Lessons from the Net-Zero America Report: What Australia can learn from Dr Chris Greig’s Princeton University study
What does getting to net-zero actually take?
Andorra, Costa Rica, Laos, the US and the UK — the growing list of countries so far committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 now stands at 59. The tiny island nation of Barbados has set a 2030 goal. The Australian Prime Minister has stated that “our goal is to reach net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”1.
But what does getting to net-zero actually take? What technologies are needed? What infrastructure and investment should be developed and backed? And what are the blockers? Answering these questions was precisely the aim of Net Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructures and Impacts.
This world-leading study saw an expert team of 18 lay out five distinct pathways — from high electrification and 100% renewable energy to a focus on CCUS and nuclear energy — by which the United States could decarbonise its entire economy by 2050. The report does not commit to a preferred route. But each pathway gets to net-zero. It also reiterates — with authority — what we know to be true: this is an unprecedented challenge with new approaches needed at historic scale. And with historic urgency.
One of the lead researchers on the report was Australian Dr Chris Greig, Senior Research Scientist at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy & the Environment. In an exclusive interview with LETA, Dr Greig said one of the key take outs from the report is that plans and solutions need to be ‘anchored’ in the net-zero outcome. That means a clearly-defined, long-term success metric, backed by ambitious interim milestones.
“If our objective is to minimise the risk that we fail to meet the net-zero ambition … then it’s a non-negotiable outcome you're looking for,’’ he says.
“I'm always a little bit sceptical about ‘let's learn to walk before we run’ – a sort of a gentle approach. Because I just think we're back-ending the challenge and I believe it's a dangerous thing for us to do.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Dr Greig discusses what we in Australia can learn from the Net-Zero America report — the challenges we share, the barriers to net-zero that are unique and the central role that low emission technologies play.
The Net-Zero America pathways
The Net-Zero study maps out five distinct technological pathways, all of which achieve the 2050 goal and it benchmarks them against a reference case that involves no new policies and achieves only modest emissions reductions. The study takes a neutral position on the approaches. This means government, industry and policy makers can be confident that accelerating the development and deployment of technologies and infrastructure at scale will achieve net-zero ambitions.
The report’s six pillars of decarbonisation are:
- Increased Energy Efficiency and Electrification
- Clean Electricity
- Clean Fuels
- CO₂ Capture, Utilisation and Storage
- Reduced Non-CO₂ Emissions
- Enhanced Land Sinks
To frame each pathway, the study imposed specific constraints on each pathway to reflect real-world challenges. For example, the constrained renewables case factors in supply chain, public acceptance and government policy roadblocks — meaning infrastructure wouldn’t be built faster than maximum historical rates.
All of the pathways are realistic, action-oriented and achievable, but Greig believes it was the sheer scale and pace of change needed that surprised those involved in the report. New approaches that engage Federal and State governments, the private sector and communities are needed in a way that has not been done before.
“For the next 30 years, it means building energy systems, assets and infrastructure at a pace and scale that is historically unprecedented, maintaining that every year and continuing to expand the pace,” he says. It means mobilising at least $10 trillion in supply-side capital or 2.5 times business as usual. On the demand-side, it means 200 million more plug-in electric vehicles, a 100-fold increase, on US roads by 2050.
Lessons for Australia
For Australia, the Net-Zero America report has findings that are likely to be as equally applicable here as they are in the US. And Dr Greig also identifies our unique challenges, with solutions that can be found in the lessons of the report.
The report identifies four key factors that could cause the transition to a zero-emissions future to falter — and in the worst case, fail. Here is Dr Greig’s take on each:
- Physical Infrastructure — the rate of deployment
“Getting in place all of the supply chains, the permitting regimes, and having the human and industrial capacity to get there.” – Dr Greig.
- Capital mobilisation — when and how projects and infrastructure are funded
“What we're doing is trading long run costs in fossil fuels and operating costs, for upfront capital. The world is awash in capital – we know that. But it’s actually the mobilisation of that capital – the funding through balance sheet equity of the at-risk, pre-FID [financial investment decision] investments – that you need to create the pipeline of projects.” – Dr Greig.
- Social license — community acceptance of the change needed
“All of the pathways involve pretty substantial landscape changes … wind, solar transmission and CO₂ pipelines. Bringing the community along, not just winning passive acceptance but actually winning a deep societal contract, can be a major challenge.” – Dr Greig.
- Fossil fuel jobs — creating new opportunities
“Net-zero transitions will create many jobs, but it is heterogeneous. We must make sure there is a plan for those people whose livelihoods are disadvantaged by the transition – people in incumbent industries like coal mining, their communities, their companies – to transition and prosper in this low carbon future.” – Dr Greig.
Australia, like the US, is a resource-rich nation that is also well-placed to develop and capitalise on the scaling of renewable technology. But according to Dr Greig, Australia has unique issues to face as a country with a relatively small economy, leading to capital and investment challenges — and a large land area, leading to unique infrastructure barriers.
“We have other challenges, we're heavily dependent on the export of fossil fuels, and we're currently heavily dependent on fossil fuels for our domestic energy,’’ Dr Greig.
It’s these factors that make low emission technologies, including CCUS, a key part of Australia’s path to net-zero emissions.
CCUS and the net-zero equation
For the pathways set out in the Net-Zero America report, CCUS is a common denominator. It found removing CCUS from any of the pathways to net-zero emissions made deep decarbonisation either less feasible or more costly.
In that finding, the report is similar to international climate and energy groups – including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) — which agree low emission technologies are crucial to the ‘net-zero challenge’. Dr Greig said researchers found that if you excluded CCUS from the options for the US, you actually can't get to net-zero across the economy.
“So for us it's a threshold technology — if you want net-zero at a global scale, you are going to need CCUS at scale,” he says.
According to the report, the five core scenarios modelled each had a minimum of 700 million tonnes a year of CO₂ captured. Even the scenario that calls for 100% renewable supply-side energy — no fossil fuels or nuclear power — still includes CO₂ capture and utilisation. In the other four scenarios that didn't have that particular constraint, the solution included the capture and storage of at least a billion tonnes of CO₂ each year by 2050.
“I think [CCUS is] completely necessary if net-zero is the goal. But it's going to take a pretty significant level of investment by the government to turn it from a conceptual option to a real option,” says Dr Greig.
Dr Greig believes that CCUS doesn’t have to be implemented across industries right now, but to capture the necessary CO₂ emissions by 2050 – then industries need to have the technology in place by 2030.
Australia’s geographic size and scale makes infrastructure planning and development a key watch-out for Dr Greig based on the report. And he cites the hub developments that are taking shape in the UK and US as leading examples to follow. Under this model, common pipeline and storage infrastructure is built around energy and industry assets to maximise usage and share the costs.
“We’re talking about bringing cement plants and bio-energy plants and natural gas plants and the like together to share infrastructure,” Dr Greig said.
Governments need to make large investments in CCUS right now, Dr Greig says, so storage and transportation barriers aren’t an obstacle to CCUS investment by industry. The aim is to avoid a “chicken and egg scenario” where no-one invests on either side of the value chain. In practical terms, that means a recommendation in the report of nearly $15 billion to be spent in the US on planning and investment during the 2020s to reach a million tonnes of storage capacity.
“We also recommended that [the US] commence the development of a major CO₂ pipeline infrastructure network — with over 100,000 kilometres of large-scale pipelines,“ Dr Greig says.
Bringing it all back home
Having worked for more than two years on the Net-Zero Report, Dr Greig believes it’s important the type of work he did at Princeton is replicated back in Australia. The rigorous thinking behind the report would give the Federal Government clarity about exactly what a rational path to a net-zero future looks like, grounding it in the outcomes needed for that clean-energy future.
“We weren’t interested in Princeton telling everyone how to do this. What we'd rather do is work with universities in local settings, and have them lead,” he says.
“We're doing this in Australia, we're looking to do it in Asia, India and Latin America. Otherwise I think we're just not really looking hard enough at the feasibility.”
Despite the key role CCUS has to play in net-zero equations, Dr Greig believes the technology is still often misunderstood by what he calls “uninformed energy systems folks”. He says it's a technology that can be controversial, and that there's a fair bit of dissent among those making policy, wider society and even other academics as to just whether or not CCUS is needed.
“I get all of those arguments, but at the end of the day if we anchor our mission in the net-zero outcome, I can’t see feasible pathways that don't involve some CCUS of some form,” says Greig.
“You can exclude the ongoing use of fossil fuels, but you're going to need to capture CO₂ at cement plants, you're going to need to capture CO₂ at bioenergy plants. You just can't do without it.”
And he cites US President Joe Biden as the example to learn from. The Biden administration’s 2030 emissions reduction target are actually more ambitious than those set out in the Net-Zero Report, Dr Greig notes.
“They have a lot more clarity there about where they are going and now they’re designing the policies to actually make that happen.”
 National Press Club of Australia Address – 1 February 2021. https://www.pm.gov.au/media/address-national-press-club-barton-act
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