Alan Kohler: Why Australia’s emissions reduction target is not enough

Occasionally you come across something that just stops you in your tracks.

For me, this week, it was a string of words in an editorial in the Australian Financial Review, the nation’s premier financial newspaper, of which I was once the editor:

“… the green-left political fringe’s anti-fossil fuel ideological fixation …”.

The AFR was commenting, disapprovingly, on the deal between the government and the Greens to pass the safeguard mechanism amendments.

This still-great newspaper was making a common, boring mistake – that climate change is just a political/ideological issue, which is possibly understandable given the way politics blankets our lives, and blots out the sun.

But that mistake perpetuates the idea that there are two sides to this subject – for and against (doing something about it). The Left is For, the Right Against.

This is not only very stupid – the result of a deliberate lobbying strategy by the fossil fuel industry to preserve their profits – it’s very dangerous.

Climate change is science, that’s all.

Political and media stupidity and fossil fuel industry rapacity is doom.

Stupidity and rapacity

Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth assessment report, a synthesis of five previous reports put together by hundreds of scientists in dozens of countries, working for several years.

The conclusion of the report, in brief, is that on the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions the average temperature will peak at 3.2°C hotter than 1850-1900, and even if there is a dramatic and unlikely cut in global emissions, the earth will be 1.5°C warmer within 10 years.

Here’s what life will be like if 3.2°C happens, according to Professor Mark Howden, director of the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions, a vice-chairman of the IPCC, and co-author of the report, who spoke to me this week.

“There’d be significant, very large increases in impacts, things like heatwaves, fires, on agricultural productivity, our water availability across Southern Australia would shrink dramatically at 3.2°C – it’s already gone down significantly, but it would go down much, much more. We’d be looking at very significant biodiversity losses, so we’d effectively have said goodbye to our coral reefs at around about 2°C and even at 1.5°C, significant damage to our coral reefs. So, quite a lot of very substantial impacts.”

Utterly catastrophic

He was pulling his punches. Three degrees of warming would be utterly catastrophic, resulting in dozens of cities being inundated, with hundreds of millions of refugees. Much of Australia would be uninhabitable or, given humans can pretty much live anywhere, uninsurable.

Here’s a 16-minute YouTube video from The Economist about what 3°C looks like:

So far the earth has warmed 1.24°C which is causing noticeable effects.

Professor Howden goes on: “When we look at what’s happening already, we do see this pattern of increased extreme events, things like increased rainfall intensity, which is directly linked to the temperature of the atmosphere, so we’ve known that relationship between the water holding capacity of the atmosphere (which) goes up exponentially with temperature and so as the atmosphere warms, it can hold exponentially more water and that means that when it rains, you’ve got a lot more water in the atmosphere to dump on you.”

The stretch target of the Paris conference in 2015 was to keep warming to 1.5°C. That has since become the near-universally accepted target of most governments and the purpose of “net zero by 2050”, and is generally regarded as being OK – if we can achieve that, goes the conventional political wisdom, we’ll be fine.

No, we won’t be fine. The increased impact from 1.24°C to 1.5°C is not 20 per cent (the percentage difference between those two numbers) but much more than that because global warming is exponential.

Professor Howden again: “Even at 1.5°C, which people might think is a relatively harmless sort of number, the impacts are severe: Very marked increases in food insecurity, water insecurity, impacts on biodiversity, impacts on water systems, impacts on ocean heatwaves and ocean productivity, so the list goes on and it’s quite well documented that those impacts are actually very substantial.”

From boon to curse

This is all happening because of fossil fuels. They have been a wonderful boon to humanity and to the Australian standard of living, and are now a curse. The world’s assembled scientists tell us we have to stop using them to preserve our way of life, immediately would be good, ASAP will do.

Being anti or pro-fossil fuels is like being for or against water when you’re drowning: Usually good, currently a problem.

Which brings us to Australia’s emissions reduction target, now in law after a deal with the Greens. It’s simply about arithmetic, and the sums are both surprising and challenging.

The Climate Change Bill 2022 targets a 43 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. In 2005, according to government data, Australia’s emissions totalled 621 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, so the 2030 target is 57 per cent of that, or 354m tonnes.

Last year’s emissions were 487m tonnes, 22 per cent below 2005 levels because of a 20 per cent reduction in electricity emissions because of renewables. Also, according to the government data, “land use, land-use change and forestry” (LULUCF) has gone from adding 85m tonnes a year to national emissions to subtracting 39m tonnes.

The safeguard mechanism bill will require the 213 facilities that produce 100,000 tonnes or more of carbon dioxide – that is, those in the safeguard mechanism that the Coalition created.

They are required to cut their emissions by 4.9 per cent a year. Since they produced 137m tonnes of carbon dioxide last year, their collective statutory annual reduction from here will get them to 101m tonnes in 2030 – if they manage it.

In 2005, those 213 facilities emitted 85m tonnes, so in the 17 years since then, their emissions have increased 61 per cent, or 7.1 per cent a year.

From this year, those businesses have to do a 12 per cent per annum turnaround, instantly, and go from increasing their emissions by 7 per cent a year to cutting them by 5 per cent a year. Good luck with that.

Everyone else will have to go from 350m tonnes last year to 253m tonnes in 2030, a reduction of 29 per cent, or 5.3 per cent per annum over the next seven years.

climate change

IPCC reports have warned Australia will have more floods, bushfires and droughts due to climate change. Photo: AAP

Huge task ahead

So not only do the 213 big emitters face an almost impossible task of cutting emissions by 4.9 per cent a year – having become used to increasing them by 7.1 per cent – everyone else will have to cut by more than that. With agriculture excluded that’s all down to electricity and land use – possible but difficult.

Mark Howden says the task is even greater than I have calculated.

He told me: “The IPCC Synthesis Report states that for a 50:50 chance of keeping to the 1.5°C above pre-industrial level warming target, GHG emissions globally need to reduce by 43 per cent by 2030 against a 2019 baseline.

“Australia’s current policy of 43 per cent reductions by 2030 are set against a 2005 baseline. If we re-calculate to be consistent with the IPCC numbers, we need to be instead aiming by 2030 for about a 53 per cent reduction in GHG emissions compared with 2005 levels.”

That first 43 per cent is a global task, from 2019, for a 50:50 chance of only being a little bit fried, or flooded. Australia’s 43 per cent is from 2005. It’s a coincidence.

I asked Mark Howden whether scientists like him are consciously being careful to temper their language around climate change, and not be too dire about the situation, so people don’t lose hope, and give up.

He replied: “Absolutely, and this report that was just released has elements of both concern or risk, but also strong elements of hope and action. … My view is if you just tell the negative story, the ‘we’re all doomed’ sort of story, it disempowers people, it actually turns people off, stops them engaging, so you have to give them some sort of pathway ahead.”

If delusions and lies were solar panels, we’d be safe.

Alan Kohler is founder of Eureka Report and finance presenter on ABC news. He writes twice a week for The New Daily.

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