Energy and Climate Change

Energy & Emissions

Climate change is driven by greenhouse gas pollution due to human activities – such as the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) for electricity – fuelling a long term warming trend. The last five years, 2013-2017 have been the hottest five-year period on record.

As global temperatures continue to rise, there are serious consequences for human health and wellbeing, as well as the natural systems that support us, like land, air and water. The burning of fossil fuels produce greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) that trap heat in the atmosphere causing global warming. The additional heat in the land, ocean and atmosphere is driving worsening extreme weather. If we do not rapidly and deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then even more harmful and potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity will occur.

In Australia, climate change is already worsening extreme weather events, such as bushfires, heatwaves and storms. The 2016/2017 summer has been described as the “Angry Summer” while in 2017 Australia experienced the “Weird Winter”, highlighting the significant number of weather records broken (Climate Council 2017).

Today, Australia’s electricity sector is the nation’s single largest source of pollution – accounting around a third of total greenhouse gas emissions.

For more detail see:

How Climate Change Affects Our Energy System

One of the largest long-term risks to energy security is escalating extreme weather, driven by climate change. Australia is increasingly experiencing the impact of extreme weather on power systems.

On 28 September 2016, South Australia experienced one of its most severe storms in recent decades.The storm involved at least seven tornadoes, wind gusts of 190 – 260 km/h (similar to wind speeds experienced during Cyclone Tracy), large hailstones and intense rainfall. The supercell thunderstorms and tornados knocked down 23 transmission towers in South Australia triggering a statewide blackout (Burns et al 2016).

Heatwaves place pressure on electricity systems due to both increased demand for electricity (as everyone turns on their air conditioners) and because fossil-fuelled power stations struggle to operate in the heat.

Just as old people suffer in the heat, our ageing fossil fuel power stations don’t cope well. Extreme heat reduces output and they suffer mechanical failures, right when they are needed most. For example, in February New South Wales experienced an extreme heatwave and near record demand for electricity.

Large, concentrated energy assets – like huge coal power stations – are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather, increasing supply risks if one or more fail at times of extreme demand. Fossil fuel power has a poor record when it comes to reliability as events in New South Wales and South Australia have shown (ABC 2017; AEMO 2017). Fossil fuel station failures lead to blackouts or load shedding which hurts people and industry.

Infrastructure that transports electricity along long, skinny transmission lines from single massive sources of power are more vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as bushfires, storms and heatwaves than a distributed grid with a number of sources of power spread over a wide range of locations.

A more distributed system (with power generation spread geographically rather than a few large, concentrated power plants) with a wider variety of supplies – such as wind, solar and storage – is far more resilient to disruption.

Cities that have experienced severe damage to their electricity infrastructure from extreme weather, like New York, have diversified the sources and location of power generation. Modern renewable energy like wind and solar as well as storage enable power to be generated and stored where it is needed. This can reduce the risks to critical infrastructure during extreme weather events.