It will be impossible to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy by 2050, unless we reduce our energy consumption.

Energy consumption, whether to heat your home, drive, refine oil or liquefy natural gas, is responsible for around 82% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unless Australia cuts its energy use, my recent study reveals that it will be almost impossible for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels by 2050. This is what is required to reach our goal of net zero emissions.

However, as the nation’s economy recovers from the pandemic, Australia’s energy consumption is likely to return to pre-pandemic growth. The study identifies two main justifications for reducing energy consumption (or “lowering energy”):

  1. the likely slowness of electric transportation and heating
  2. that renewable energy will pursue a retreating target if energy consumption grows.

Lowering energy is not an impossible task. In fact, in 1979, Australia’s total final energy consumption was about half what it was in 2021. The key to success will be the transition to an ecologically sustainable steady-state economy, with greener technologies and industries.

What is holding back the growth of renewable energy?

To make the transition to sustainable energy, Australia must electrify transport and combustion heating, while replacing all electricity from fossil fuels with energy efficiency and renewables, which are the cheapest energy technologies.

Renewables can be implemented quickly: wind and solar farms can be built in just a few years, and residential rooftop solar can be installed in a single day.

rooftop sun
Rooftop solar installation takes very little time to install.
AAP Image/David Mariuz

But the rapid growth of wind and solar energy is being held back by three critical infrastructure and institutional requirements of the electricity industry:

  • to establish Renewable Energy Zones (a group of wind and solar farms and storage)
  • to build new energy transmission and storage lines in the medium term, such as pumped hydro
  • reform electricity market rules to make them more suitable for renewable electricity.

These take more time than building solar and wind farms and much longer than installing solar power and batteries on rooftops. However, they could be fully implemented within a decade.

In fact, the transition from existing fossil fuel electricity generation, such as coal-fired power plants, to 100% renewables could possibly be completed by the early 2030s.

But optimistic calculations based on how quickly we can build solar and wind farms and their infrastructure ignore the fact that renewable electricity growth is limited by electricity demand.

When existing coal-fired power plants have been replaced by renewables, electricity demand will be determined by how quickly we can electrify transportation and combustion heating. These are the main tasks that will limit the future growth rate of renewable electricity. They are likely to be implemented slowly, despite the urgency of climate change.

Read more: Why Labor’s new tax cut on electric vehicles won’t help you buy one anytime soon

Households and industries have large investments in gasoline/diesel vehicles and combustion heating. They may be reluctant to replace these working technologies without substantial government incentives.

So far, effective federal government policies are almost non-existent for transport and heating transition, which together are responsible for 38% of Australia’s emissions.

This month’s announcement of an upcoming “consultation” on fleet fuel efficiency standards is the government’s first tentative step.

Electric car charging on the street
Electric cars remain out of reach for most Australians.
AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vasquez

Chasing a retreating target

If we look only at percentage growth rates, the task of renewable electricity looks deceptively easy. From 2015 to 2019, Australia’s renewable electricity grew by 62%, an excellent achievement.

But, he was starting from a small base. This means that its increase in energy production during that period was only slightly larger than the growth in total final energy consumption, comprising electricity, transport and heating, which is still mainly fueled by fossil fuels.

On a global scale, the situation is even worse. As a result of the growth in total final energy consumption, the share of fossil fuels was the same in 2019 as in 2000: around 80%.

The renewable energy challenge is like a runner trying to break a record as the officials walk down the track with the final ribbon.

This situation is not the fault of renewable energy technologies. Nuclear power, for example, would grow much more slowly and take even longer to catch up with rising consumption.

Energy consumption is responsible for more than 80% of Australia’s emissions.
AP Photo/Mark Baker, File

In one of the scenarios I explore in my study, Australia’s total final energy consumption grows linearly at the pre-pandemic rate from 2021 to 2050. Then renewable electricity would have to grow 7.6 times its pre-pandemic rate to catch up in 2050.

Alternatively, if the growth of renewable electricity is exponentialit would have to double every 6.8 years until 2050.

Considering that the future growth of renewable electricity will be limited by the rate of electrification of transport and combustion heating, the required linear and exponential growth rates seem impossible.

possible solutions

Both the International Energy Agency and the models done for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change avoid the problem by assuming that large-scale carbon dioxide capture and storage or direct capture of CO₂ from the air will become commercially available.

But relying on these unproven technologies is speculative and risky. Therefore, we need a Plan B: reduce our energy consumption.

Read more: Engineers have built machines to remove CO₂ from the air. But will it stop climate change?

My study shows that if we could cut energy consumption in half from 2021 to 2050, the transition could be possible. That is, if the raw materials (such as lithium and other critical minerals) are available and local manufacturing could increase considerably.

For example, if total final energy consumption declines linearly and renewable electricity grows linearly, the latter would only need to grow about three times its 2015-2019 rate to replace all fossil energy by 2050. For exponential growth, time doubling time is 9.4 years.

Improvements in energy efficiency would help, such as home insulation, efficient appliances, and heat pump and solar hot water systems. However, the International Energy Agency shows that such improvements are unlikely to reduce demand enough.

We need behavioral changes fostered by socio-economic policies as well as techniques.

Implications of energy descent

To reduce our energy consumption, we would need a public debate followed by policies to encourage greener technologies and industries and to make socio-economic changes.

This does not necessarily imply the deprivation of key technologies, but rather a planned reduction to a sustainable level of prosperity.

It would be characterized by a greater emphasis on improving and expanding public transportation, bike lanes, pedestrian areas, parks and national parks, public health centers, public education, and public housing.

Read more: Wealth is killing the planet, scientists warn

This approach to providing universal basic services reduces the need for high incomes and their associated high consumption. As research pointed out in 2020, the world’s 40 million richest people are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions.

And on a global scale, the energy decline could be financed by rich countries, including Australia. Most people would experience a better quality of life. Energy descent is a key part of the path towards an ecologically sustainable and socially just society.

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