Australia is at risk of being isolated over climate change.
Australia is at risk of being isolated over climate change.

Alarming new figure highlights Aussie risk

Just a few short years ago, action on climate change was considered political poison in Australia but recent developments show the country's insular focus may soon leave it isolated globally.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison illustrated how quickly the rug could be pulled out from under us when he expressed confidence at being granted a speaking spot at the Climate Ambition Summit on December 12, which quickly turned to embarrassment when he was denied the opportunity less than two weeks later.

It seems Australia's proposed announcement that it would no longer use carryover credits - considered an accounting loophole - to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target was no longer good enough.

The world wants more.

Hosts of the summit, France, United Kingdom, Chile, Italy and the United Nations made it clear "there will be no space for general statements" and "bold new commitments" would need to be announced.

The merciless stance is perhaps reflective of the increasing urgency around climate action.

As one report has warned, the world is on track for around three degrees of warming even if all nations keep their promises in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

There's already been 1C of warming and the world is on track to warm by 1.5C by 2040 - that's just 20 years away.

Australia has already felt the impact of that 1C of warming.

Premliminary analysis from the Bureau of Meteorology released this month has confirmed that Australia's 2020 temperature was the fourth hottest on record, which means that the last eight years all feature in the hottest 10 years ever recorded, starting from 1910.

"This is remarkable in that the wetter influence from La Nina was evident in Australia's annual rainfall totals, which were a little above average for the country in 2020," Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub director Associate Professor David Holmes told news.com.au.

Generally La Nina conditions bring cooler temperatures and more rain but Prof Holmes said there had been average to above average temperatures in Australia during recent La Ninas due to global warming.

During the Black Summer bushfires in 2019/2020 there were hotter, more intense blazes, which have forced authorities to change how they fight fires and to invest in more expensive water bombing aircraft.

Globally, 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. The warmest six years have all occurred since 2015.

US scientific agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed last year that the world had experienced its hottest January ever in 2020.

RELATED: Science behind climate change and its impact on bushfires

 

At 1.5C of warming, most of the world's coral reefs would be lost within 30 years and if warming increases to 2C almost all reefs will be lost, this includes the Great Barrier Reef.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in 2018 that the world had just over a decade to act if it was to keep warming to 1.5C.

The target is not an easy one to reach and would require a cut to carbon emissions of 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030. This would allow carbon emissions to reach "net zero" by around 2050.

This is the reason why so many countries have become obsessed with the net zero by 2050 target.

France, UK, the EU, Germany, Canada, South Africa, South Korea and Japan have all committed to the target. China also says it aims to be carbon-neutral, although it will take about 10 years longer to achieve this.

Other countries have set even more ambitious targets for getting to net zero: Finland (by 2035), Austria (2040) and Sweden (2045).

In contrast Australia has a target to reduce emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. As for the net zero target, the Morrison Government says it is committed to achieving this beyond 2050, in the second half of the century.

The 2020 Climate Transparency Report labelled this target as "insufficient" and also shamed Australia for having one of the highest rates of subsidies for fossil fuels.

Labor's spokesman for climate change and energy Mark Butler believes Australia's target has to be well above 28 per cent if Australia is to have any chance of achieving net zero by 2050.

He believes Australia is looking increasingly isolated over climate change.

"There's just been an enormous shift, particularly over the last few months as the world's great trading nations have all coalesced around this mid-century commitment - net zero emissions - and it's going to shape investment patterns, it's going to shape job creation over the next few decades," Mr Butler told ABC's Radio National in December.

"And because Scott Morrison stubbornly won't make that same commitment, Australia sits really quite isolated and out of step from the rest of the world."

'THE END IS INEVITABLE'

While some have pointed out that China is still planning to build coal-fired power stations, Mr Butler said China had also announced a "jaw-dropping" level of renewable energy investment and had also committed to net zero by 2060.

"So along with the announcements by Japan and South Korea to that same effect over recent weeks, and Joe Biden's seismic election in the United States, you see that the rest of the world is shifting," he said.

"The UK and all of Europe are already there. Indeed, they have accelerated their plans if anything.

"And yet Australia is still relying upon these tired old policies of Tony Abbott under Scott Morrison's leadership and the rest of the world has seen through that."

 

Australia's foot-dragging performance on climate change already seems to be blocking former finance minister Mathias Cormann's ambitions to be the next Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The opposition party in the UK is reportedly demanding UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson blacklist Mr Cormann because of Australia's dismal climate change record.

Mr Cormann has now said he would "use every lever available through the organisation to help lead and drive ambitious and effective action on climate change as a top priority" if elected to the role.

The pressure on Australia is only set to increase once Joe Biden takes over as president of the United States. The President-elect has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and have zero emissions from the electricity sector by 2035.

Mr Biden also intends to host his own climate summit within 100 days of taking office in January.

Even a centre-right think tank with links to former Liberal ministers Robert Hill and Christopher Pyne has seen the writing on the wall.

In December the Blueprint Institute released a report that found Australia would not meet its 2030 target and said the economy had to reduce its reliance on coal-fired electricity, which it says is in "permanent decline".

"Its end is inevitable, its role in permanent decline," the report said.

"All that's left for the Commonwealth to decide is whether it's willing to step up and coordinate an orderly phase-down that provides certainty for communities, workers, consumers, and investors."

GLOBAL SHIFT IS HAPPENING

About 20 per cent of Australia's energy already comes from renewables and the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMO) is now predicting electricity prices will be cheaper in 2023 thanks to extra solar and wind capacity coming online.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) also confirmed this year that solar power in most countries is now cheaper than electricity from coal or gas fired power plants.

For projects in good locations and policy support, the IEA says solar can now generate electricity "at or below" $US20 ($AU26) per megawatt hour.

"For projects with low-cost financing that tap high-quality resources, solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history," it said.

Other countries are recognising the opportunities that this transition brings.

China is now the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles.

It has stopped buying Australian coal amid a worsening trade war but the aggressive move also fits with its ambition to reduce its reliance on overseas coal and reduce its emissions.

 

"China planned to reduce 100 million tonnes of coal consumption annually by 2030 to finally accomplish its carbon-neutral goal before 2060, which means fading demand in the coal market," Director of the Institute of Energy Economy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wang Yongzhong, was quoted in a Global Times story as saying.

China has been the top investor in clean energy for nine out of the last 10 years, according to the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.

China has also committed to increasing the share of non-fossil fuel in primary energy consumption to around 25 per cent by 2030.

The UK, France and Sweden have also set out plans to end international financial support for fossil fuels, while Canada announced it will ramp up its price on carbon to $C170 ($AU174) per tonne by 2030.

Countries that manufacture Australia's cars are changing to electric models regardless of whether the infrastructure is being built to support them in Australia.

Banks, insurance companies and superannuation funds are also deciding to divest or move away from fossil fuels and new thermal coal mines.

ADAPTATION IS 'SHOCKINGLY INEXPENSIVE'

The Australia Institute's Centre for Future Work has found Australia could phase out coal, oil and gas industries without mass lay-offs.

It found there were 133,000 people employed in fossil-fuel jobs in 2019, which makes up just 1 per cent of Australia's total jobs, and about 50,000 of these worked in the coal industry.

Centre for Future Work director Dr Jim Stanford told The Canberra Times it would be "shockingly inexpensive" for Australia to support the small number of communities that relied on these jobs.

Many fossil fuel workers would be able to shift to other growing industries including construction, manufacturing, educational, or professional and scientific, which is the most rapidly growing sector in Australia.

"Many fossil-fuel workers, especially those who perform office based functions, like geologists, and technicians, will absolutely be able to transition into that growing sector," he said.

"You've got a situation where you have to facilitate the replacement of 1 per cent of total employment."

If you started the transition early and did it over 20 years, "you're looking at 6500 jobs per year".

It is possible to shift workers in fossil fuel industries to new roles, one expert says. Picture: Lee Constable/Daily Mercury
It is possible to shift workers in fossil fuel industries to new roles, one expert says. Picture: Lee Constable/Daily Mercury

NEW POLICY NEEDED

Australia is making some progress in reducing emissions but Mr Butler said states and territory governments, which have all committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, are driving this, not federal policy.

He said emissions reduction in the electricity sector was also being supported by individual households that have put solar panels on their rooftops.

"Otherwise, emissions are rising in every other sector of the economy," he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the government's action on climate change and said Australia had cut its emissions down to around 16 per cent on 2005 levels already.

"Ambition is of course important and we share it. But it's only the action and results that change the outcomes for the world," Mr Morrison said.

He said data from 2005 to 2016 showed Australia's emissions were down by 13 per cent, compared to the OECD which achieved a nine per cent reduction.

"Our technology road map will guide $70 billion in investment to scale up clean energy technologies and drive outcomes," he said on December 11.

"We're committed to achieving net zero emissions as soon as possible."

But Mr Morrison's actions, in particular, to spruik a "gas-led" recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has drawn criticism from environment groups for continuing to support fossil fuels.

There is also no target for when Australia will achieve net zero emissions and no plan for how the country will achieve more reductions.

Mr Morrison said his government's long-term emissions reduction strategy will be launched ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Scotland in November 2021.

This will be a crucial time for all countries to commit to greater action and UN Secretary-General António Guterres has pointed out that current promises are not enough.

"Let's not forget that we are still on track to an increase of temperature of three degrees at least in the end of the century, which would be catastrophic," he said.

He has called on all world leaders to declare a state of climate emergency, which 38 countries have already done.

Australia is not the only underachiever but the latest Climate Change Performance Index showed it was still at the bottom of the pack, especially when it comes to climate policy.

The only country worse than Australia when it comes to policy is the United States, under the leadership of US President Donald Trump.

Overall, Australia improved its ranking on the index by two places but it was placed 54 out of 57 countries, only beating countries like Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Malaysia

Mr Guterres has said the central objective of the UN for 2021 is to build a global coalition for carbon neutrality by the middle of the century.

Whether Australia chooses to join this coalition or stand outside it, could impact its future for generations to come.

While the coronavirus has battered the world this year, plunging countries including Australia into recession, experts warn climate change impacts could be far deadlier, more challenging and even more life-changing.

"COVID-19 has been something of a big wave that's been hitting us, and behind that is the tsunami of climate change and global warming," astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell says.

charis.chang@news.com.au | @charischang2

Originally published as Alarming new figure highlights Aussie risk



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