I too rise to make some comments on the Climate Change Bill 2022 and the Climate Change (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2022. It’s important to note upfront, as some of my colleagues have, that the nationally determined contribution has been already advised by the government to the Paris Agreement secretariat on 22 June this year and that Labor, with the support of the Greens, will have the numbers to pass this legislation, so that itself is not in doubt. What I would like to do, though, is go to clause No. 3, which is the objects of the bill. The objects state the bill is to add to an effective global response informed by science.
Now, those of you who read my first speech, and I trust that’s all of you here, know that I have tertiary qualifications in science and that in my maiden speech I emphasised the fact that I’m a great believer in evidencebased policy that is effective in addressing the problem at hand and that does not have unintended consequences. Also, having worked for much of my career as an experimental test pilot in the technical world of aerospace, which is underpinned by systems engineering, I recognise the need to scrutinise the basis and the assumptions of the science that underpin a design or, in this case, legislation.
According to this explanatory memorandum, this bill and the consequential amendments are informed by the consultation which led to Labor’s Powering Australia plan. That consultation and the analysis of the plan’s impact by the consulting firm RepuTex have been informed that in large part by studies such as the GenCost report, which was produced by the CSIRO and AEMO, the Energy Market Operator. Reading GenCost in detail I note that they appropriately refer to stakeholders who are responsible for global best practice regarding the science and economics of energy, in particular reports by the International Energy Agency, the IEA, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, the OECD NEA.
As an example as to why scrutiny is useful, I’m concerned that while the GenCost report reflects the major themes reported by the IEA and OECD, such as the need to move beyond the simple metric of the levelised cost of electricity when comparing technology options, some references used in the GenCost report to underpin their cost assumptions are seriously outdated, as in we are talking back to the last century, when more recent information from these same independent expert bodies is available. I’m also concerned that some key observations of the GenCost report questioning the ability of wind and solar to get us to net zero are omitted from the ALP plan and subsequent analysis.
The question has to be: is the plan of the Albanese government based on the most recent and complete science available? Will it be effective in achieving its stated aims? What does the latest credible science say about the best way to provide abundant and cheap electricity while reducing emissions? In April this year the OECD NEA, which is quoted by GenCost and recognised as a global expert, released its latest report on meeting climate change targets. It’s an authoritative assessment of the key issues relating to energy policy and creating sustainable lowcarbon economies. Much of the OECD report covers familiar ground regarding their view as to why global action is required urgently. There are major elements of the report, however, that challenge the Australian government’s stated approach to reducing emissions, and at the heart of these elements are three statements.
The first is:
… decarbonising the electricity sector in a cost-effective manner while maintaining high levels of electricity security requires policymakers to recognise and equitably allocate system costs to the responsible technologies.
The second is:
… while all technologies impose some system 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.
The third statement from the OECD report is:
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 also considered the impact of emissions constraints for the different technologies. The Albanese Powering Australia plan looks to achieve 82 per cent market penetration of renewables by 2030. But figure 20 in the OECD report shows the breakdown of system costs as the share of variable renewables grows from 10 per cent to 75 per cent of the mix, including profile costs to compensate for variability and intermittency; connection, distribution and transmission costs; and balancing costs to compensate for uncertainty. It shows the effects on those total costs as carbon emissions are increasingly constrained. If that sounds complex, that’s because it is. This is classic systems engineering. To quote the OECD’s comment at the end of this analysis:
The policy implications of these systems costs findings are significant. It may be possible to reduce emissions to meet 2030 targets by growing the share of variable renewables in the mix. However, the costs of reaching net zero with high shares of variable renewables are likely prohibitive.
That recent statement, by a stakeholder regarded by the CSIRO and AEMO to be a global expert on energy, is very different to the predominant political narrative. This OECD report changes the debate because it shows that the most recent credible science demonstrates that the approach proposed in the Albanese plan will not be effective in achieving the stated aim of the policy.
As well as the financial cost, the OECD report also considers other costs. First, they consider the environmental impacts of grid-scale generation options. For wind and solar, as primary sources, they include measures required for firming. The variation, for example, in the requirement for critical minerals is surprisingly large. There is a minimal impact on the order of nuclear power, with around 15 kilograms per megawatt hour. But that rises exponentially to 155 kilograms per megawatt hour for solar PV or 180 kilograms per megawatt hour for onshore wind. The report demonstrates that as the percentage of variable renewable generation and associated firming in a grid increases, the volume of mineral extraction and processing required becomes immense. This takes on a new relevance when the IEA also report:
… looking further ahead in a scenario consistent with climate goals, expected supply from existing mines and projects under construction is estimated to meet only half of projected lithium and cobalt requirements and 80% of copper needs by 2030.
It’s not just a case of constraints in digging those critical medicals up; people often overlook the high energy demands required to produce the usable critical minerals.
The OECD report also considers other costs, including land, environment and social impacts. As an example, the Albanese plan requires spending $20 billion to upgrade the electricity grid to connect more renewables. The capital cost is one consideration, but take, for example, the 10,000 kilometres of new transmission lines as recommended in AEMO’s 2022 Integrated System Plan. Using data from Infrastructure Australia, you can obtain figures on the steel and concrete necessary for high-voltage transmission lines. Even being conservative and using the midpoint figures, they show that 46 tonnes of steel and 71 cubic metres of concrete are required for every kilometre of new transmission. That means that three-quarters of a million tonnes of iron ore have to be mined and then smelted, with all the associated energy and emissions, and, to make that much concrete, 180,000 tonnes of cement is required. Bear in mind that a single tonne of cement requires around 4.7 million Btu of energy, which is equivalent to about 180 kilograms of coal and generates nearly a tonne of CO2. So just meeting AEMO’s 2022 plan will result in an additional 180,000 tonnes of emissions.
The OECD report highlights that, for all these reasons, despite the rhetoric, renewable energy is not free, nor is it even the cheapest option available, nor is it effective in achieving net zero. The OECD report details that there is an affordable, safe technology to complement renewable power and which acts as an essential element to constraining emissions while retaining reliable, affordable power. The best science that’s currently available, which is contained in the OECD NEA report, shows (1) that, despite ideological positions to the contrary, all credible models—for example, the 90 IPCC pathways to limit warming to 1.5 degrees—demonstrate that nuclear energy is required to effect climate change mitigation by 2050; (2) that the levelised cost per megawatt hour of electricity from long-term operation of nuclear generators is actually lower than fossil fuels, hydro, wind and solar, and that new-build nuclear is competitive with wind and solar now, and it will be cheaper when systems costs are attributed as emissions constraints are imposed; and (3) that recent developments prove that nuclear energy can be a low-carbon technology with rapid delivery times.
Evidence to the 2019 inquiry by the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy showed that the integrity and evidence base of the policy dialogue in Australia have not been maintained, with AEMO and CSIRO detailing the impact of the legislative prohibition on even considering nuclear power. That prohibition is not related to science, safety, cost or efficacy. The prohibition resulted from trade-offs with minor parties in the Senate over 20 years ago and is predominantly given effect through section 10 of the Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Act 1998 and section 140A(b) of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
That energy emissions policy has a significant effect on Australia’s economic and national security, job security and quality of life, and the consequences of getting it wrong can almost be existential, as we see currently in Europe, which is suffering geostrategic paralysis and crippling growth in power costs because of poor energy policy. The prohibition in the EPBC Act must be repealed, to allow Australia to engage on the International Atomic Energy Agency milestone process to have an evidence based consideration as to whether the nuclear option is indeed the most reasonable path for Australia to pursue, in combination with wind, solar, hydrogen and other partial solutions to Australia’s energy mix. It’s important to recognise that nuclear is not a standalone solution, and in Europe it’s currently working with solar and wind to load-follow and to provide firming for when renewables are not able to produce power. Any consideration of value must also recognise the other industrial uses for nuclear energy, such as the production of green hydrogen for desalination and for energy-intensive products such as fertiliser and cement.
In summary, the most recent science from recognised global experts refutes the assumptions underpinning the Albanese government’s plan that increased investment in variable renewables will deliver abundant cheap power while reducing emissions to net zero. The science highlights that there is a solution. But the point is: we will never know what is possible and effective for Australia 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, ideologically 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 impact on our people and our land, our focus should be more on targeting legislation than on legislating targets.