The conditions are perfect to deploy large amounts of concentrating solar-thermal energy and develop the technology to make it cheaper — as cheap as coal, or even cheaper.

If the official government line is to be believed, Australia is only a minor player when it comes to our greenhouse gas emissions.

In this view, Australia is powerless to bring about international action to cut emissions. Indeed, any such efforts are only likely to amount to economic self-sabotage.

From Laggard to Leader, the new report from research group Beyond Zero Emissions, demolishes these arguments. Far from being an inconsequential emitter, Australia’s carbon footprint is immense.

Australia has less than a third of 1% of the global population. Yet our domestic emissions and exported emissions (from coal and gas) added up could single-handedly blow a tenth of the world’s remaining “carbon budget”.

On the other hand, Australia has abundant solar resources and the ability to finance large projects. The conditions are perfect to deploy large amounts of concentrating solar-thermal energy and develop the technology to make it cheaper — as cheap as coal, or even cheaper.

Ending Australia’s global coal trade

Laggard to Leader models the broader impact of an Australian coal and gas export phase-out. This analysis will prove useful for coal and gas activist groups such as Rising Tide and Lock the Gate.

The report shows that the growing supply of coal is causing its price to fall. This creates a financial incentive for developing nations to build new coal-fired plants.

Starting with a moratorium on new coal and gas developments, Australia could help to keep prices from falling. This would hasten the tipping point where renewable energy becomes cheaper than coal and gas.

Big solar power

The report highlights the role Germany has played in subsidising a massive rollout of solar panels (also called photovoltaics). As a result, in the past three years the price of complete solar photovoltaic setups has dropped by about 75%.

Germany has a far weaker solar resource than Australia. Laggard to Leader calls for Australia to do for concentrating solar thermal what Germany did for photovoltaics. In doing so we would deliver cheap, dispatchable-on-demand solar power to the world.

Australia would gain an export market in products, services and technical expertise in this growing field. The employment could easily replace that lost in coalmining, which is a tiny fraction of the national workforce.

A concentrated solar thermal power station.

Leapfrogging to renewables

A cynical argument sometimes put for coal and fossil gas exports is that an abundance of these fuels in world markets keeps prices down, ensuring poor countries are able to develop their economies cheaply.

This argument ignores the climate-induced extreme weather that wreaks havoc upon developing nations, and will increasingly send the price of staple foods through the roof.

Laggard to Leader makes the case that Australia and other developed, heavily polluting countries should be steeply cutting their emissions for reasons of equity. This would mean that developing countries have maximum access to the small remaining amount of carbon that can be safely burned without tipping the planet into runaway climate change.

Perhaps more importantly, Australia could kick-start a new “industrial revolution” in renewable energy. Mass deployment of concentrating solar-thermal plants would deliver economies of scale that will drop the costs significantly.

Laggard to Leader refutes the assumption that developing countries must first build up their coal-fired energy sector before they can move to renewable energy. If Australia could catalyse a mass deployment of concentrating solar-thermal plants this would make solar “the new coal” — the new cheapest source of energy.

As a comparison, the report notes how developing countries (most notably South Africa) bucked mainstream projections by bypassing landline phone networks and going straight to mobile phone networks.

Cooperative internationalism

The report says the key to translating these domestic initiatives into international leadership is to build multilateral agreements with other countries. This would include nations that export or import large amounts of coal and gas, and those that have appropriate resources to develop renewable energy.

Measures such as technology transfer agreements could ensure poor countries are able to build renewable energy at a feasible cost.

Australia should not stop at a moratorium on new fossil fuel developments. Rather, it needs to see this as a first step and a leverage point to bring other nations on board for a more comprehensive phase-out of fossil fuels worldwide.

The clock is ticking

This method, dubbed “cooperative decarbonisation”, is a bottom-up way of first circumventing, and then — it is hoped — renewing the UN climate negotiations.

The measure of failure of the UN process is clear just from its timelines. After the Durban conference last year, the process is aiming to negotiate a new agreement by 2015. This agreement will not result in actual emissions cuts until after 2020.

The agreed goal of the UN process is to keep world temperature rise at less than 2°C. Even this is a dangerously high level of climate change. To have a reasonable chance of achieving such a target, world emissions need to peak before 2020, not after — and preferably by 2015.

The clear failure of the top-down “grand bargain” UN process is why this relatively decentralised, bottom-up approach needs to take place. The report argues Australia can take a leadership role in this.

A document that yearns for a movement

A few short years ago the Australian climate action movement was mobilising tens of thousands of people on the streets. This has declined. Perhaps this is a reaction to the passage of the carbon price legislation — which, the report makes clear, falls far short of what is needed.

Maybe it is because the movement is made up of volunteers and building these rallies year on year is bloody hard work. Maybe it is a bit of both.

The proposals in Laggard to Leader are likely to be opposed by an all-star cast of some of the most powerful people in Australia: the mining giants that profit off the carbon that this report wants left in the ground. It is a document that yearns for a movement powerful enough to enact it.

Laggard to Leader is a powerful resource. It brings together the strongest arguments of the anti-coal and coal seam gas movements with the strongest arguments of the 100% renewables movement into a coherent, and international, common vision.

[Laggard to Leader is available for free download at Hard copies can also be ordered from the site.]

By Ben Courtice & Zane Alcorn,