Sunday environmental round up

Aug 22, 2021
(LtoR) Peruvian Environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Chairman Rajendra Pachauri and IPCC secretary Renate Christ give a press conference to present the AR5 Synthesis Report in Copenhagen on November 2, 2014. The report -- the first overview by the Nobel-winning organisation since 2007 -- comes ahead of UN talks in Lima next month to pave the way to a 2015 pact in Paris to limit warming to a safer 2 C. AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX DENMARK / NIELS AHLMANN OLESEN +++ DENMARK OUT (Photo credit should read Niels Ahlmann Olesen/AFP/Getty Images)

Take-away messages from the IPCC’s climate science report and what it means for Australia. Environmental battlegrounds in the current session of parliament. Legal challenges to ministerial discretion and little-known threatened animals.

The recent IPCC report on the latest climate science, the first since 2013, has received lots of coverage and commentary across all forms of media. I’ll restrict my contribution to a synopsis of three organisations’ (here, here and here) ‘five takeaway messages’:

  1. Human activities are ‘unequivocally’ causing global warming – previously the IPCC had regarded the link as only ‘very likely’.
  2. Global warming is producing rapid changes to Earth’s climate systems now. The changes are occurring more quickly than recently predicted and are unprecedented in the last several hundred thousand years. Changes of this magnitude and rapidity have certainly not seen during the climatically stable, most recent 12,000 years when complex human civilisations have developed.
  3. No matter how deeply we cut emissions in the near future, temperatures will keep increasing till at least mid-century and it is now unlikely that warming will be kept below 1.5o It’s likely that we will reach average global warming of 1.5oC in the early 2030s.
  4. Without immediate and deep emissions cuts, global warming will exceed 2o
  5. Extreme weather events (land and marine heatwaves, floods, droughts, bushfires, cyclones) will become more frequent and more extreme. Since the last report, the evidence has become much clearer that extreme weather events are linked to climate change. Even after emissions start to fall, climate systems will continue to be affected and sea levels will continue to rise for centuries.
  6. The consequences of climate change are affecting, and will get worse for, all people in all parts of the globe. Poor and disadvantaged individuals, communities and countries are the worst affected.
  7. Crossing irreversible climate tipping points (e.g., melting of polar ice sheets, dieback of the Amazon Forest, changes to ocean currents) cannot be ruled out and could lead to runaway global warming. This is the first time an IPCC report has considered tipping points.
  8. The window for effective action is closing rapidly but the climate future is still in our hands. Decisive, large-scale, effective and immediate action by the global community can still limit warming to well below 2oC, as agreed in Paris. This must involve cutting greenhouse gas emissions drastically in the next decade and reaching net-zero globally by 2050.
  9. Regardless of whether warming stays below or exceeds 1.5oC or 2oC, every fraction of a degree of additional warming results in more frequent and more serious extreme weather events, makes crossing tipping points more likely and leads to more dangerous and more costly impacts. So, 1.9oC will be better than 2oC and 2.9oC will be better than 3o There’s no excuse for giving up.

On a GetUp webinar during this week, Will Steffen made clear what this all means for Australia:

  • No (none, zero, not any) new coal, gas or oil developments. Forget the gas led recovery ‘crap’. Stop exporting coal;
  • 75% reduction in emissions (compared with 2005) by 2030. Australia’s emissions have changed little between 2005 and now;
  • Net zero emissions by 2035;
  • This is the last chance for global leaders to take effective action. It will be too late by the time the next IPCC report is produced.

Not all Liberal politicians are in denial about the existence of and/or the urgent need to do anything about climate change. Matt Kean, NSW Minister for Energy and Environment, recently sent a very clear message to his Liberal-National colleagues: ‘When we decide who we bank with, and when we decide how to vote at the ballot box, we need to send a message to all leaders in every part of our society, that failing to deliver on the promise of what we can be, is not an option. Complaining that it is all too hard is not a solution. Saying that it is up to others to come up with a plan is a complete cop out. The community expects our leaders to get on with it, or to get out of the way.’ That’s the sort of language one might expect from one of P&I’s regular contributors on climate change, not a Liberal cabinet minister. Don’t expect a Christmas card from Scomo, Matt.

Writing in The Guardian, Adam Morton and Lisa Cox identified four environmental battlegrounds in the current session of parliament:

  1. A second attempt by the government to allow the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Arena) to fund the development of (the most-definitely-not-renewable) energy technologies of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen power sourced from gas (blue hydrogen). The government has already been successful in this quest;
  2. Government plans to let the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC or ‘green bank’) fund (the most-definitely-not-clean) gas-fired power plants and remove the  requirement on the CEFC to deliver a financial return on all its investments (which doesn’t sound like very bank-like behaviour);
  3. The wish of the government to provide grants to private companies to encourage the development of the Beetaloo Basin gas field in the NT (see next item for more details);
  4. Continuing efforts by the government to weaken the nation’s already failing Environmental Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act by cherry-picking recommendations from Graeme Samuel’s recent comprehensive 10-year review of the Act.

Parliament being parliament, no doubt these four battlegrounds will consume considerable time and effort of the denizens of Capital Hill. What strikes me as remarkable, however, is that only one of them – the future of the EPBC Act – is of any real significance for the environment. The first three are little more than political Brownian motion.

The Morrison government has by word and deed (sports rorts, car park rorts, etc.) made it clear that it believes that ‘Ministerial discretion’ is all that is required to justify the allocation of funds to pet projects that will benefit its mates or its election prospects. A recent example is the grant of $21 million by the Minister for Resources and Water to Imperial Oil and Gas to expedite gas exploration activities in the Beetaloo Basin in the NT – the Minister conveniently ignoring the fact that no additional fossil fuel reserves should be explored and mined if global warming is to be contained at a manageable level. Governments, however, are not exempt from laws and regulations and the Environment Centre Northern Territory (ECNT), represented by the Environmental Defenders Office, has challenged the lawfulness of the Minister’s decision in the Federal Court. Grants under the relevant program are subject to the Commonwealth government’s own Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act which requires that the Minister must make reasonable enquiries to be satisfied that the expenditure would be a proper (that is efficient, effective, economical and ethical) use of public money. The ECNT alleges that the Minister committed an error in law by failing to make necessary enquiries regarding the climate change and economic risks associated with the development of the Beetaloo Basin and therefore the Minister’s decision is invalid. We await with interest the Court’s decision but regardless of the outcome it’s good to see the increasing trend for organisations with the necessary commitment and skills using the law to challenge ministers’ idiosyncratic decision-making processes.

Polar bears, Sumatran tigers, White rhinos: well-known threatened animals. Black-throated finches and Pangolins might also feature on some people’s lists. Fourteen leading conservationists have each nominated a threatened species that doesn’t attract much public attention but is in urgent need of protection before it’s too late. The nominations comprise four mammals and reptiles, three birds, two insects and one fish. Not surprisingly, not all of them are majestic, colourful, cute or cuddly – the list includes a vulture, a cobra, a sloth, a tortoise, a crocodile and a dung beetle.

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