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Australia needs to lift its game on R&D spending to reach net zero

A reliance on technological advances to cut emissions in the federal government’s net zero plan means Australia needs to significantly lift its investment in research and development, with the sector looking for a $2.4 billion fund ahead of next year’s election.

On top of a wishlist that science and technology leaders are releasing on Monday is the fund to turn promising scientific and engineering advances into commercial-scale technology.

The federal government’s net zero by 2050 plan leans heavily on advances in technology and the development of new ones.

Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor, who is returning from the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, says the approach “is winning out” in the way countries are looking to limit warming.

“The Glasgow breakthroughs are all about achieving exactly that focus on technologies like hydrogen, clean steel,” he told Sky News.

“This is the way forward; I think there’s been an enormous acceptance of that.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Glasgow conference last week that it would be scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs who would chart the path to net zero.

“It is up to us as leaders of governments to back them in,” he said.

Australia’s science and technology sector wants to see that support come with an aim to boost R&D spending by almost 50 per cent as a proportion of the national economy.

Australia ranks 21st out of OECD countries, spending 1.79 per cent of GDP on research and development. The average for the group of developed economies is 2.5 per cent.

The Czech Republic has leapfrogged Australia in recent years, while the United Kingdom, which ranks just behind, has a stated policy to lift its R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP.

A concerted drive from governments and Australian industry to lift investment to at least the OECD average would be a good start, says Science and Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert.

“The other countries aren’t making that investment because they think it’s a nice philanthropic gesture,” she said.

“There will be races for industries and jobs … if we can get there first, those jobs and industries will stay onshore.”

The sector wants both major parties to promise a $2.4 billion fund that would drive promising technologies over the line into becoming commercial.

The idea is akin to the medical research future fund set up in 2015, which has grown to $20 billion, that plays a critical role in pushing “nearly there” research such as funding large-scale trials of promising drugs. There is no equivalent government support for wider science and technology research, such as clean energy, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Mr Taylor said the point of the government’s approach was to give industry incentives to drive new technologies and cut emissions.

“The traditional approach to a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme is to impose penalties: penalise the activities you don’t like. This is a very different approach,” he said.

But new modelling done by the Greens to mark the 10th anniversary of carbon pricing legislation shows if the Coalition hadn’t scrapped the Gillard-era scheme, Australia would have already achieved a 26 per cent reduction in emissions.

The government’s official target remains a 26-28 per cent cut on 2005 emissions by 2030, although its new plan projects actual cuts could be as much as 35 per cent.

Greens leader Adam Bandt says the modelling shows Australia would have achieved that by 2020, a decade early, if the carbon price hadn’t been dumped.

“We would not face, as a country, the humiliation and shame on the international stage Scott Morrison inflicted on us these past weeks,” he will say in a speech to the Green Institute on Monday.

“We would be able to honestly and credibly say we are doing a fair share of what needs to be done to keep people safe.”

Opposition climate spokesman Chris Bowen again ruled out Labor reintroducing a carbon price but left the door open to expanding the existing safeguards mechanism that could be used to stop industrial emissions rising.

The Business Council of Australia called for the mechanism to be used to drive emissions reductions by 2050.

Mr Bowen labelled this a “useful contribution”.

“We’ve announced several policies … and we are continuing to develop more which we’ll announce in due course,” he told ABC’s Insiders program.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald