ANU research details requirements to decarbonise exports

Brandon How

New research from the Australian National University lays out the capabilities needed if Australia is to adopt a zero-carbon export model.

Calculations in the study found that in the financial year 2018-19, Australia exported the equivalent of almost 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide through its benchmark exports, roughly 4 per cent of global emissions. Of these exports, 98 per cent went to Asia-Pacific trading partners.

Australia visas
Research from the Australian National University quantifies what a zero-carbon export model would require

If Australia replaces its “benchmark exports” of thermal coal, liquefied natural gas, iron ore, and aluminium ores with green alternatives, it could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions in the Asia-Pacific by 8.6 percent, according to the study. The researchers base their findings on 2018-19 figures.

The decarbonisation potential could be unlocked if Australia shifts to a commodity export model centred on renewable electricity through undersea cables, zero-carbon fuels like green hydrogen, and “green” metals processed from Australian ores using renewable energy, according to the paper.

Lead author Professor Paul Burke said Australia has the chance to pivot away from fossil fuels.

“Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of fossil fuels and we have a real chance to shift to a much cleaner export bundle. Becoming a clean commodity exporter could generate sustainable export revenues for Australia and play a useful role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions well beyond our border,” Professor Burke said.

To replace the energy equivalent of Australia’s annual thermal coal and natural gas exports, the country would need to export 65 million tonnes (Mt) of hydrogen, and solar and wind energy equivalent to twice the annual level of electricity production.

Meeting the hydrogen production figure would require an amount of water equivalent to 80 per cent of the water used in the Australian mining industry. The renewable electricity required for export and to process all currently exported iron and aluminium ore would be the equivalent of 27 times Australia’s annual electricity generation.

This assumes that energy exports are comprised of hydrogen and renewable electricity in an 80:20 mix and that renewable electricity is evenly supplied by wind and solar.

Co-author Dr Fiona Beck said the area of land required to produce energy for exports is relatively small given Australia’s strong wind and solar resources. Dr Beck suggested that solar panels and wind turbines could even be placed alongside other land uses like livestock grazing.

Under the zero-carbon model, production of steel and aluminium would ramp up to 510Mt and 18Mt respectively as all currently exported iron and aluminium ores would be processed using renewables. In 2018-19 Australia produced 6Mt of steel and 2 Mt of aluminium.

Although the paper acknowledges its zero-carbon export model is ambitious, it argues that the requirements are feasible. This is based on the continued low cost solar and wind generation as well as the desalinisation of seawater using renewable electricity. The country already has the fastest per capita installation rate of solar and wind generation.

Co-author Professor Ken Baldwin noted that the investment required for the export model outlined in the paper could be greater than the investment needed for Australia’s domestic energy transition.

Demand for low-emissions imports in APAC is growing as net-zero emission commitments have already been made by China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, India, Singapore, and New Zealand. Co-author Dr Emma Aisbett said if Australia set the right policy settings it could make “major contributions” to APAC sustainable development goals and to remote Aboriginal communities.

According to estimates in World Energy Outlook 2020 published by the International Energy Agency, APAC countries accounted for half of emissions from energy use. The region is also anticipated to make up two-thirds of global energy demand growth in the next 20 years.

This research is a part of ANU’s $10 million Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific Grand Challenge initiative, which will run between 2019-23.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment

Related stories