Under the Paris Climate Agreement, all countries acknowledged that the total of their current targets for reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases was insufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. They agreed to enhance the targets progressively. Developed countries are to lead the way. All countries have been invited to submit their new targets to a UN climate summit in September this year. This could be an opportunity for a new Australian national approach to climate change.
The International Panel on Climate Change has recently called for the global, anthropogenic emissions by the year 2050 to be no greater than their removal by sinks of greenhouse gases. Countries such as Norway, Sweden and New Zealand are already planning to achieve this net zero by 2050 or earlier. California aims to reach net zero by 2045. The twenty-eight nations of the European Union are looking at changing its goal for 2050 from an 80% reduction to net zero.
The Australian Government has not yet set a long-term goal. Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and ACT governments and the city councils of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide have already adopted net zero by 2050. Over 85% of Australians are in jurisdictions with that goal.
By adopting net zero emissions by2050as our common, nation-wide goal, Australia would be responding more creditably to the urgency of climate change, with a greater unity of purpose and with increased certainty for longer term investments and other commitments.
But a goal without a plan is just a wish.
Under the Paris Agreement, countries are expected to submit mid-century, long-term strategies by next year. The Australian Government accepted the recommendation of the Finkel Review to develop by 2020 a whole-of-economy emissions reduction strategy for 2050.
This should encompass all relevant activitiesthroughout the nation and not be a strategy just for the National Government. According to the UN Development Program, well over half the actions necessary to tackle climate change are or will be implemented at the subnational or local level. Each state and territory government could prepare its plan using a common format with the Australian Government providing an over-arching component. State and territory plans would recognise the initiatives of local governments and all components would take into account the roles of the private sector.
What would the plans look like? Many countries have designed emission reduction pathways. The European Union recently released its strategic, long-term vision to reach net zero emissions by 2050. An example for a federation like Australia is the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.All require urgent and sustained effort at the same time in the following five areas. Governments at all levels and many parts of the private sector are already involved in each area.
(1) Minimise energy demand. In terms of energy efficiency, Australia is ranked only 16thout of the world’s 23 largest energy-consuming economies. Australia lags behind in managing energy consumption. Inadequately designed infrastructure and equipment lock in years of wasted energy and associated greenhouse gas emissions. This could be one of the most cost effective ways of reducing emissions.
(2) Produce sufficient clean energyto meet demand for electricity and other purposes for which fossil fuels are now used. These include heating, other stationary energy and transport. The total emissions from these three sources are now about the same as from the generation of electricity. Australia produces 20% of its electricity from renewables. The current renewable energy target of the Australian Government for electricity production is equivalent to 23.5% by 2020.The targets of Australian States range from 20% to 100% within the period 2020 to 2030.
(3) Make the switchfrom the direct use of fossil fuels to clean energy. The transition from vehicles fuelled by petrol and diesel to vehicles using a renewable fuel source is one example. In Australia a start has been made in some states to support the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles and to reduce their registration costs. The Electric Vehicle Council expects electric cars to be cheaper than traditional vehicles by 2025.
(4) Minimise emissions from other processes, such as cement production, aspects of agriculture and leakages from wastes and gas mining. This can be done by modifying the processes, reducing demand for the products of these processes, substituting other products or capturing the emissions.
(5) Manage the sinksfor greenhouse gases. The remaining emissions of greenhouse gases must be absorbed to achieve net zero. Vegetation must be managed to retain what is there and to develop further sinks. Agricultural practices can help retain and absorb carbon. In Australia, the carbon captured by additional plantings only just exceeds that lost through vegetation clearance. The feasibility of permanent, underground storage of greenhouse gases is being assessed.
These five areas could be the basis for collaborative, nation-wide programsof action involving all levels of government and the public and private sectors across Australia. This would provide much-needed leadership and assist innovation and efficiency.
A vital part of these programs would be long-term assessmentsof the challenges ahead and of the measures needed to address them. What land must be set aside for energy production and carbon capture? How will the consequences for industries and regions now dependant on fossil fuel operations be managed? What skills will be required and how will they be provided? How can the emission reduction measures be embedded in the design and operation of our cities?
The final element of this framework would be an independent body to assess progress, promote collaborative activities and facilitate the periodic review of the mitigation and adaptation plans. Monitoring and reporting would be extended to the local level to provide the community with feedback on the effectiveness of the measures.
Within this framework, over the next thirty years, successive governments at all levels, in collaboration with the private sector, would apply policies and programs which they believe will best enable the actions to be implemented and the long-term goal to be achieved.
Australia could have much to give if it enters a new era of national and global collaboration.
Graham Hunter is the United Nations Association of Australia’s Climate Change ProgramCoordinator. Graham is a former CEO of Greening Australia (Victoria). Graham led the UNAA delegations to the UN climate conferences in Copenhagen (2009), Paris (2015) and to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (2012).