As Scott Morrison faces COP26, here's how Australia can solve its climate change mess - ABC News

In Australia, we’ve spent the last 14 years watching our politicians knock each other off over it.

And while we’ve come to the party on net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, our 2030 targets — which are the ones that really matter — still fall far below what’s needed to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if speeding up the transition could be a good thing, something that Australians could dominate and do what we do best: punch above our weight and show the world how it’s done? 

Sounds too good to be true, right? We’re not saying it will be easy or painless. But if you take this big problem and break it down into smaller pieces, you find Australians are already coming up with solutions that, if scaled up, have the potential to turbocharge the transition. 

We’re going to outline how Australia’s transition towards zero emissions could work over the next decade and what’s happening now. It’s up to you whether or not you think it’s possible — you tell us.

Before we start, we need to know….

If you look at our climate challenges all together, they’re overwhelming and hard to understand, so we’re going to pull them out one by one and bring some order to the mess.

Here’s what makes up our climate tangle.

Electricity (37% of emissions)

Agriculture (12% of emissions)

Transport (19% of emissions)

Industry (32% of emissions)

Now there is an insane amount of research on this, but luckily for you we’re just going to take you through the best bits, with some help from the people at Monash University’s climate research group, ClimateWorks.

They teamed up with the CSIRO to work out what each of these sectors would need to do by 2030 to deliver on our Paris commitment. To be clear, those promises aren’t about net zero by 2050, they’re to keep temperature increases as close to 1.5C as possible.

So how do a virtual power-plant controlled by a hive mind, the 0”,  and a dung beetle help tackle climate change?

Strap yourself in, let’s find out.

Get rich on renewables

37% of emissions

Ok let’s get started with an easy one: electricity — the stuff that runs our homes, our devices, and our businesses.

Easy!?! But for decades all we’ve heard is how renewables are going to send electricity prices skyrocketing, and only get built with subsidies.

Actually renewables are the cheapest way to generate electricity, and are why electricity prices have been going down. Importantly, everything we need for a fully renewable electricity system is already on the market; we don’t need new technology.

The other great thing is it makes all the other parts of the puzzle way easier. More than 70 per cent of our emissions come from using energy — and now we know we can make electricity without emissions, the vast majority of the challenge is about electrifying everything we can.

ClimateWorks calculates that to do our bit for Paris and help keep temperature rises to 1.5C, Australia needs our grid to be 79 per cent renewable by 2030.

We’ve still got a way to go, but already about 30 per cent of Australia’s power every day is generated by renewables, and at times it’s as high as 60 per cent.

The change is picking up pace. It took us seven years to get from 10 to 20 per cent renewable electricity, but less than three years to get to 30 per cent.

That we’ve got this far is not because of politicians, but in a significant part down to regular Australians.

The first thing to feel good about is our record-breaking rooftop solar.

In Australia, 2.7 million households have chosen to put solar panels on their roofs. Cheap solar, both on farms and roofs, has flipped the electricity market on its head, and undermined the business model of big power generators, dragging them towards a fully renewable future.

Now we’re in a situation where renewables are so cheap that the new boss for AEMO, who runs our power grid, says we’ll probably be having times where 100 per cent of Australia’s power will be supplied by renewables by 2025.

If that sounds far-fetched, then look to our friends in South Australia — they cracked 100 per cent renewables last October and, here’s the best part: 78 per cent of that was rooftop solar!

Making fun of Adelaide might be a national pastime, but South Australians have more to gloat about than posh accents and never being convicts. In 2016, when a storm knocked out power lines across the state, causing widespread blackouts, everyone from the Prime Minister down piled on, incorrectly blaming the high level of renewables in their grid.

Undeterred, SA doubled down on the future (60 per cent of their energy for 2020 came from renewables), and five years on power prices have dropped, and it has the most reliable grid in the nation.

They also showed the rest of the country and the world how a fully renewable grid could work by building Australia’s first big battery in 2018.

The Tesla battery has saved South Australians a heap of money ($166 million in its first two years) by keeping prices down and balancing the grid.

Other states are following suit, building their own big batteries — there are almost 40 in the works across the country — and even big power companies like AGL are building their own, subsidy-free, to make money.

The best bit is battery prices are doing just what solar prices have done. They’ve plummeted (down 80 per cent since 2010), so batteries will keep getting more attractive to build.

And it doesn’t have to just be big business. Households, communities and businesses are increasingly getting in on the action and could do what they’ve done with solar — more than 31,000 people installed batteries in their home in 2020 alone.

So what’s the problem then? Moving from powering the country using coal-fired power plants to renewables is a huge change — the Australian power grid is the largest machine in the world — and there’s no national plan to work out how to do that.

The Federal Government makes the rules that run the grid, and the lack of clarity is a big red flag for businesses looking to invest in renewables and storage. This uncertainty is slowing the pace of investment and it’s been left to the states and companies acting on their own to fill the gap.

The Coalition getting on board with net zero will ease some concerns for investors, but there’s still no comprehensive national energy policy after Malcolm Turnbull was overthrown as prime minister while trying to get one up.

But even without national leadership, the speed at which renewables projects are coming online means that AEMO is far less worried about the transition than it was even a year ago.

And when governments take action, companies speak with their wallets. Earlier this year NSW announced a renewable energy zone in the New England area with capacity for 8 gigawatts of renewable power. They got offers from businesses to build 34 gigawatts of wind, solar and storage.

So at the moment it’s cheaper to build new renewables, supported by batteries, than it is to build coal-fired power plants.

But we’re very close to another milestone that will turbocharge the transition: the point where it’s cheaper to build renewables than it is to run existing fossil fuel power plants. Once we reach that point, to stop the shift away from fossil fuels we would have to rely on big power companies choosing to make less money.

Good luck with that.

Already convinced?

You can skip ahead to see how seaweed holds the key for a guilt-free steak and a better bottom line for farmers.

Or keep reading to find out how capitalism will help drive Australia to 500 per cent renewables and beyond. It involves two billionaires, a tiny molecule and a giant extension cord.

Hopefully by now you think 100 per cent renewable energy is a shoo-in, but honestly 100 per cent is a bit passé. If you look where people are putting their money, it’s all about 500 per cent renewables. 

See, as the world moves to zero emissions, it will be cheaper for many countries to import renewable energy from Australia than to produce their own, according to the International Energy Agency.

But wait a minute, who’s going to build all these renewables in a country full of mining magnates? And how do you even export renewable energy?

“I’m deeply passionate about stopping climate change, and will do everything within my power to be part of the solution.

“The IPCC report confirmed the window that action is closing and the time to accelerate to zero is now. COP26 in November is a critical opportunity for Australia.”

Who do you think said that — Bob Brown? Greta Thunberg? David Attenborough?

No, it was a guy called Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, best known for building mining giant Fortescue Metals, speaking at a clean energy conference.

Twiggy didn’t get to be one of Australia’s richest people by being a hippie, and he’s up front about seeing the next 10 years as a massive economic opportunity.

As Twiggy said in the same speech, quoting former PM Paul Keating: “In the race of life, always back self-interest. At least you know it’s trying.”

He’s been all over the news picking fights with the Nationals, and talking up a thing called green hydrogen, which is a replacement for fossil fuels we’ll discuss later in the industry section.

But green hydrogen is just part of his goal to become a global player in the energy space, and he has his eyes on countries in Asia, which will need vast quantities of renewable energy to power their economies.

To do it he’ll need a lot of electricity; by 2030, the amount of green hydrogen he’s hoping to ship would require twice as much electricity as we currently use in Australia every year.

But we’re right on Asia’s doorstep. What if we just ran an extension cable from our grid and let them plug in?

This cable will run from Darwin to Singapore so that the buzzing financial hub can source a fifth of its power from a giant solar farm in our dusty outback by 2027.

Billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, who along with Twiggy is one of the backers, says the Sun Cable sounds “batshit-insane” but this scheme is being driven by the bottom line — not the environment.

To power it they’re building the world’s largest solar farm, and they’ve just announced they’re going to make it even bigger.

Okay that’s great if you’re a billionaire, but what about the rest of us?

For any of these investments to work, power needs to be cheap, like silly cheap — and the side effect of that is that power could be cheap for everyone.

For you, Australia getting rich on renewables looks like your energy bill being reduced or even cancelled. Yes, cancelled. Imagine not having to feel guilty every time you turn the AC on.

Your power connection at home could be paid for with an agreement to be able to tweak some of your power use at home whenever the grid needs it. Before the internet this would have been an impossible task, but now all we need is a smart switch in an appliance like your hot water heater that can be turned off or dialled back as needed.

That sounds like a pretty big job, but some companies already are seeing an economic opportunity in doing it for you.

To show you, let’s bring in an appliance you’ve probably never really thought about: the humble pool pump.

Pool pumps use 10 per cent of residential power in Australia, and if they all ran at once it would be the equivalent of two Liddell coal-fired power stations. 

The good thing is they can pretty much run whenever, and so an Australian company is bringing them into the 21st century by hooking up a network of pumps around the country that can be turned on when we’ve got heaps of renewable energy in the system, and turned off when demand is high. Customers save money on power, and the energy market pays the company for that reduced demand.

Pool pumps are just one small example of how poorly we use energy in Australia. Better building standards would save us $29 billion over the next 30 years by reducing how much energy we need to heat and cool our leaky homes.

Switching as much of our lives as possible to run on electricity would take care of the 2 per cent of emissions that come from using fossil fuels in our homes, unlock the smart grid, and also save us money. Energy analyst Saul Griffith calculates electrifying everything would save households $6,000 per year.

The possibilities are endless, and lucky for us we’ve got the perfect mix of sun, wind and space that make us “uniquely placed to capitalise on a zero carbon future”, according to the CSIRO. With policy certainty and grid upgrades, we could unlock an avalanche of renewable projects because they’re, quite simply, the cheapest option.

Challenge two

Do something about the burping cows

12% of emissions

If you suffer from ‘Bolognese guilt’, you’ll want to stick around for this one. 

Our agriculture emissions are 12 per cent of total emissions, and almost all are from livestock.

This number might seem crazy high, but it’s because methane is so much better at trapping heat than CO2. The good thing is it breaks down much sooner, but if you keep making the same amount that doesn’t matter.

We need to halve those emissions by 2030, which might seem like a tall order. 

But the Meat and Livestock Association is looking to go one better, announcing earlier this year the entire industry would become carbon neutral by 2030.

How do they plan to get there? Put cows on a diet. (Sorry cows!)

What’s on the menu? A native Australian red algae.

Asparagopsis grows like a weed all year round in Tasmania. The CSIRO found that when fed to cows, it reduces methane by as much as 99 per cent.

This is amazing when it comes to emissions reductions, but here’s the kicker: it also makes them fatter and healthier, meaning farmers can spend less on feed. So for livestock producers, helping the planet could mean more money in the bank.

It doesn’t get much more Australian than the CSIRO taking a native plant and creating something that can help farmers make more money, make their products more appealing to overseas markets, reduce emissions, and we can export the technology to the rest of the world.

Let’s be clear, going from the lab into the mouths of cattle around the country is a big jump. Dairy farmers like Richard Gardner are already experimenting with feeding their herds directly, but getting asparagopsis into cattle that graze off the land is going to be trickier.

But importantly this isn’t some study that “one day” could reduce emissions. We know it can work — in fact, the CSIRO just cooked up its first carbon-neutral steak, and Tasmanian startup Sea Forest is aiming to be the first in the world to produce this algae at scale.

Back on the land, cattle emissions don’t end with methane; the cow poo that covers paddocks releases carbon dioxide and its even more destructive cousin, nitrous oxide. But fortunately many of the solutions to this, like seaweed supplements, aren’t just good for the environment — they’re good for the bottom line.

To solve his poo problem, WA farmer Doug Pow enlisted the help of some industrious friends.

Shit-eating Mediterranean dung beetles.

The beetles roll the poo into a ball then bury it underground to feed their larvae, who can eat their own bodyweight in dung every day. Dung beetles can move a shit-tonne of manure; one species can pull 1,141 times their own body weight — the equivalent of you pulling six double-decker buses full of people around.

Dragging poo through soil is like adding a fertiliser, turning humble paddocks into carbon sinks that can soak carbon dioxide out of the air like trees do.

Doug has turbocharged this process by feeding cows charcoal, which reduces the amount of methane emitted and increases the amount of carbon the beetles can put into the soil. Not only is it good for the cows (they’re fatter) but it’s also regenerating the soil and taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

This is important because we’re going to need to remove a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere. Australian agriculture could play a vital role in this, but these natural solutions take time to work. 

Still, the opportunities are huge, and not limited to the land. Seaweed also could increasingly be used to do some heavy lifting to suck excess CO2 out of the air. Its rapid growth rate means it sucks carbon out of the atmosphere far quicker than planting trees, and can be used to feed fish, people, or sunk to the bottom of the ocean to lock away the carbon for centuries.

But is it reasonable to expect these technologies to shift to the mainstream in the next decade without a push from the federal government? 

Farmers can already sell credits for the carbon they store in their soil, and the market is growing thanks to businesses voluntarily offsetting their emissions, but without a tool like a carbon tax there’s no real incentive for emitters to buy them.

But even without policy, the industry is leaving the government behind because it’s feeling the pressure to act from another source: consumers. More than 70 per cent of our agriculture is exported, and Australia’s clean green reputation is an asset that helps us command a premium on the international market. 

But more and more, “clean and green” includes the emissions required to create the product, and to compete in markets like Europe farmers are going to need to go carbon neutral, with or without the government.

Farmers are mentioned by Nationals MPs as a reason to push back against faster action on climate change, but industry bodies like the National Farmers’ Federation are worried a lack of action will “punish farmers”, and leave them either paying for the emissions overseas or carrying the burden of offsetting them.

Already convinced? You can skip ahead to see how competitive carmakers will solve transport whether we like it or not.

Or hear about how renewables and farmers are both benefiting from sharing the land. 

Let’s be clear, dung beetles aren’t the silver bullet to all our climate woes, but they do represent a growing realisation on the land that solutions can be both good for business and reduce emissions.

Leasing their land for solar farms can help provide farmers with a secondary income, but it also has a whole range of unexpected benefits. 

Solar panels offer livestock shelter from the sun, but also reduce evaporation and create conditions for grass and weeds to grow up. In fact, keeping the weeds down is a hassle for solar farms.

Luckily there’s a low-fi solution involving sheep-solar symbiosis.

Australia once rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back, and it turns out the height of this back means sheep can fit under the panels to keep things under control.

When Dubbo farmer Tom Warren was approached by French renewable giant Neoen he discovered they grazed sheep underneath their overseas solar farms, and he wanted in. In the most recent drought, while other nearby farms needed additional feed for more than 18 months, his flock only needed it for three months.

More and more farmers are following suit, and already across Australia 13 large-scale solar farms have employed wooly weedwhackers.

Solar panels can also provide benefits for crops, particularly in hot, dry climates like Australia’s. We already have to put up shading and protection for crops like grapes and fruit trees, and increasingly farmers in Australia are turning to solar panels to provide that. And the benefits go both ways: planting crops underneath and around solar panels reduces the temperature, which increases the output of the panels.

And for agriculture to help be part of the solution, win-win solutions like these are so important. 

The Prime Minister recently said he didn’t want regional Australia bearing the burden for climate change, but it already is. Australian farms have, on average, lost almost $30,000 each a year in profits over the past 20 years due to climate change, and those costs will only increase as the planet gets hotter.

They’re already running faster just to stay in the same place. Wouldn’t it be great if getting emissions down could help give them a boost?

Challenge three

Help our transport quit petrol (and diesel)

19% of emissions

The scary news is that transport emissions are growing faster than any other sector. The good news: we can solve this — and even if we don’t want to, we’ll be dragged along with the rest of the world.

For Australia to be on track to do our bit in keeping warming to 1.5C above historical levels, we need 76 per cent of new car sales to be electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030.

That seems like a tall order — but actually we’re in with a shot.

And it’s not because we’ll grow a conscience. It’s because we don’t make cars here anymore, so we just have to buy whatever the carmakers want to sell us. And in the past 18 months, you can see that they’ve decided the future is electric.

With the exception of Toyota, every major carmaker has committed to ending internal combustion engines by 2035.

Now maybe they’re the ones who have suddenly grown a conscience, but a more plausible explanation is that there’s a race on to dominate the EV market.

Tesla has the lead, but carmakers are actually worried about Chinese car companies beating them to the punch; China already has the biggest EV market in the world. And just as car companies have been great at convincing us to buy SUVs (because making a car higher doesn’t cost much more, but you can sell it for much more), once they start convincing us to buy EVs we’ll be on board.

They’ll probably use our concerns of climate change to sell them.

You can already see the tagline: “Climate change is the ultimate safety test” (Oh wait, that’s the line already coming from Volvo, which aims to be fully electric by 2030).

And they’ll also be running with a market that wants EVs. In Australia electric car sales tripled in the past two years; in 2021 Teslas are now threatening to outsell the humble Camry, and if you factor in resale value they’re also cheaper.

From solar to mobile phones, Australians are early adopters on technology, but currently people who do want to buy EVs are being penalised by a lack of emissions standards, which would make it more appealing for car companies to sell EVs here, and stop them from using Australia as a dumping ground for old dirty vehicles.

Everyone from China, to Europe, to Mexico has these standards, and they’re the reason why you have far more choice in EVs in these markets than Australia.

This lack of emissions standards encapsulates the dynamic Australia faces this decade: the transition is underway and the federal government, with a net zero commitment, is on board with it, but they’re not yet doing the things required to speed it up and make it as easy as possible.

And while we’ve been worrying about range and where to charge them, the technology has kept getting better.

The average Australian vehicle only travels 36 kilometres a day, and the arrival of fast charging means this year Australia has cars on the market that can drive more than 400 kilometres and charge fully in less than 20 minutes, or four minutes for 100km.

EVs are on track to become as cheap as other cars, with half the operating costs, some time this decade. 

And when we reach that point, there’s no reason we can’t replicate what’s happened in Norway where now, thanks to some subsidies, it’s just as cheap to buy an EV. In 2021 almost 80 per cent of new cars sold are EVs or plug-in hybrids, a massive jump from 15 per cent of sales last year.

While this is nice for people who buy cars new, that’s not all of us — and actually that’s an opportunity to speed things up. Half of the 900,000 new cars sold every year are bought by governments and businesses. If they were given a nudge to choose electric, it would rapidly bring down prices and offer cheap, second-hand EVs in a few years.

Already convinced? Skip ahead to see how regional Australia will be the winners of the green energy transition.

Or keep reading to see how using your car to run your dishwasher will help save you money and the world.

Even if you don’t care about the environment (in which case, good on you for getting this far), there’s a strong case for going electric.

The average driver spends about $70 a week in fuel, or $35,000 over 10 years, and we import nearly all of it all from overseas with almost no stockpile on our own soil to fall back on in a crisis. That adds up to an eye-watering amount of cash — $32 billion per year — as much as our export earnings for natural gas in 2020-21. Imagine if those billions were going to community-owned renewables in our regions instead? 

And again it still would be much cheaper. In Norway last month, thanks to a spike in renewables, EV owners were able to fill up for .09 euros. That’s not a typo, it’s about 15 cents.

This sums up something bigger: we’ve been sold the idea that climate action will lower our standard of living. But these machines of the future are actually a technological upgrade.

But wait — electric cars take a lot of power. Isn’t that going to blow our emissions out?

Electric vehicles must be powered by renewable energy to be zero emissions. But more EVs means more renewables. To explain how, let’s bring in the “virtual power plant”.

Remember how in the electricity section we said one of the big challenges left to solve was: how do we come up with a way to store enough power to ensure that when supply from renewables drops we’re not caught out? Well, one way would be to have millions of smaller batteries distributed around the country, that you could tap into for little bits of power every so often.

So you’ve probably guessed where we’re going with this: EVs are essentially batteries on wheels. Your car could act as a “solar sponge”, soaking up cheap excess solar that’s flooding the grid during the day, or excess wind in the early hours of the morning, and use it to power your house in the evening (or sell it back into the grid when power’s most in demand — ka-ching!)

At the last election, PM Scott Morrison warned everyone Labor was coming for their utes and the weekend. But in the US, Ford just released an electric version of its most popular truck: the F150. This thing is a beast — it can do 0-100kph in about 5 seconds and tow 4.5 tonnes — but what sets it apart from the petrol version is that it can also power a house for three days.

In Australia, Nissan and Hyundai are releasing cars with this technology this year. Hyundai’s even has a power point, which means if you wanted you could take your TV camping. But beyond that niche (if appealing) use, overseas EVs are already being used to make money for their owners and reduce emissions. 

Currently California company Enel X remotely controls 6,000 electric vehicles parked across the state, directing them to store and then resell enough power for 120,000 AC systems.

So while you’re hard at work in the office, over in the car park your car’s busy being a virtual power plant controlled by a hive mind. This is the closest cars have come to saving the world since Transformers.

The South Australian Liberal government reckons this approach could be a game-changer for power prices. We “gold plate” poles and wires to manage the few hours a day when everyone wants to use power at the same time. But if you can run your dishwasher with power your car bought earlier, that reduces “peak demand”, so power companies can spend less on that turbo infrastructure and pass the savings on.

Trucks and heavy vehicles like buses are the other major contributor to our transport emissions, but they have a big benefit over cars: they’re much more modular. While the idea of taking an engine out of your car seems crazy, it’s common practice to build heavy vehicles this way.

Big truckmakers like Volvo are looking to bring electric trucks out here, but unlike our car industry, the modular designs mean we’re still building trucks and buses here.

This means that as local and state governments shift their fleets of buses to electric, following cities like Shenzhen in China that have pulled it off, we can build the buses in Australia.

Australia Post is electrifying its delivery vehicles, and the first electric garbage truck hit the streets in — you guessed it — Adelaide (even their rubbish is posh).

And not only can the switch be locally made, we’re also selling electric trucks into Elon Musk’s backyard, with Dandenong truck maker SEA Electrics selling so many trucks in California that they’ve set up offices there.

Once we leave the ground, things do get a bit trickier. At the moment, while you can go out and buy an EV, you can’t do the same for a plane or a ship … yet.

But electric planes for shorter flights are already here, and shipping is being pushed by customers to speed up its transition.

Buoyed by the willingness of companies to pay extra for transport with lower emissions, Shipping giant AP Moeller-Maersk is launching its first carbon-neutral ship in 2023, with its CEO saying the challenge isn’t about whether people will pay, but if we can scale the technologies up quickly enough.

But let’s put this in context: our airline emissions are 10 per cent of our transport emissions, so 2 per cent of our total emissions, and our shipping emissions are even smaller. And so if we knock over the main ones, then it buys us more time to solve these tricky bits. And that’s where the 2030 date comes in: speeding up the easy bits now means we buy more time to solve those smaller harder bits.

So there are solutions for ships and planes, they’re just not quite there yet, and guess what? In Australia we’re well-positioned to help solve that — not just for us, but for the rest of the world.

Challenge four

Wean our industries off carbon

32% of emissions

If you include the electricity it uses, industry is our biggest emitter, responsible for almost half of our emissions.

This means it’s really important we get it right, but it’s actually where some of the most exciting parts of the transition are happening.

According to ClimateWorks, these emissions will need to halve by 2030 to deliver on our part of the Paris Agreement. So what’s the plan?

Step one — electrify everything we can, and run that on renewables, which would cover about half of industry’s emissions.

Step two — come up with ways to replace the processes that emit CO2 — which is trickier, but has huge potential upside, particularly for regional Australia.

So let’s tackle the electrical part first, and kick it off with a good news story — the Tomago aluminium smelter in the Hunter Valley.

Smelting aluminium needs a lot of power, and importantly a constant supply of electricity. Essentially, a smelter is a big pot of molten aluminium that you need to keep hot. To do that, Tomago uses 11 per cent of NSW’s power alone.

Tomago has regularly been used by federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor to attack renewables, saying they couldn’t provide a reliable power supply for a smelter. And Tomago CEO Matt Howell has been critical of batteries in the past.

But just a few months ago he told the Financial Review that from 2029 they’ll be “for all intents and purposes 100 per cent renewable”.

This is great news for the manufacturing industry. Tomago needs heaps of power, and a constant supply, so if it is on board then anyone can be.

Has Tomago got you believing in a clean energy revolution? Awesome! Skip ahead to see what all this could mean for Australia’s emissions.

Or keep reading to see how green hydrogen is a trillion-dollar opportunity for regional Australia.

So what about the things that don’t run on electricity?

Well for some industries, like concrete production, we’ll need to come up with ways to reduce the amount of CO2 they emit, and then capture or offset any bits that are left over.

There are already solutions out there. If you were allowed into Queensland, you could land on a runway built of green concrete, or visit a 10-storey tower that’s replaced concrete pillars with timber ones. But concrete isn’t the main game when it comes to our industrial emissions.

There’s no getting around this, the biggest industry emitter is the fossil fuel industry. 

We’re not talking about emissions from the coal and gas we sell that gets burned overseas. This is about the fossil fuels we use to get it out of the ground — we burn more gas to extract it than we use in any other part of our domestic market.

Some of this can be electrified — Shell is building a solar farm in Queensland to power its gas plants — but this doesn’t cover the vast quantities of CO2 and methane that get released as part of the extraction process.

And even if we could capture all those emissions (the $4 billion the taxpayer has spent on this indicates it’s not likely) it is an inescapable reality that as more and more countries sign up to net zero, they’re going to be looking for replacements for Australian gas and coal.

Wouldn’t it be great if Australia could provide those replacements?

Well luckily for us we can, and along the way we can revive industries that have been struggling, and even create some new ones.

So what is Australia exporting in the world of tomorrow? Well, a few things, but the first piece of the puzzle is green hydrogen.

Hydrogen — the element most famous for its role as H in H20 — will be the oil and gas of the 21st century.

We’ve known for centuries that if you run an electrical current through water, you create hydrogen and oxygen. If you capture that hydrogen you’ve got an energy source just like a fossil fuel.

The renewable energy flooding our grid could be turned into hydrogen and stored to be used when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, or shipped overseas to other countries who don’t have the same renewable resources we do.

Production of green hydrogen will need to scale up rapidly before it can play a significant role in reducing emissions, but its flexibility means it will be key to effectively cutting the cord to fossil fuels.

Beyond stabilising electricity grids, it can be used to power cars, trucks, ships and planes and in industrial processes like creating fertiliser.

And as countries look for ways to power their economies without heating the planet, Australia could be the one providing them with green hydrogen. Twiggy Forrest thinks so: he says he’s put $1 billion into a company that he’s hoping will produce 15 million tonnes of green hydrogen every year by 2030.

“The green hydrogen market could create revenues of $US12 trillion by 2050 — way more than any industry that exists today. Even Australia’s enormous iron ore sector, which has export revenue of around $150 billion, is barely a 100th of this.”

But the benefits for Australia don’t have to stop there.

Currently Australia largely exports raw materials like iron ore, but cheap renewables could be used to power export industries that take those materials and make them more valuable. 

How big could those benefits be? Well, let’s look at steel.

Steelmaking accounts for about 6-7 per cent of global emissions, so the world is going to need to come up with a different way to do it. 

You can either replace the coal currently burned to make steel with green hydrogen, or use an electrical furnace that runs on renewable energy.

If, like Australia, you’re a country that has vast renewable resources right next to huge mineral deposits, you’ve got a huge structural advantage.

That $150 billion of iron ore we export every year gets turned into steel worth more than $500 billion.

If we can bring any of that process onshore and run it on renewable energy, we can grab more of that gigantic pie.

And this doesn’t just work for steel. We supply half of the world’s lithium ore, which is worth $130 million a year. If we processed it onshore it would be worth $1.7 billion. If we turned that lithium into batteries they’d be worth even more.

In Queensland, Australia’s biggest zinc refinery, Sun Metals, is on track to go fully renewable by 2025, and in the process is creating a real-world example of what the future of Australian industry could look like.

Chasing cheap power, Korea Zinc, which owns Sun Metals, has built its own solar farm next to the refinery, and bought a stake in a massive wind farm being built in southern Queensland. These resources won’t just power the refinery, but also a hydrogen electrolyser, which will provide fuel for five hydrogen-powered trucks it will use in the operations.

There are very few places where this mix of renewables, minerals, and industry all comes together. And the best part is if we get this right, the benefits will flow to areas that are currently most reliant on fossil fuels for jobs.

The Grattan Institute calculated that capturing about 6.5 per cent of the global steel market would generate about $65 billion in annual export revenue and could create 25,000 manufacturing jobs in Queensland and NSW.

The most exciting part of this transition is that it won’t be happening in Sydney or Melbourne — it will be happening in Gladstone, where the Queensland government has partnered with Japanese industry giant Iwatani Corporation to build a three-gigawatt green hydrogen facility, or the Hunter Valley, where Renaissance One is planning a battery factory, or Whyalla, where our steel industry still survives.

State governments are supporting projects in these areas because they realise that the risk here is being left behind, and our big miners like BHP are scrambling to shift to this new market.

While Australia isn’t going to be priced out of the cheap energy side of things, there’s a strong advantage when it comes to being a first-mover in these areas. Heavy industries aren’t like solar; you can’t order a mini steel refinery off the internet and set it up in the backyard. So the Australian people can’t come to the rescue like they did in electricity.

With some help from the Swedish government, steelmaker SSAB just delivered its first shipment of green steel to Volvo. The Queensland government has returned serve, announcing a facility to make the equipment to create green hydrogen, and double the world’s production of the fuel.

And unlike every other time Australia has tried to tackle climate change, there is now plenty of evidence business is on board with a rapid transition.

Just three years ago, the Business Council of Australia described a 45 per cent emissions reduction target as “economy-wrecking” — a message that was plastered around the front pages of the nation during the last election.

But earlier this month they backflipped, saying a 45-50 per cent reduction in renewables was “pragmatic, ambitious and will drive investment” after finally working out that a low-carbon world would boost the economy by just shy of a trillion dollars over the next 50 years, as industry moves to cheap and clean electricity.

So the race is on — the question is: will Australia step up in time?

So there we have it — a practical path to put Australia on track for an emissions-free future.

Now you’ve reached the end, maybe this tangle doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming.

So, how is everybody else feeling?

Keep in mind this is just a snapshot — not scientific research — but here’s what you’ve all told us so far about whether you think we can tackle these challenges

But you’ve probably got one lingering question: say we do all this, can Australia even make a difference?

When he announced Australia’s net zero target, Prime Minister Scott Morrison took aim at China, comparing its enormous emissions to Australia’s. 

And to an extent he’s right: China and the countries to our north are the emissions and will make or break efforts to keep temperature increases as close to 1.5C as possible.

There’s a quote from the Dalai Lama: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Right now, Australia is seen as the world’s mosquito: tiny, but wreaking an outsized amount of damage, both by digging up fossil fuels that need to stay in the ground to limit temperature increases and actively working to undermine global climate consensus.

We are among the largest emitters per capita and that doesn’t even include the emissions from when the coal and gas we export is burned, which triple our footprint.

But if Australia can supply Asia with cheap, abundant renewable energy and carbon-neutral materials, we could make a critical difference, while pumping money into our regions for decades to come.

The question for Australia is: do we want to be a mosquito or a dung beetle? A spreader of destruction, or a humble powerhouse working underground to support the big players up top to keep our planet liveable?

Remember, the dung beetle might be small but it can pull the equivalent of six double-decker buses.

The choice is ours.