The push to net zero intensifies, but can we keep the pace?

19 July 2022 06:22

Antoaneta Dimitrova, Head of Current Awareness at LexisNexis®

If the wind of change a new Government typically carries failed to create a buzz in Australia’s new Parliament, a diverse crossbench, in both the Lower and Upper Houses, and invigorated public discourse, certainly will. Coming in with a hefty agenda, and a commitment to do things better, the Albanese Administration will not have an easy ride despite a crossbench peppered with in-principal support.

Take climate change and emissions reductions: the Prime Minister pledged to hit the ground running with legislation that would enable Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to drop by 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and to net zero by 2050. This was, after all, one of the core election issues he campaigned on and won over the Australian public in the May federal election. The Climate Change Bill 2022 and Climate Change (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2022 were introduced on Wednesday 27 July, and referred immediately to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 31 August 2022.

Despite a sizzling reception from a market fatigued by the climate change impasse of the last decade, reports are increasingly emerging that appear to suggest the target may be too little too late, and well short of the action required to tackle the rapid progression driving us to global warming of 1.5°C within several years. These are not alarmist viewpoints, nor do they come in aid of political point scoring but have been evidenced by reputable and expert global organisations in the business of climate change science.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, which Australia is a member of - is one of those organisations. IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee recently highlighted a trilogy of reports released by the organisation in the 10 months to June 2022 that served a dire warning about the consequences of inadequate action.

“The climate science is clear,” Mr Hoesung said while addressing the opening of the IPCC’s First Technical Dialogue of the Global Stocktake on the 9th of June.

“Our Physical Science Basis report concludes that: it is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change and human influence is making extreme climate events, including heat waves, heavy rainfall, and droughts, more frequent and severe. Human activities have warmed the planet at a rate not seen in at least the past 2000 years and we are on course to reaching global warming of 1.5°C within the next two decades.”

One of the reports on Impact, Adaptation and Vulnerability, points to current levels of warming already considered a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet, and urges policymakers to see the next few years as ‘a rapidly closing window to realize a sustainable, liveable future for all’.

“Even temporarily exceeding 1.5°C warming will result in additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible,” the IPCC Chair said. “We are not on track to achieve a climate resilient, sustainable world. Action on adaptation has increased but progress is uneven, and we are not adapting fast enough.”

The 1.5°C target is the goal of the Paris Agreement, which asks countries to take joint climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming.

Another global organisation, which Australia is also a member of, and which has published information making the case for urgent action, is the International Energy Agency (IEA). Also in June this year, the IEA which works with countries around the world to shape energy policies for a secure and sustainable future, flagged Australia’s temperature was rising quicker than the world average in its Australia climate resilience policy indicator.

The publication says Australia’s temperature rise had affected the entire country and all seasons, with the rate of warming in the last two decades recording more than 0.042°C per year (+0.011°C above the world average).

“Australia’s warmest year on record was 2019, and the seven years from 2013 to 2019 were among the top nine warmest ones,” the IEA policy indicator update reported. “This long-term warming trend means that most years are now warmer than almost any in the 20th century.”

Earlier in May, as Australia geared up for the federal election, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) issued its Climate Update 2022-2026 that projected a 50:50 chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5 °C above the pre-industrial level for at least one of the next five years.

In a WMO press release dated 9 May 2022, the organisation said that the chance of temporarily exceeding 1.5°C had steadily grown since 2015, when it had been close to zero.

“For the years between 2017 and 2021, there was a 10% chance of exceedance,” WMO said. “That probability has increased to nearly 50% for the 2022-2026 period.”

WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas warned the study showed ‘with a high level of scientific skill’ that the world was getting measurably closer to temporarily reaching the lower target of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

“The 1.5°C figure is not some random statistic. It is rather an indicator of the point at which climate impacts will become increasingly harmful for people and indeed the entire planet.”

Closer to home, and just days away from the 51st Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, Fiji running from July 11 - 14, the Climate Council released a report titled A fight for survival: Tackling the climate crisis is key to security in the Blue Pacific which asks Australia to show its Pacific neighbours it was serious about climate action in order to earn their trust.

The report’s foreword, penned by a group of former Pacific leaders, including former Prime Minister of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga, former President of the Republic of Kiribati Anote Tong, former President of the Marshall Islands Hilda Heine, former President of Palau Thomas Remengesau, and previous Security General of the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat Dame Meg Taylor, sends a strong message to the Australian Government.

“Like many in the region, we welcome a more ambitious climate policy from the newly elected government of Australia, especially the strengthened commitments to cut emissions by 2030 as well as promises of new climate finance to help deal with the climate impacts,” the joint statement from the group reads. “These commitments constitute positive progress. However, we will need to see more urgent actions - including accelerated efforts to move beyond coal and gas - to match the security threat we face. New finance should also be made available for unavoidable loss and damage.”

Dr Wesley Morgan, Climate Council Senior Researcher, climate diplomacy expert and the report’s lead author, said the Pacific Islands Forum was a critical moment for the Albanese Government to reset relations with Pacific nations and prove itself as a climate leader.

“Climate change is an existential threat to the Pacific and despite stronger emissions targets from the new Australian Government, the latest science and assessment of global targets shows a catastrophic shortfall on the scale of action required,” Dr Morgan said.

Australia and New Zealand are working on a bid to host a future United Nations climate summit, and want Pacific Island nations to join the initiative, yet the Pacific leaders group wants to see Australia abandon plans for new fossil fuel generation.

“To rebuild trust in the Pacific and potentially co-host a UN climate summit with island nations in 2024, Australia’s new 2030 emissions reduction targets must be a floor, not a ceiling,” Dr Morgan added. “Based on its high emissions, economic strength, and vast untapped opportunities for renewable energy, Australia should aim to reduce its emissions to 75% below 2005 levels by 2030.”

Responding to questions after the release of the report, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said hosting the UN Conference of the Parties was an important step in engagement on climate in the Pacific.

Targets to net zero remain unchanged despite rumblings that the 43% reduction target is ‘only the floor and not the ceiling’, and a considerable improvement to the neglect climate change policy saw in Australia in the last decade. In early July, Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers signalled he was working to resume the key role his department (the Treasury) could play in climate change policy. The last proper study of climate change impact on the economy was the Garnaut Review ordered by then Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2007.

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