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Zero Carbon World

The urgency is so intense. Everybody has to play a part and every lever that can be pulled needs to be pulled. We've got to stop burning coal and gas and we've got to stop doing it quickly.

Malcolm Turnbull

It's not just coming, it's here, there is huge opportunity for us, for Australia, for all of us as individuals to participate in it, and that the capacity that all of us have to make a huge impact on climate change is very real. So don't be disempowered. Get active and get involved.

Emma Herd

The age of zero carbon is coming, but the question remains: will it be fast enough to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis?  

While politics in Australia is still struggling to accept this much needed energy shift, there is cause for hope when we look to our fast-moving industry leaders, researchers and innovators. The pace at which things are changing is genuinely jaw-dropping. There is the plummeting cost of solar power, which has happened decades ahead of previous estimates; a similar trajectory now forecast in the wind power and battery storage fields; and the view of hydrogen on the horizon. And in all these things, investors are voting with their money. But is the hype getting ahead of the science and technology? What are the big-ticket items that could hasten a zero carbon future? What are the risks and rewards of this new age?  

Join passionate experts Justine JarvinenAndy PitmanEmma Herd and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a discussion where they seek to answer these questions and more. 

Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Engineering, and supported by Inspiring Australia as a part of National Science Week.

Centre for Ideas, Inspiring Australia and NSW Government logos

Transcript | Emma Herd with Sarah Dingle

Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. This podcast was recorded on the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people, and I'd like to pay my respects to their Elders past and present. The conversation you're about to hear, Zero Carbon World, is between Emma Herd and journalist Sarah Dingle, and was recorded in late September 2021. I hope you enjoy their discussion.

Sarah Dingle: Good evening, and welcome to Zero Carbon World. Today we're talking net zero, getting to the point where we're taking as much greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere as we produce. In a few short weeks, the Glasgow Climate Change Conference begins, and we've been hearing a lot already about zero carbon, net zero, and the dates by which different countries say they'll achieve this. Tonight we're getting stuck into the enormous project of decarbonizing our economies, and how science, technology, business and industry are working towards this goal. What do you think is the most important thing that people need to understand about the zero carbon future?

Emma Herd: The most important thing we need to understand is that it's not just coming, it's here, that there is huge opportunity for us, for Australia, for all of us as individuals to participate in it, and that the capacity that all of us have to make a huge impact on climate change, is very real. So don't be disempowered, get active and get involved.

Sarah Dingle: Now it's time for Emma Herd. With a background in finance, Emma was the CEO of the Investor Group on Climate Change for six years before becoming EY Oceania’s Climate Change and Sustainability Partner. Emma, you work with business investors, financial institutions – right now we're going through a once in 100 years transformation. On the scale of changes like the Industrial Revolution, what kind of work are you doing with investors and with companies to respond to this enormous challenge?

Emma Herd: Yeah, and I think it is, in many ways, a really interesting and an exciting time to be working in the climate change space, to be honest, because, precisely because of the scale of the challenges that we're actually seeing that organisations of all types of dealing with in understanding climate change issues and impacts for their organisation. So we're working with everyone from large, carbon intensive companies that are trying to understand what their future looks like in a decarbonising world. So how do they evolve their business, to thrive and to prosper, sometimes to completely rewire themselves, to be operating in a zero carbon economy. We're also working with councils in terms of understanding the implications for local planning, and residential issues in terms of the physical impacts of climate change as well. And then we're kind of working with everyone in between in terms of understanding how this is playing out, and every level of the economy, on every industry sector, concurrently, and all at the same time, and in an environment in which pace and change is accelerating. So there's lots of different ways in which we're trying to translate climate change into risk and opportunity and understand what do we do about it in order to avoid the dangerous impacts of global warming.

Sarah Dingle: And what kind of responses do you see from business and financial institutions and investors? Are people keen to do something but aren't sure how to do it? Or is there some reluctance to accept perhaps the need for change?

Emma Herd: Well, I think we've actually, dare I say, for the most part, we've moved beyond defence, hyper defensive position that we saw for a number of years, from a number of different parts of the economy in particular. I mean, I think it's not not surprising that the politics of this are challenging, the economics of this are really challenging for Australia. I mean, we are a very carbon intensive and trade exposed economy. So there has been, it has been quite a tumultuous debate up until now, shall we say. But I think for the most part, what we're seeing is particularly in terms of understanding the economics of the transformation that we're going to see. There's pretty widespread acceptance that this transition is happening, and that there are significant financial implications of it. So if we think about the financial system that plays out in a number of different ways. It ranges from the financial regulators, so the Reserve Bank, APRA, ASIC and Treasury through the Council of Financial Regulators that oversees Australia's economic performance. Kind of, looking at, what does it mean for their credential oversight responsibilities and working with the banks to do climate vulnerability assessments or stress testing their books to the effects of climate change. And then you've also got banks who are looking at both the impacts for their book, from whether it's industry sector lending, or whether it's the mortgage book, the ag sector, and then also there's real massive growth in sustainable finance. So loans, which are specifically about incentivising change. And then you've got the institutional investors, you know, the kind of, large, long term investors in the economy, who are really actively engaging with companies to understand what their plans are, and how they're responding and the impacts for shareholder value, and also really looking to embed and hardwire net zero in their portfolio management strategies. So all of these are kind of seen, this movement of capital, in terms of understanding the risks of climate change, but also trying to actively invest in climate solutions to sort of put a push and pull through the transition to a zero carbon economy.

Sarah Dingle: There's a couple of things I want to ask you about in there. First of all, one of our other speakers, Andy Pitman, has mentioned some of the issues that emerge when companies are forced by new regulation and disclosure regimes to come to terms with climate risks and report on those risks. So he says that scientists make their climate models public in order to collaborate with other scientists and be transparent. But then business uses those same tools to model what business needs. And that produces, at best, a partial answer or an answer that only covers part of the picture. Are businesses, even with the best intentions, misusing climate models?

Emma Herd: I think it's a really important question, because, you know, we know that, you know, data is at the heart of risk assessment and pricing. It's also at the heart of understanding the kinds of climate impacts and changes that we're seeing. And both climate scientists and the finance sector are trying to look forward and understand how these impacts are going to play out in terms of the physical impacts of climate change, but then also, how do you turn that into financial metrics? So how do you take climate science and take traditional financial risk analysis and bring them together to have a proper understanding of the kinds of financial impacts we’re likely to see? It's incredibly challenging, and I don't think anyone would claim in the finance sector that they're absolutely nailing this at the moment because it is incredibly difficult. And I think it's really important that we hear from the climate science community, around being fully aware and alive to the limitations of the of the data, and to ensuring that the finance sector is really actively working with climate scientists, such as Professor Pitman, in terms of really deeply reflecting those those challenges in the risk assessment processes. But the challenge that we have is that this is a situation whereby, as the climate science is getting better, investors, and banks are also having to make active decisions in a dynamic environment. So one of the best analogies that I've heard in this regard is that the finance sector is simultaneously building the plane and flying the plane at the same time, when it comes to trying to translate climate into financial risk assessment. So we have to keep building the plane, but we can't stop moving forward in terms of understanding it. So it's a really live and interesting conversation that really actively needs to be pursued, as well.

Sarah Dingle: Does business need a translator? Like Pitman suggests a sort of a climate chart, climate science reporting mechanism for business like the weather forecasting Bureau for Meteorological Changes and Atmospheric Science? Do we need that kind of middle person or middle organisation for business? 

Emma Herd: I think it's such an interesting question. And one of the things that I've seen in the last, say, 20 years of working in this area is that we're seeing a whole… the recognition that we have a whole range of new skills, capabilities, and roles to be understanding these issues. Like, you know, 20 years ago, you know, we've kind of had this kind of had this expectation, and I feel quite bad for the climate science community, because not only have they been attacked for the actual evidence that they've been putting forward, like, nobody likes to spread bad news, but they've done it admirably. But they've also been then attacked for being insufficient communicators of the challenges because we didn't want to hear the message, it was somehow their fault in the way that they were telling it. And now we're expecting climate scientists to also be financial risk modellers and data analytics experts in terms of translating science into financial risk. So I think, you know, the expectations of climate scientists, I mean, don't get me wrong, they've stepped up to the plate every time, but I think it's a bit unreasonable to expect that we should ask them to stop doing the pure science that we need them to do, and then become business experts at the same time. So I mean, this question around, do we need new skills and capabilities? Do we need science translators for business? Do we need business people to be more scientifically literate? Yes. Do we need science people to be a bit more business literate? Yes. But is there something in between, which is a specialist skill set for actually, whether it's, you know, climate risk analysts or climate risk analytics? You know, I think that's a really interesting question. And I actually think we are beginning to see some specialist providers coming into that gap. And this is an area which is really rapidly evolving.

Sarah Dingle: You talked a bit about companies getting out of certain sectors before. There are some really interesting challenges for companies on the road to decarbonisation. And the recent BHP Woodside deal kind of illustrates this dilemma. BHP has sold off its fossil fuel assets, as part of its push to become greener, Woodside has taken them on. Do companies need to get out of fossil fuels? Or do they stay in them and close them down responsibly? What do you do?

Emma Herd: Yeah, cracking question. I mean, this is actually a challenge that lots of different industry sectors are facing, including the investor community. Do you divest? Do you decarbonise? Or do you decommission carbon intensive assets? And what's the role and responsibility of different players in that decision? You know, companies really need to be understanding where the carbon risk is in their portfolio of assets. Also where the emerging opportunities are, which is, I think, what BHP have been arguing quite strongly in terms of what they term future facing commodities. But then also, how do they make that switch? So how do you make that switch while continuing to generate returns for shareholders, and also, you know, shifting that capital allocation into emergent industries, and then play that role in responsibly decarbonising or decommissioning assets. And there's no clear and hard opinion on this at the moment, which is consistently applied across the market, there's lots of schools of thought around how quickly we need to make this change, and then how you actually do it economically. But companies are in some really rough positions here in terms of knowing where they need to get to, but the path to get there is quite challenging. On the investor side, you also see the same challenge around: do you divest from carbon intensive, high risk companies to get the emissions out of your portfolio? Or do you stay and actively engage the company to decarbonise or, and or, there's an emerging school of thought around, should there be specific financial instruments, which are targeting closures, and decommissioning costs associated with shutting down some carbon intensive activities. So the three Ds are a very live debate at the moment. And other companies are also kind of saying, well, part of our transition journey is to diversify our portfolio of assets to create revenue streams to allow us to invest in new emergent opportunities, that can sometimes from a carbon pathway perspective be up before it's down. And the question that all of us have, both as shareholders and as a society is, what do we want that trajectory to look like? What do we think is acceptable? And how do we manage it on the way through? And I think that's just two examples of two companies that are dealing with precisely those issues at the moment.

Sarah Dingle: What about when there's probably short term, carrot just dangling in front of your face, coal prices going up and up and up and up? And, you know, companies may wish to get, ultimately, get out of fossil fuels. But there is such a strong temptation to stay in them for a little bit longer.

Emma Herd: Yeah, I mean, this is the mythical beast of the market, right? And this question around whether it always behaves completely rationally. And sometimes when you think that they will reward companies for making the short term profit, they don't. And because of the longer term risks that they're taking on. And sometimes when you think that they'll reward companies for acknowledging and responding to the longer term risks, they don't, they punish them for not generating the short term profits. It is a little bit hard to pin it down to one specific element or another because there's always multiple factors going on, both in terms of the wider market, but also in terms of the wider the company's wider structure and strategy as well. So it's difficult to pinpoint in one particular area, that something is absolutely related to carbon and carbon strategy. Having said that, and likely a true market representative, I'm going to completely contradict myself and say, but sometimes you can, and sometimes what you do see is that markets, while they might go up and down on short term profit taking, the trend is definitely consistent. And you're definitely seeing that in terms of, say thermal coal, for example, that longer term structural shift is happening even with the short term cyclical price spikes, and different types of investors will look to the long versus the short term signal. But even at a certain point, the short term investors start to get out as well. So it is the direction of travel and the speed of the travel that you look to, in terms of market shifts without getting overly distracted by the day traders and the date the day price shifts, which are reflecting what's happening in the market in the opening hours of the listed exchanges today, as well.

Sarah Dingle: For many of us, it feels like we're now in a new era, the era of seeing the impact of climate change, in the last couple of years with our bushfires, floods, extreme weather events, also political changes, particularly in the US where the Biden administration is taking a very strong line on climate change, and the EU obviously has done so for some time. What does all of this mean for Australia? Next year, regardless of who wins the election, we will have a new government. What does that new government need to do?

Emma Herd: I think, well, let me settle back while I roll out my long wish list. I think there's probably, I could distil it down to a few key points, which I think is really important for the Australian Government to be actively considering and actively managing. The first is that the market shift, so that wider market shift that we're seeing, the trend to decarbonise, is global. It's regional, it's with our key trading partners, it's in all our major export markets, it's in all of our major industry sectors, and it's in all parts of the economy. So this is fundamentally… decarbonisation is a profound economic shift, and needs to be managed accordingly, in terms of setting Australia up for future prosperity, and future growth and success in a globally decarbonising world. So that's probably point number one. I think at the moment, we have pockets of good activity, but we're not, we're not viewing it with that level of urgency from an economic perspective that we should be. But secondly, I think, in terms of how we should be both decarbonising and responding to the economic trends, I should say. But secondly, as well, I think we need to urgently be responding and reflecting to the physical impacts of climate change, which are here and now. And that means both getting better at planning for a future world with more extreme weather conditions. It means really bolstering that our skills and capacity and data services that you were talking about before. But it also means protecting our natural biodiversity from the physical effects of climate shift that we're likely to see. I mean, we know that climate change is a threat multiplier for biodiversity, the impact that we're already seeing in terms of Australia's wildlife, and that was particularly evident with bushfires, most recently in terms of the impacts for nature, as well. And then I think, thirdly, we need to get across the opportunity provided here. I mean, Australia is amazingly well positioned in terms of our whole value chain, in terms of the skills and the people we have coming through universities, and the R&D and the innovation. In terms of our natural resources, again, is delivering here in terms of being, having the capacity to be in the supply chain, of the future of the industries of the future, in a decarbonizing world, but also in terms of the kind of society we want to be, and the kind of jobs and the kind of contribution we want to be making, we have an opportunity to get ahead of this, in terms of really going hard after the technological innovations, and working with impacted communities to skill them up and gear them up for the industries of the future as well. So that transformation plan to really benefit from the opportunities for Australia, I think, is incredibly important. So I could list, you know, a massive list of specific policies, but I think recognising the economic shift, recognising the physical impacts, and recognising the opportunity and hardwiring that in our national policy response is probably when I would be strongly suggesting. 

Sarah Dingle: I am going to ask you to get a little bit specific. We know net zero by 2050 is good. But if we're going to do that we actually need to substantially reduce emissions by the end of this decade. So by the end of 2030. If you were advising the new government in 2022, so two years already gone. What are the few big things you should tell them? You would tell them they absolutely should do?

Emma Herd: Yeah, okay, to get very specific, and if you look at the term of government, then we absolutely need to increase our 2030 target. We are significantly out of step with our allies and our trading partners and with what's expected of sticking true to the Paris Agreement in terms of reviewing and ratcheting up our commitments for 2030 targets. So even in 2022, I think, hopefully by then we will have a higher 2030 target, but we should be continuing to ratchet up our ambition in terms of the the immediate goals 2030 and 2035 in terms of decarbonisation targets for Australia, that sends the signal and sets the direction that the whole nation then follows. I also think that we need to have a national adaptation strategy that is underway, and will hopefully be in place by then. But we need to be really strongly investing in the enabling services and changes to planning requirements, and development approval processes that need to underpin that as well. And I also think that we need to be thinking a lot more concretely around where the industry sector level decarbonisation opportunities are. We know that the energy sector is one of the major sources of emissions. At the moment, we're sort of, we're tumbling forward in terms of decarbonising the electricity sector. But it's going to be a very messy transition. If we continue on that way, we actually need to be a lot more deliberative in terms of plotting out the interplay of the energy system, energy generation, energy deployment, energy use, the technology and the data overlay of that, we, you know, we need to be kind of much more concretely working together on that, because you decarbonise the electricity supply, you decarbonize every other industry sector. And then lastly, land use and ag, is probably one of the other major areas, which we need to be moving forward on. And then I think it's well documented that we need an EV policy, which actually looks to massively increase the percentage of EV penetration in the Australian market as well. So all of these are entirely possible. They're not radical. You know, they can be done today, certainly by 2022, and can be implemented and deployed by the time the next term of government is complete in three years subsequent.

Sarah Dingle: Thank you, Emma. Just finally, you describe yourself as a pragmatic optimist, possibly despite your job. What is it helping you stay optimistic at the moment?

Emma Herd: Don't get me wrong. I mean, I do occasionally have that same feeling of being overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge that we face and the pace of our response. I mean, should we be doing more? Yes. Should we be doing it faster? Yes. Are we doing enough? No. All of those things are true. But I have also seen a massive shift in the last 20 years in terms of both our willingness and our capacity to respond to these issues. And I am a profound believer in humanity's capacity to create positive change. And in this area, in particular, I think we are both on our way, and have a lot more capacity to do a lot more. And I think that that change is accelerating. And, you know, we're kind of making significant progress in terms of what we're achieving as well. I mean, the question is, the clock is ticking, or rather, the temperature dial is ticking. I'm not quite sure what the analogy is there. You know, can we avoid the worst impacts? I would like to say yes, because I am an optimistic, but I also think we have the capacity to do it, because I'm a pragmatist as well.

Sarah Dingle: Thank you, Emma Herd. Lovely to hear from you. 

Emma Herd: Thank you.

Ann Mossop: This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Engineering, and supported by Inspiring Australia as part of National Science Week. For more information visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Transcript | Andy Pitman with Sarah Dingle

Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. This podcast was recorded on the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people, and I'd like to pay my respects to their Elders past and present. The conversation you're about to hear, Zero Carbon World, is between Andy Pitman and journalist Sarah Dingle and was recorded in late September 2021. I hope you enjoy their discussion.

Sarah Dingle: Good evening, and welcome to Zero Carbon World. Today we're talking net zero, getting to the point where we're taking as much greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere as we produce. In a few short weeks, the Glasgow Climate Change Conference begins, and we've been hearing a lot already about zero carbon, net zero, and the dates by which different countries say they'll achieve this. Tonight we're getting stuck in to the enormous project of decarbonizing our economies, and how science, technology, business and industry are working towards this goal. What do you think is the most important thing that people need to understand about the zero carbon future?

Andy Pitman: Via extremely deep and very fast cuts in emissions, using a range of existing technologies. But there will be a gap left between what can be achieved in that way, and zero. And that little gap, that little remaining bit can be filled with technologies like carbon capture and storage. So we don't need new technology, we just need to urgently implement our existing technology, and we need to do that now.

Sarah Dingle: Our next guest is Professor Andy Pitman, the director of the ARC Research Centre for Climate Extremes. He's an acclaimed climate scientist, and an international authority on the role of land surface processes in the climate system, including the influence on regional rainfall and temperature extremes. Andy, I want to start by asking you about the latest IPCC report published in August this year, and its key message in relation to our carbon budget. How long do we really have to get to zero carbon, if we want to keep global warming to Paris targets?

Andy Pitman: So the IPCC report was many 1000s of pages. And it really did come out with quite clear statements on the robustness of the science around climate change, new information around tipping points, and this clarification of the science around carbon budgets. Carbon budgets are how much carbon can humans emit into the atmosphere over the history of the planet? Not each year or, or each decade, but over the history of the planet. How much can we emit for certain temperature targets? And the headline statement in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was, if you want to limit warming to one and a half degrees, there's about 500 billion tons of carbon left in the budget for a 50/50 chance of avoiding one and a half degrees. So I want you to imagine a coin and toss it. And if it comes down heads, it worked, and if it comes down, tails, it failed. The IPCC also gives you the numbers for an 83% chance of avoiding one and a half degrees, and that reduces the carbon budget from 500 billion tons to 300 billion tons, which sounds a lot. But at current emission rates that’s six years to get to net zero emissions, which is a little bit confronting. So most climate scientists see, avoiding one and a half degrees is no longer viable, it's a political construct, it's not a scientific construct. Two degrees remains feasible. We have to get to net zero by about 2040 for an 83% chance of avoiding two degrees, assuming current emission rates. So it's extremely confronting to avoid two degrees, but it's still possible. And indeed two degrees is not good. It's significantly worse than one and a half degrees, but it's significantly better than three degrees. So it really depends on how ambitious we are as a species.

Sarah Dingle: And when we talk about net zero by 2050 or 2040, even, does that presuppose a lot of the reduction being done in the earlier years rather than backloading at all to the later years?

Andy Pitman: So those numbers I gave, assume we currently omit at the current rate, and then we stop. It's absolutely true that if we could very, very deeply cut very, very quickly, it extends those dates a little bit. Equally, if we don't do the hard yards now, and we leave it till the end of the period, then it doesn't extend those time periods. So it's absolutely true, there are variations on those numbers depending on how rapidly we cut. But not really for the one and a half degrees, because as I said, it's six years. Six years is not very long. So it doesn't really matter when over that six year period, you do the cuts, because you have to do it right now, you have to do it immediately to give you any chance whatsoever of that one and a half degree target.

Sarah Dingle: What are the key things we need to do to somehow get to a zero carbon world is to have science, business and communities working together towards common goals. You've recently written with colleagues and Nature Climate Change, about a really important issue with how business understands the science of climate change. We are now in a situation where businesses in all different fields are trying to come to grips with climate change and zero carbon. Some are doing it because they believe it is the key to future survival, others because there's pressure from regulators, or consumers, or shareholders, to factor in climate change. Whatever the motivation, you say, there's a big problem with the way they're going about it. Tell us about this problem.

Andy Pitman: So it's a long and complicated story. But I'll try and keep it simple. Climate scientists have spent many decades trying to understand how the Earth's climate would change for a given amount of greenhouse gas emissions. And what we now understand really well is how the Earth's climate will change, but that means at a very large scale, and on longish timescales, decade by decade, or longer. So we know really confidently what the climate would look like, you know, how the climate would differ between 2050 and 2100. But of course, if you're a business, you're not actually interested in the global average changes, or even the continental average changes, that doesn't translate into a risk to your company. What you want to know as a company is the tangible or material risks that you are personally exposed to as a business. And climate science has never really worked on those scales. It's not been the raison d'etre for climate scientists, we've been trying to understand how the climate will change globally or at a continental scale. So we won the argument, finally, that there is a material risk to the planet from climate change. And I think groups like the Network for Greening of the Financial System, APRA, recently, the Reserve Bank, and the Bank of England and many other organisations have recognised there's this material risk to business. But I don't think they've really understood the information content in what climate science provides, which is, at these large scales and long timescales. So what we have to do is close that gap between what we know, confidently, which is what will happen to climate at large scales and on long timescales, and translate that into risk at a granular level, or at an entity level, or at an asset level. And there are ways in research to tease out some information. For instance, what will happen in northern New South Wales compared to southern New South Wales, or what will happen in the coastal regions compared to the inland regions. We can do those sorts of things. But I now see many organisations looking at risk to individual properties, or risks to individual pieces of infrastructure. And I think that's profoundly misleading, it's way beyond what the climate science can give you accurate information on, and that's what we wrote about in that Nature Climate Change paper, that gap between what we know for sure, and what information allows business to assess risk. There's a massive gap between those two things that we're trying to work with various organisations on closing.

Sarah Dingle: So businesses using climate models developed by scientists and released publicly to collaborate, but they are not using these tools with any great expertise or accuracy. Is that what you're saying? They're not using them for the purpose for which they were designed.

Andy Pitman: They're certainly not using them for the purposes for which they were designed. They are…

Sarah Dingle: It’s not in their interest. 

Andy Pitman: Yeah. So I have actually seen a business claim fidelity in climate change information at the scale of property. Because what a climate model does, what a climate model that produces the future climate does is it solves a whole bunch of equations. And I can give you the number to thirty significant figures, extremely precise. But we all know in science, there's a difference between precision and accuracy. I can be very, very precise in what I say, but it can be wholly inaccurate. And at the level of an individual asset or property, the information from our models is wholly inaccurate, even though it's extremely precise. I hope that makes some form of sense. And some businesses indeed, some regulators, I don't think understand the detailed information content and what the client model has produced. We've gone away and produced all this data for scientific inquiry, and we've made all ourdata open source because that's the right thing to do. And people have grabbed the data and used it. Which sounds like a really, really good thing, unless you're deeply misusing those data, and you're using them, for purposes way outside a plausible avenue for the use of those data. And I'm absolutely sure that the Bank of England, The Network for Greening of the Financial System, and now the Reserve Bank of Australia, and indeed APRA are using climate information that has considerable precision, but very little accuracy at the level of an asset.

Sarah Dingle: Well, that's quite disturbing. It must be a bit startling as a climate scientist to see organisations state with certainty what will happen to an individual property under certain climate change scenarios when you yourself are not entirely certain what will happen to a region. But is it better to have some information which is skewed, or is it better to have no information? Because business does need to change.

Andy Pitman: Absolutely. And it's a really complicated problem for business, where we can give information on the direction of change, I think information is very valuable. But in many cases, for many risks, it's not merely the magnitude change that we can't comment on, it's the direction of change. Now for temperature, it's obvious, it's getting hotter, heat waves are worsening, the direction is clear. But for something like rainfall, the direction is not clear. Rainfall may change in ways that is profoundly different, including the direction of change from what the climate models are telling us at those scales. And so, in that case, if you take the information from a model, and you use it, however you use it, you are maladaptation, is the danger. You are taking something that says rainfall will get more, when in actual fact the outcome is that it will get less. And the danger here is you take your adaptation investment and you adapt for more and more intense rain. When the outcome is the opposite. That means you wasted your money. But it also means you have not invested in the places where you should have invested had you had more reliable information. I think there's ways around this. But they're not being utilised, I think by business and by the regulator's at the moment, I think they're looking for nice products to farm out to business, as distinct from nuanced products that are much more challenging to handle that would give business more ability to plan.

Sarah Dingle: So you've named checked some pretty big institutions that are guilty of this sort of practice. What can we do to fix this and make more good science accessible to business?

Andy Pitman: So I think there has been a gap in the dialogue between many major groups and the actual people who generate the climate projections. I think it's common that an organisation will consult climate scientists. But climate scientists are a bit like the medical community, and there are many varied types of medical community, there are people with different levels of expertise. I don't think groups like The Network for Greening of the Financial System, or the Bank of England or the Reserve Bank, or APRA, have consulted the people who generate the projections. The actual people who are the engineers building the models from which data is provided that can be used. And I think that needs to be opened up in a genuine dialogue to understand exactly what the models are fit for and what they're not.

Sarah Dingle: And do we need an intermediary between those groups too? I'm not talking about, you know, a helper, I'm talking about a third profession, perhaps.

Andy Pitman: The analogy was made in the paper that you mentioned, of people who sit between the modelling, the engineers and the users of the information. By analogy, if you want to know the weather for the weekend, you do not access petascale data, and personally mine that data to understand what the weather forecast models say about the weekend weather. You're provided the information in a legitimate and robust way by the Bureau of Meteorology. We're suggesting a similar thing needs to exist for climate, that you need those intermediaries who understand the detail of the information content, and can translate it into what the businesses need. And I think my community in the science has been weak in not bringing that technology forward, not bringing that capability forward.

Sarah Dingle: The capability of climate translators?

Andy Pitman: That's correct, yes, I think the weather forecasters did a long time ago. I think the climate community needs to provide those translation services so that their data are not misused.

Sarah Dingle: So important. Professor Pittman, thank you so much.

Andy Pitman: Thank you very much.

Ann Mossop: This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Engineering, and supported by Inspiring Australia as part of National Science Week. For more information visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Transcript | Justine Jarvinen with Sarah Dingle

Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, Director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. This podcast was recorded on the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal people, and I'd like to pay my respects to their Elders past and present. The conversation you're about to hear, Zero Carbon World, is between Justine Jarvinen and journalist Sarah Dingle, and was recorded in late September 2021. I hope you enjoy their discussion.

Sarah Dingle: Good evening, and welcome to Zero Carbon World. Today we're talking net zero, getting to the point where we're taking as much greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere as we produce. In a few short weeks, the Glasgow Climate Change Conference begins, and we've been hearing a lot already about zero carbon, net zero, and the dates by which different countries say they'll achieve this. Tonight we're getting stuck into the enormous project of decarbonizing our economies, and how science, technology, business and industry are working towards this goal. What do you think is the most important thing that people need to understand about the zero carbon future?

Justine Jarvinen: We've got the ingredients that can create a zero carbon future. And Australia has a track record of getting solar PV technology out of the lab and deployed at enormous scale across the world. And we're now standing on the cusp of a hydrogen economy and an electrification economy. And these provide the opportunities to transform Australia. But for really wicked problems like a zero carbon future we need to collaborate. Change will happen when we combine research and know-how with foresight and capital, with channels to customers with supportive policy, and with people who want to make a difference.

Sarah Dingle: Our first guest is Justine Jarvinen. As CEO of the UNSW Energy Institute, she brings business together with the people inventing energy solutions. Welcome, JJ. Let's start with the, how. I want you to outline for us what we need to do to get carbon out of our economy. Part of this is new technology coming on board. But there are other important aspects to consider. So how do we decarbonise?

Justine Jarvinen: Well, we need a very deep decarbonisation strategy across industry and across society. And to do that I like to think about five big buckets for deep decarbonisation. And the first bucket is energy efficiency and productivity, there is simply a need to make energy consuming devices and systems more efficient and more productive. The second bucket is, we need to decarbonize the grid using renewable energy to make so-called green electrons. Thirdly, we need to electrify everything, transport, industrial systems, etc, to power as much as we can, with those green electrons. Fourth, fpr industries and processes that can't be electrified, we need to use green electrons to make hydrogen and synthetic fuels and chemicals. And fifth, because we can't totally eliminate carbon emissions, we'll need to sequester the carbon dioxide that's left over.

Sarah Dingle: So let's dig into that. There's some really, really big ideas there. Energy efficiency, first of all, not very sexy, and not something you hear people talking about a lot. But what are… are these big things that we need to make more efficient? What specifically do we need to do?

Justine Jarvinen: I think the adage about the greenest electricity is the energy that you don't use, and therefore you don't make and this is such a low amount of like… there's such a large amount of low hanging fruit that can make a really big impact collectively. And I'll just mention a few things that we're working on, for example. On the energy consumption side of things we need to do really simple things like reduce the energy used in buildings, but also at a whole suburb or a precinct level. On the energy production side of things, UNSW solar PV researchers have been breaking solar cell efficiency records for decades, packing much more capacity into the space that we have on our rooftops. And on the energy transportation side of things. We have experts making electricity cables more efficient from the choice of materials in the cables, to using different electricity transmission systems like high voltage direct current. One really exciting example of energy efficiency we're working on is a water treatment plant that takes saline water, like you might see in remote and regional communities, and purifies it using solar power. And with our innovation, our research team has been able to reduce the solar energy consumption of that unit by 40%. So we know that we can make a big difference with lots and lots of small, incremental changes. And we know that putting a micro grid at the mining site, for example, can reduce diesel consumption at that site by say 50%. So sometimes we can make very big changes.

Sarah Dingle: Now take us through the renewable options. Solar has been an incredible story. Since it was first brought on board the cost has come down, the efficiency is increased. But still there are people hesitant to commit to large scale solar, for instance. Can you tell us a bit about solar and the other technologies and where they are at in terms of readiness? 

Justine Jarvinen: Yeah. So I would like to say, and celebrate the fantastic achievements we've had to date. So the financial year of 2018, was the first year in Australia that variable renewable energy from wind, large scale solar, and rooftop solar, generated more electricity than gas fired generators. And the following financial year was the first year that it generated more electricity than brown coal. Still lagging generation from black coal, but the economics of that are really being squeezed. And I’d like to celebrate the history of getting that solar technology out of the lab and into the world. Because UNSW’s innovations for solar PV panels are now in 90% of the panels being manufactured around the globe. And so the impact of that has been absolutely astonishing. I've been to visit slums in India, where people have electricity because of affordable solar panels. And our carbon footprint’s reducing, not just from the rooftop solar, but from vast solar farms, which you've alluded to. So we’ve created enormous economic value for society, and commercial value for companies. And also obviously that decarbonisation. And there's still roads to go with solar. You know, it's now worth more than $100 billion per annum as an industry. But we're working on things, for example, of substituting some of the silver panels for copper, and that's also increasing the efficiency. And some of my colleagues are working on a solar skin concept to deploy on the side of buildings, not just in rigid rooftop panels, some of the other less well known technologies are going to come from the fact that a lot of the renewable energy is variable, and that's where some of the hesitancy comes in, because it depends on weather. And so for that, and to make people feel more comfortable about that, we need energy storage solutions. And that's going to involve batteries, primarily, household batteries, or big batteries attached to solar and wind farms, or community batteries. And there are other types of batteries as well. So not just lithium batteries, but batteries provide long duration storage, such as vanadium flow batteries, which have enormous potential, and were invented by one of my colleagues, Professor Maria Skyllas-Kazacos. We also need batteries that are recyclable, and batteries that are made from recycled materials. Otherwise, we're creating a carbon dioxide problem, for a different sort of waste problem. And there are lots of other storage technologies as well. So pumped hydro power like snowy, 2.0, compressed air systems and flywheels, and hydrogen. And I can talk more about that and one of the other buckets as well, shortly. Some of the other technologies that I think are really important in helping people to feel more comfortable about variable renewable energy is demand response. So helping to match electricity demand to when the variable renewable energy supply is available. And maybe that's something as simple as automatically running your dishwasher when the sun is shining. But it could also be massive, being able to use renewables in high temperature industrial processes such as aluminium refining, for example. And another important concept is virtual power plants, where we harness whole fleets of solar and batteries and other energy devices that might be spread across the neighbourhood, and deployed collectively in a more orchestrated fashion. And of course, I could keep going on because I haven't even talked about less variable renewable energy like wave power, or more modern nuclear reactors.

Sarah Dingle: Now, I do want to get to green hydrogen, because it's fascinating. But before we do, just one quick question. In terms of the storage challenge for renewable energies, where does hydropower fit? Is it batteries first, with a smaller role for hydropower, is that how you see the spread? 

Justine Jarvinen: I really see it as a horses for courses kind of thing. So, where we need very long duration storage to be available, for, you know, weeks at a time, things like pumped hydro can be very helpful, hydro and pumped hydro can be very helpful. For times when we need really instantaneous, almost, support for the grid, to make sure that that keeps functioning through until other sources of energy can come online, then batteries are a fantastic example of how we can step in with a moment's notice and get those ramped up and feeding into the system.

Sarah Dingle: Okay, well tell me about green hydrogen, then how is it made? And what is the potential here?

Justine Jarvinen: So, green hydrogen is sort of, I guess, it's a… I talk about green hydrogen, not just green hydrogen, but green fuels as a kind of big concept. And so we call it power to x, where we use, you know, we can electrify water for example, with renewable energy, and we can create hydrogen from that. And we call it green hydrogen, but we can also go on to make green fuels from that, combine hydrogen with other things and make synthetic chemicals and fertilisers. And the reasons why we would do that is because some things are just difficult to electrify. So international passenger jets, heavy road transport vehicles, international shipping cargoes, cargo shipping. And so I think we need to be able to think of hydrogen as a way of starting there, but also then going on and making all of these fuels and chemicals for those other parts of the supply chain, that are going to be hard to abate. And we've got lots of success here, and making hydrogen is not a new technology, and not a new innovation, but what we're trying to do is increase the efficiency of the process and reduce the costs. And it's all about using hydrogen and storing it safely. So at UNSW, one of my colleagues has been involved in storing hydrogen almost absorbed into a kind of a metal sponge. And that means that it can't explode. And so it can be stored safely and shipped around the world, on, you know, in half size shipping containers, or moved on the back of flatbed truck and installed in hydrogen bicycles and barbecues, which you can come and see at UNSW. And we've spun that technology out into a separate company now, that's the world's first home hydrogen battery technology, and that was spun out last year. So I think there's enormous potential to create hydrogen devices, but also storage that can go alongside, you know, in a farmer's paddock next to solar farm, for example, and be able to kind of co-locate the storage, right where the production of renewables is happening. And then to convert it back into electricity when we want to, as well, at the back end of that process. We've got the opportunity, like I said, to use the hydrogen supplier to make chemicals like ammonia for fertiliser, and we can convert carbon dioxide into synthetic fuels. So, it's almost… I feel like it's almost like alchemy, even though I used to be a chemical engineer.

Sarah Dingle: Now, the last of your buckets is, you know, hopefully, if we're getting things right, the smallest bucket, which is sequestering what is left, how do we do this?

Justine Jarvinen: Well, we can use things like bio reactors in China, like I sort of said, to turn carbon dioxide into beneficial products. But one of the exciting things, and I know less about this than some of my colleagues at the University, but the massive potential for soil carbon storage. And so we've got huge landmass in Australia compared to our population, and lots of potential there. And the Australian government has invested in a review to look into that to see the potential and hopefully to just start benefiting from it and creating markets around it to incentivise that.

Sarah Dingle: Now, recently, we've seen not just the Australian political scene, but I think it's fair to say countries around the world rocked by the announcement of the AUKUS Arrangement and Australia's exploration of nuclear submarine technology. Does this reopen the question of nuclear power in Australia? And does nuclear power feature anywhere in your five big buckets? 

Justine Jarvinen: Well, I mean, nuclear power is one way of getting low carbon emission. But you know, fairly kind of so-called baseload generation, and the new designs of nuclear power are much more flexible, and so could fit in with a much more variable grid. And so there's some advantages there, but they haven't been deployed, you know, they're only starting to be licensed overseas. And, and, you know, I think the challenge in Australia is that it's, you know, we have prohibition on nuclear power here. And so that question is more than, you know, the technology and the commercial and economic side of it, it's also a conversation for our policymakers and lawmakers.

Sarah Dingle: One question that several audience members have asked is how they can contribute to getting to zero carbon as individuals. Quite often the problems seem to be only soluble on a really vast scale. Is there anything we can actually helpfully do as individuals to get to net zero?

Justine Jarvinen: I mean, yeah, there are, as I sort of said, I think some of our personal opportunities come in some of those big buckets as well. So energy efficiency and productivity, you know, potentially switching from gas to use electric heating, when you can be pre heating or pre cooling. When the sun’s shining, for example, using solar power to heat swimming pools, there are lots of really simple things that we can do for installing solar. And increasingly, home batteries are going to come into play and also there's gonna be more and more choices of electric vehicles for, you know, different size vehicles for different family situations and different needs. So, I think we'll be able to make an enormous amount of consumer choices in the way that we haven't been able to in the previous decades. So I'm really excited about all the choices that are gonna be coming to us in this decade.

Sarah Dingle: One of the other buckets that you mentioned, is electrifying everything that can be electrified. What, first of all, what is that? And what are some of the challenges associated with that?

Justine Jarvinen: So I mean, it's pretty simple at home, you know, switching gas appliances to electricity appliances, induction stove tops, you know, thinking about, you know, some of the choices that we're making in our appliances. But, for, when we're talking about industry, you know, in warehouses, it could be electric forklifts, it could be electric motors and drives rather than diesel motors. And then in transport it’s obviously, electric vehicles, for passenger vehicles, and like commercial vehicles, the challenges are going to be you know, there's gonna be lots and lots of distributed energy resources all connected to the grid, and each of them kind of taking and giving to the grid, potentially, creates some really exciting opportunities, but also, how do we cope with a huge fleet of electric vehicles and other electrified machines, we will have to install much more electricity to be able to cope with many more electrified machines.

Sarah Dingle: It seems like whenever an opportunity for inserting more renewables into the grid arises, there should always also be a storage component. Is that what we're looking at?

Justine Jarvinen: I think it would definitely help. It's, there are all sorts of other things that can really help devices to play nicely with the grid, power conversion, smart software, internet of things, kinds of ideas, machine learning, there are a whole bunch of different things that aren't kind of energy related, but really help things work at a systems level. And so I think when we're designing for these things, we think about the whole system, and what it's going to take for that to work. Energy is systems of systems.

Sarah Dingle: Thank you so much, JJ, great to hear the full spread of options we have on the table. 

Justine Jarvinen: Thank you.

Ann Mossop: This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Engineering, and supported by Inspiring Australia as part of National Science Week. For more information visit, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Emma Herd

Emma Herd

Emma is an EY Oceania, Climate Change and Sustainability Partner. She is a skilled professional with 20 years’ experience in climate change and sustainability practice. Emma is a known figure in the Australian and global climate change arena having worked within business and industry associations. Emma has direct experience in the development and delivery of commercial climate change finance and investment solutions as well as in campaign and political advocacy strategies. Emma has been directly involved in the development of global climate investment and advocacy programs. Emma is a regular media contributor on climate matters, and a respected voice on climate transition implications for business. She is a member of the Australian Sustainable Finance Initiative Steering Committee and a member of the Queensland Climate Change Advisory Council and Land Restoration Fund Investment Panel.

Justine Jarvinen

Justine Jarvinen

Justine Jarvinen is the CEO of the UNSW Energy Institute. She is an energy executive with international experience spanning the energy, finance, education and non-profit sectors. Jarvinen has worked in operational, strategy and advisory roles in Australia and the UK for energy organisations such as Exxon, Shell, JBWere and AGL Energy.

Image of Andy Pitman

Andy Pitman

Professor Andy Pitman is a leading climate science researcher and the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes at UNSW Sydney. His research focuses on terrestrial processes in global and regional climate modelling, model evaluation and earth systems approaches to understanding climate change. His leadership, collaboration and research experience is extensive, both nationally and internationally. 

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Malcolm Turnbull

The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull AC was the 29th Prime Minister of Australia from 2015–2018. Prior to entering politics, he enjoyed successful careers as a lawyer, investment banker and journalist. He has a deep interest in energy issues and renewable energy and has recently become the Chair of Fortescue Future Industries, the new venture created by Andrew Forrest to invest a proportion of Fortescue’s iron ore business profits in clean energy.

Image of Sarah Dingle

Sarah Dingle | Chairperson

Sarah Dingle is a dual Walkley Award-winning investigative reporter and presenter with the ABC, working across radio and TV current affairs. She has investigated everything from indigenous affairs and human rights to defence and sport. Her work has also won the Walkley Foundation’s Our Watch award for reporting on violence against women and children, the UN Media Peace Prizes, the Amnesty Media Prizes, the Voiceless Media Prize, and the Australian College of Educators Media prize. Her radio documentaries for the ABC’s Background Briefing have been recognised by the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian Sports Commission Awards and the National Press Club. In 2010 she was the ABC's Andrew Olle Scholar. In 2021 she released her first book, Brave New Humans.

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