Greg Combet: Australia must invest billions more to reach net zero emissions by 2050

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Australia must urgently reduce its reliance on coal and gas exports to meet its ambitious target to reach net zero emissions by 2050, an ex-Labor climate minister has warned.

Net Zero Economy Authority outgoing chair Greg Combet said serious action was needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to curb the rising frequency of devastating natural disasters and record-high temperatures driven by climate change.

He said hundreds of billions of dollars of additional investment would be needed from the government to meet its legislated climate targets as the nation moved to overhaul its energy markets in the coming decades.

“I would argue that a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030 – only five-and-a-half years away – is actually pretty ambitious in an emissions-intensive economy like ours,” Mr Combet said.

“It is a significant adjustment to make in our economy over a finite period of time, so any government thinking about these issues obviously wants to be ambitious in target setting but also has to be very mindful of the economic reality in our own country.”

Australia’s total coal and gas exports were valued at almost $220bn in the previous financial year, making up more than 30 per cent of the nation’s total exports.

As more countries pivot to meet a zero emissions future and demand for fossil fuel exports shrink, Australia would need to rapidly accelerate its own efforts to transition into a clean energy economy, Mr Combet said.

“The race is on to secure the industries of the future. Australia needs to respond and we are,” he said.

“While we can’t go toe-to-toe on investment with countries like the US, one thing is clear, Australia has a compelling comparative advantage in our abundance of renewables energy and mineral resources – plus our skilled workers and reliability as an investment destination and trading partner.

“These advantages can be harnessed to develop industries that will diversify our economy and locate Australia in low-carbon global markets.”

Mr Combet, a former Labor climate change minister and chairman of the government’s Future Fund, said significant progress had been made towards the nation’s renewable energy transformation, citing that renewable sources made up nearly 40 per cent of its total energy generation in 2023, double what was generated in 2017.

He said further change would require broad collaboration between government, business and communities “to secure the opportunities of Australia’s net-zero future”.

“Much of our coal-fired energy generation infrastructure is nearing the natural end of its life. We could spend an estimated $400bn to renew it or we could invest in a future with renewables,” he said.

“The wellbeing and security of future generations presents us an obvious path.”