Negative emissions, as well as economic growth and improved biodiversity: Australia could have it all.
According to a huge modelling study, Australia can continue to grow its economy by relying heavily on agriculture and mining, while also slashing emissions and improving the natural environment. But smart government policies will be key.
In the first of what will be a regular series of Australian National Outlook reports, researchers at CSIRO, Australia’s government scientific research agency, combined nine different economic and environmental models to examine 20 possible paths to 2050.
They found that strong international action on climate change would benefit the Australian economy, even ignoring the accompanying benefits of reduced climate impacts. Australia’s economic future looked brightest in scenarios where stronger climate action was taken, and the financial benefits could even kick in before 2050.
Although such decisive action would weaken demand for its coal, the country would enjoy increased demand for its gas, uranium and agricultural produce – all things Australia can export in spades.
Trees are key
Even in scenarios where Australia achieved negative emissions as early as 2040, GDP still grows strongly in the models.
Planting forests turns out to be crucial for Australia to reduce its emissions, accounting for up to 40 per cent of reductions. This could be encouraged simply by introducing a market mechanism, such as carbon pricing, that would pay farmers about $50 for each tonne of CO2 sequestered by planting new trees. Because much of that can be done using native plants, such a measure would also improve biodiversity.
“Overall it is a very positive message that we can have growth and a sustainable environment at the same time,” says Alex Wonhas from CSIRO, who led the report. “But it’s not necessarily given. There will be choices,” he says. Investment will have to be made in water resources and agricultural efficiency, and incentives would have to be created for emissions reductions and energy efficiency.
Best case scenario
“Australia has seen rapid expansion in mining and agriculture, with tremendous pressure on its ecological systems and sky-high greenhouse gas emissions,” says Frank Jotzo at the Australian National University in Canberra. If Australia sees rapid economic growth in coming decades while also easing this environmental pressure, the same could be true for many other countries, he says.
The most positive scenarios for Australia’s growth and climate are ones where carbon capture and storage (CSS) becomes commercially viable. Australia is one of the world’s biggest producers of coal and CCS would allow coal use to increase, while decreasing emissions. Should coal be phased out, CCS could be used in combination with biofuels, to create negative emissions, reducing the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
“This is a landmark study,” says Jotzo. “Their findings should give Australia’s politicians resolve to face up to the big questions of environmental sustainability,” he says.
Journal Reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature16065
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