The world will be watching, but on some reckonings, the Australian prime minister’s pledge at COP26 in Glasgow will be around 25 years too late.
Scott Morrison has finally been given permission by the National Party to set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and even credible commentators are acknowledging the announcement as though it means Australia is now on course to do its bit to stop climate change and limit heating to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The prime minister is likely to front up at COP26 in Glasgow next week offering nothing more than an unlegislated (and therefore easily reversible and non-binding) commitment to reach net zero by a date that will be at least 15 years after irreversible heating well above 2C has been locked in. On some reckonings, it will be around 25 years too late.
As professors Lesley Hughes and Will Steffen pointed out again this week, it’s the total amount of carbon the world emits to the atmosphere that matters. There is a finite limit to the tonnage of greenhouse gases that can be discharged to the atmosphere before it acts as a blanket locking in disastrous heating for centuries to come. And the date by which the world needs to reach net zero is the day before that tonnage limit is exceeded.
The world is horrifyingly close to exceeding that limit or “budget” of carbon. At current rates of emissions we are only about three years away from the point of no return. As Hughes and Steffen note: “To keep global temperatures below 1.5C, and assuming humans emit CO2 at the current rate of 43 billion tonnes a year, we have about 2.5 years of emissions still to spend. This pushes out to 5 years at a linear rate of emission reduction, achieving net-zero emissions by 2026.”
And if we wish to content ourselves with keeping temperatures below 2C — a fallback prospect that is entirely unpalatable due to the destruction it will cause — then, as Hughes and Steffen note: “Our remaining global carbon budget would be spent in about 9.5 years — so by about 2030. This pushes out to 19 years at a linear rate of emission reduction, so net-zero emissions would need to be achieved by about 2040.”
Given the nearness of the disaster, this is not the time for commentators to let the federal government off the hook for its responsibility to do all things necessary to stop global heating.
Professor John Quiggin, of the School of Economics, University of Queensland, writes that “The Morrison government, partly through its own doing, has almost no control over Australia’s emissions trajectory. The real decisions on that are being made elsewhere — by state governments and civil society, or outside the country altogether.” This is only half true.
It may well be that real and good decisions are being made outside the federal government’s decision-making process but that does not mean that its actions will not or cannot undo all the good being done elsewhere. Every time Environment Minister Sussan Ley approves another coal mine she negates the good being done by others. Every time Energy and Emissions Minister Angus Taylor uses taxpayer money to subsidise another unnecessary gas project, he trashes Australia’s future as a renewable energy superpower.
And it is not at all true that the Morrison government has almost no control over Australia’s emissions trajectory. It has a huge capacity for control, for incentives and for market settings. It is exercising that control fully, in entirely the wrong direction. For example, by heavily subsidising Australia’s massive trade in fossil fuels it is keeping the cost of those fuels artificially low and thereby purposefully defeating world efforts to cease the sort of trade and commerce that causes climate change.
That being so, this is not the time for commentators, who are otherwise committed to shifting Australia away from non-renewables and to full decarbonisation, to be lulling Australians into a false sense of security about the efficacy of any commitment to net zero expressed by the government at this late date. The fact is that the safer target for Australia is net zero by no later than 2037 for 2C of heating, and preferably by at least 2033 for around 1.5C — and these targets will only work properly if emissions are reduced annually at a strict and steady rate in line with the respective net zero target dates. At the moment, emissions are growing, not falling.
For every year that Australia and the world fail to reverse the growth of carbon emissions it is now likely that the date by which every single country — Australia included — needs to reach net zero will move forward not by one year but by two or even three years. We are in dire peril and therefore in dire need of a government that does whatever it can to stop the climate from careering out of control — because that is what is happening.
There is no shortage of things that are being done to stop climate change by all those sensible enough to see that it is absolutely necessary and beneficial for the planet, for all economies and for humanity. We know what to do and it is physically and financially feasible to achieve it. Agencies such as Climate Works and the CSIRO have set it all out for us already.
Feasibility will increase or decline, though, depending on how the federal government takes its rightful and powerful place in the process. There are vital pieces of the regulatory framework and policy settings that are missing from its agenda. These include but are by no means limited to the need for a carbon price, reinstatement and raising of a renewable energy target, cessation of all fossil fuel subsidies, a sovereign capability strategy for national resilience in global crises, numerous legislative changes to ensure actual emissions reduction with the necessary speed, and above all, a shift by Australia to a positive leadership role in international negotiations to stop global heating.
This is the minimum necessary from a federal government to create the framework for success of all the real and good things being done by states, civil society and ethical businesses. A list of these and other vital national strategies and federal responsibilities has been assembled in Australia Together, the nation’s first long term integrated plan for a better future by 2050.
Without them, the efforts of those currently seeking to meet the formidable challenges of climate change are likely to be undone.