Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Lift-off for Space Agency

By Ian Lowe

The re-establishment of an Australian space agency is expected to generate billions of dollars after decades of neglect of the sector.

Australia is at last going to have its space agency restored. The decision was announced at a major international conference in Adelaide in September. Scientists working in space-related areas greeted the announcement with unanimous enthusiasm after governments had been missing in action for more than 20 years.

The Australian Space Office was set up in 1987, when Barry Jones was Science Minister. It had a modest annual budget of $5 million, but there were big space projects under consideration at the time: restoring Woomera’s capacity to launch rockets, or building a massive space port on Cape York. Prime Minister John Howard closed the Space Office when he was elected in 1996, a move showing he had neither vision nor respect for science. Twelve years later, a parliamentary committee said it was no longer acceptable for Australia to be “lost in space” yet nothing happened.

The current industry minister, Arthur Sinodinos, appointed former CSIRO chief Dr Megan Clarke to conduct another inquiry. It is due to report next March, but the international conference put pressure on the government to act. Critics pointed out that Iceland was the only other OECD country without a space agency. Barry Jones was more direct, noting that New Zealand has one, as do Peru and Nicaragua!

So the Turnbull government rushed to make an announcement to the conference. One report said the minister’s remarks were almost drowned out by cheers when he said that a space agency would be established.

We really need to see the terms of reference and funding level. Dr Bruce Middleton, who first headed the space office 30 years ago, told The Saturday Paper that the new agency will need at least $50 million per year to be effective. Dr Allan Duffy of Swinburne University of Technology said that the space sector is worth $3–4 billion in Australia, a figure that he expects could be doubled by an effective agency.

The scientists and commercial interests involved will be watching next May’s Federal Budget with great interest.

The latest edition of the national emissions inventory makes chilling reading. The report was produced for Canberra think tank The Australia Institute by energy expert Dr Hugh Saddler. It shows that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing rapidly despite our endorsement of the Paris agreement to slow climate change.

Our emissions are now at a record level. Turkey is the only other advanced country releasing more greenhouse gases now than when the climate change treaty was negotiated 25 years ago. All other developed countries, even the USA, have made progress.

The fine print exposes the folly of the national government’s attempt to prolong the life of an old and dirty coal-fired power station. Our transport fuel use is increasing, an inevitable consequence of rapid population growth and continuing neglect of public transport. With no realistic prospect of reining in transport emissions before 2030, meeting our Paris obligations demands a more rapid transition to clean electricity than the government proposes. The Australia Institute concludes the least-cost solution to meet our Paris target requires 66–75% of power from renewables by 2030. The ALP’s national target of 50%, and similar targets in some states, have been criticised by the Coalition government as too ambitious. But the new analysis shows that really drastic measures will need to be taken to reduce emissions from transport, manufacturing and agriculture if we don’t take the more cost-effective action of cleaning up electricity supply.

Saddler’s analysis confirmed that electricity production from coal and gas failed to meet energy demand during the February heatwave. He noted that the power system has a peak load problem rather than a baseload problem. “Right when NSW consumers needed them most, important gas and coal generation went missing in action,” Saddler said.

This strengthens the case to move towards renewables with storage, rather than extending the life of old baseload power stations. It also reinforces the need to get serious about improving the efficiency of energy use, as the National Framework report recommended 14 years ago. That is not low-hanging fruit; it is fruit lying on the ground that really should be picked up. Improving efficiency saves money as well as reducing emissions.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.