legislating targets.