Earlier this month my friend James Brown (analyst, economist and co-author of Zero Carbon Options), drew my attention to a new report: the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project Interim Report, Australia Chapter. The project is international, and is being run with some connection to the United Nations. This all sounds rather impressive, important and right in my area of interest. However James was concerned that some of the assumptions were peculiar. He had emailed the international project head to raise his concerns.

I took a look at the report. The closer I looked, the less comfortable I felt. While the ostensible goal is one I wholeheartedly embrace, I was concerned this report would potentially send the national conversation backward, rather than forward. I brought it to the attention of a few other parties including my friend Professor Tom Wigley. He, James and I committed to drafting a critique of the report and we got to work.

Late in the piece, a strange thing happened. While approaching some other parties for their review of the critique and potential endorsement, the draft critique was leaked to the authors of the Australia Chapter. Email communication was incoming immediately. To cut a long story short, we declined an offer of personal engagement to instead finish the draft and submit the critique as planned, which was a matter of days away. Our suggestion to the authors was that the critique should be published, along with their response, in the interests of transparency and following the example set by the IPCC.

The authors would not commit to this. They instead reserved the right to respond as they saw fit.

For that reason we have decided to publish the Interim Report and our critique here at Decarbonise SA.

We note here, as in the critique, that this is only an interim version of the report that we are commenting on and more information and a final version will be forthcoming in the near future. We note also that in the main report (as opposed to the Australia Chapter) we find much to agree with in terms of the value in developing deep decarbonisation pathways as part of a decisive response to climate change. As will be apparent in the reading, we have many and serious concerns about the Australia Chapter and we think a published written critique is the correct step. We were not, and are not, seeking explanations relating to the report. Rather, we believe reports like this should not require explaining. This distinction matters a great deal.

We don’t take the decision to critique this version lightly. A great deal of effort went into it. Nor do we take lightly the decision to publish our critique.

James, Tom and I share a conviction: achieving meaningful action on decarbonisation in a politically and economically complex world demands, as a starting point, work that is balanced, fully cognizant of the many complexities and uncertainties, and of the highest quality to underpin arguments and decision-making processes. Anything less and we are destined to repeat the past: environmentalists talking to themselves while the world heats up for another generation.

This is the Australia Chapter of Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.


This is our critique.



The final version of the report has now been released. We have noted two changes.

1. Correction of the error relating to electricity making up two thirds of Australia’s emissions. This sentence has been eliminated

2. The contingency scenario with nuclear now has less nuclear. It has been lowered to 14 %.

There appears to be no other change of material significance whatsoever.

Like what you see here? Please subscribe to the blog, Like Decarbonise SA on Facebook and follow @BenThinkClimate on Twitter. Read more about the potential for nuclear power in Australia at Zero Carbon Options


  1. I’ve quickly read both reports so I just have gut reactions to go on. Some quick thoughts
    – the biggest bang for the buck is to replace coal fired baseload
    that could save up to 200 Mt out of ~550 Mt CO2e
    – biosequestration is wiped out with El Nino or megafires
    – post combustion CCS on any scale is unlikely to work
    – electric transport may help inner city professionals but not farmers, truckers and outer suburb battlers.

    More later when I’ve reread the reports. Good work Ben on NITV Awaken which if anything highlighted the gulf between thinkers and feelers. I guess folks aren’t ready for non-outback waste repositories yet even though it is the default situation.

    1. The hard part will be negotiating the non-vertically integrated Coal mining companies to find another customer or use for their assets. There is a lack of understanding of what deposits are thermal and coking, who operates them, how many workers there are, is it integral to a local community, what are the business models and so on.

      It’s too easy to say no to coal, but very hard to actually displace coal.

      1. That’s why I think explicit CO2 pricing is the best approach. If the social cost is say $50 per tCO2 and we head towards it (eg Clive Palmer’s zero starting price ETS) then people can see the reasons behind a coal phaseout. For asbestos the public eventually agreed the social cost was too high.

        1. For sure. The issue is how can we reconcile with the residents at Morwell that on the one hand experienced the risks with the fire, and on the other rely on the mines and plants as a part of their local economy.

          It’s a tricky situation. The only policy ‘out’ that I can come up that ensures all are satisfied to a degree is a Coal to Liquids plant for the coal with the electricity generation shifted to Nuclear.

  2. Many thanks to Ben and his team for doing the hard work for the rest of us. My guess is that these fellows have invested too much energy digging the hole which they now find themselves to repair their damaged chapter.

    By identifying the issues and providing several pages of serious additional studies, Ben and friends have placed the Australian DDPP team at the crossroads. One way is to not consider this new material, the other demands a new start, with new methodology, new and expanded references, plus proper modelling of multiple pathways.

    Having already published their draft of Chapter 23, it appears to me that the Australian DDPP team will now put their cue in the rack and declare “game over”; ie they will probably stonewall..

    Since the Australian DDPP team are unlikely to lift their game voluntarily, I wonder whether the United Nations based coordinating organisation could be contacted and, if so, whether they would be amenable to demanding that the chapter be of a higher quality.

    This episode has the characteristics of much poor policy-making, whether regarding energy or any other complex field and whether public (as here) or private (as in many corporate failures which are the standard study material of postgrad management studies.
    Methodology: Start with the conclusion, then adjust/choose facts to fit and give only token, unsupportive, recognition to alternate options.
    Outcome: Adopt a flawed policy, leading to failure to achieve goals, plus cost and time over-runs. Blame the delivery team, never those responsible for the failed process.

    One current example: The decline over the past 6 years of Australian airline Qantas. The Chairman and CEO announced a series of annual poor commercial results, even to the point of closing the airline down temporarily in 2011 due to their being unable to manage it as a going concern and culminating with sell-offs of routes, planes and announcement yesterday of $2.8B loss for the year. These same managers are blaming not the policies that they have adopted but external circumstances which their combined brilliance was unable to overcome. Not their problem, then.

    Similarly, any policies based on Draft Chapter 23 of the DDPP project will fail and those responsible will deny responsibility and pin blame onto unforseeable external circumstances. Not their problem, either? The costs of policy failure are paid by corporations’ shareholders and public organisations’ citizens, not the writers of poor advice.

  3. On further reading of the Pathways report I wonder if it really is an action plan as opposed to a wish list which when never achieved can be blamed on dark forces. For example this week the solar industry says it will collapse yet the report asserts in Figure 9 it will grow massively. Other assumptions may be valid but not because of a deliberate decarbonisation policy; for example 75% of Australia’s gas production may be exported as LNG so we’ve unwittingly reduced that domestic energy option.

    The report has plenty to gladden a conservative’s heart predicting (Table 1) both population and per capita GDP to grow nearly 60% by 2050. That flies in the face of Limits to Growth predictions the world economy will shrink by mid century. Notice for example we had 6 aluminium smelters in 2012 now 4 smelters in 2014 I’d guess maybe just 1 in 2050. The report says energy efficiency goes into overdrive after 2020 particularly for buildings and vehicles. Because there’s not enough evidence for this now we have to take it on trust. There’s also no discussion of where the money will come from or what will discourage coal dependence. Dare we ask is this all affordable? Costs are barely mentioned throughout the report.

    It’s disappointing that this kind of wishy washy report can come from universities and government agencies. If it was rigorous we should be struggling to find anything to criticise. A more realistic approach would assume myopic politics ruled by self interest. For example $3/L petrol followed by panic. If very little of the report materialises we have to wonder whether it really adds anything to the low carbon debate.

  4. SA’s policy on the nuclear fuel cycle is a bit like being half pregnant. They happily accept revenue from U3O8 sales but won’t provide enough energy to allow the industry to expand.
    For the near term Olympic Dam mine will save above ground energy via a heap leaching process rather than conventional crushing and flotation. The major change to open cut mining seems to be off the radar.

    If they want to employ the 10,000-20,000 skilled workers who will lose their jobs in SA by
    2020 they need to value add. That is do something with the uranium. In 2015 the wholesale gas price is expected to jump from $4/GJ to $8. That will make it even harder to find replacement industries for car making and defence contracting. Over to you SA politicians.

    1. Start with a small conversion plant and have a policy in place requiring a % of exports to require conversion in SA. Once the conversion plant is here it will become the future nuclear hub for Australia.

  5. Start with a small conversion plant and have a policy in place requiring a % of exports to require conversion in SA. Once the conversion plant is here it will become the future nuclear hub for Australia.

  6. It seems like SA defence contracting will be dealt a massive blow in 2017 the same year as the Holden closure
    The key dates seem to be
    2015 – Cooper Basin gas goes into export LNG
    2017 – car industry and support network closes for good
    2017 – naval vessel building dramatically shrinks
    Meanwhile several large mines in the west and north of the state cannot start or expand due to shortages of power and desalinated water. You’d think there must be something in which SA has a natural advantage that could be developed. Seemingly not.

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