Australia open to 1.5 °C climate target, “carbon neutral” in 2050

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Australia remains open to including an option to tighten the global climate target to a maximum 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial levels, and may also support a long-term goal for the world to be “carbon neutral” by 2050.

In a briefing to many of the more than 100 environmental NGOs and business representatives due to attend the Paris climate change conference which begins in late November, the Australian delegation underlined the point that Australia remained “flexible” in many of the key issues to be discussed at the two-week conference.

It reveals how far the Australian government has moved since the replacement of Tony Abbott as prime minister by the more moderate Malcolm Turnbull, who will lead the delegation to Paris and speak at the leader’s day on the first day of the summit.

The Abbott government had based much of its long-term planning on the International Energy Agency’s “New Policies” scenario, which was based on no successful Paris outcome, and an emissions trajectory that would take the world to 3.6°C warming.

It used this scenario as the basis of its energy white paper, and its emissions reductions discussion paper.

Australia’s official line is that it supports the 2°C target, but there is considerable pressure for the world to adopt a more ambitious target of 1.5°C, because capping warming at 2°C only leaves a 50-50 chance of avoiding the impact of runaway climate change.

The 1.5°C target remains in the text to be negotiated at Paris, and many parties, particularly island nations, want it to stay there, or even be the principal target.

Here is how the text is looking now …

  1. Hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 2°C][below 1.5°C][well below 2 °C][below 2°C or 1.5 °C] [below 1.5°C or 2°C][as far below 2°C as possible] above pre-industrial levels by ensuring deep cuts in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions;

So far, the pledges for Paris from more than 150 countries add up to a cap of around 2.7°C – assuming that the pledges and actions continue beyond 2030, which few have agreed to or outlined.

Hence the focus, also, on long-term goals in the text; and the draft text includes options for “zero emissions”, “decarbonisation” and “carbon neutrality” by 2050.

The Australian delegation indicated it would be comfortable with the latter. This is a dramatic change from the Abbott government, which had actually removed Australia’s own long-term target – of an 80 per cent cut in emissions by 2050 – when it removed the carbon price last year.

Having a long-term goal is considered key to providing the investment decisions on trillions of dollars of energy infrastructure and investment that will be made in the coming decade. The UNFCCC estimates that $90 trillion will be invested over the next 15 years in infrastructure and energy.

A coalition of business groups last week argued that long-term goals were critical. They pushed for a goal of net-zero emissions by the year 2050. They noted that scientific research showed achieving that goal in 2100 would only provide a 66 per cent chance of limiting global warming to 2°C.

“We believe that a 1-in-3 chance of failure is unacceptable, given the potential for catastrophic climate impacts,” they said.

The devil, however, will be in the detail, and how those terms are interpreted– and what they mean for fossil fuels and the carbon budget. Still, the official text retains numerous options, giving an idea of the amount of work that needs to be achieved in Paris:

“Parties aim [to achieve the global temperature goal], in accordance with the best available science [and the principles of the Convention], through [long-term global [low-[carbon][emission] transformation] [[climate][carbon] neutrality]], [and the peaking of their [net] emissions] [by 2030][by 20XX][as soon as possible], [with a [x]40–[y]70 per cent net emission reduction below the 2010 level by 2050][according to the global carbon budget distribution based on climate justice], and [overall reductions][[net] zero emissions] [over the course of the present century][by 2050][by 2100].2]”

Australia is sending a big team to try to negotiate through this web. Turnbull will talk on day one, at the leader’s summit, and environment minister Greg Hunt will also be in Paris in the first week. Foreign minister Julie Bishop will lead the negotiations in week 2.

The negotiations are due to finish on Friday, December 11, but traditionally go over time. France has reportedly booked the venue – Le Bourget private airport north-east of Paris – for the Monday, just in case it runs further over time.

Hunt told ABC TV on Tuesday morning that the conference would go ahead despite the terrorist attacks in Paris last weekend – “because of its profound importance”.

The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, said on Monday that France will limit the events to “core negotiations” and will cancel planned marches and concerts in the wake of the attacks. That could impact many of the activities and side events planned for the 60,000 people who originally intended to go.

One march planned for November 29, on the eve of the summit, had hoped to attract 200,000 people to put pressure on governments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but this may now not go ahead.

In the talks themselves, there are still huge hurdles to be overcome. Not just in the text outcomes listed above, but also on issues such as climate finance, “loss and damage”, and the push for western countries to compensate poorer countries for damage caused by climate change.

The conference is also unlikely to obtain pledges to match either the 2°C target or the 1.5°C target. But it is expected to lay down a platform that will enable those pledges to be increased over time. Another issue is on verification – particularly in light of the VW emissions scandal – and on the legal form of the treaty.

There was also frustration at the slow pace of progress at the G20 meeting, with officials reportedly frustrated by stalling efforts by India and Saudi Arabia, and environmental groups expressed disappointment on the lack of progress, particularly in the removal of fossil fuel subsidies.

Hunt, though, is still hopeful of a good outcome in Paris, but the detail will be critical.

“My belief is that the Paris process will deliver a two degree outcome, not in terms of all the pledges that are on the table now, but what is likely is that it will set up a process that will bring us to come back in 2020, and 2025, and 2030,” Hunt said on Tuesday.

That, in turn, will put the focus back on Australia’s domestic policy mechanisms, and whether it has the necessary levers to reach even its current target of 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 (equivalent to 19 per cent below 2000), let alone a more ambitious interim and long-term target that would embrace “carbon neutrality.”


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  • Rob G

    Australia could be a leader and set a 50%-60% 2030 target, but alas we have a LNP government so that won’t happen

    • Ken Dyer

      Rob you are right. In the words of Greg Hunt, “a process that will bring us to come back in 2020, and 2025, and 2030.” It will be too bloody late then! Meanwhile, the fossil fuel producers heave a great big sigh of relief and its business as usual.

  • Ken Fabian

    Yes, whilst simultaneously exempting all Australian coal, oil and gas from any restrictions on unlimited expansion? And no reductions in the $5.6 billion a year in tax breaks and subsidies they get either! If Mr Turnbull doesn’t keep faith with the climate science denying Right he may not be leading the LNP to the next election – or they’ll let him win the election for them and then dump him. But I expect he learnt his lesson well and given his close sticking to the coal lobby’s latest PR line “Aussie coal lifting the world out of poverty” it’s clear he has. And the longer term consequences of failure to rein in emissions can and will be ignored.

  • Rob

    There will be repercussions for Turnbull in his electorate, if “the Emperor” is shown to have “no clothes” on the issue of climate change and support for renewables.

  • Porter

    If the world leaders fail to tackle Climate Change and it leads to some global scale weather related disasters than they should be held accountable for and taken to courts. I liked Adeerus Ghayan’s story “Crime, Climate and Change” in this sense. If the world leaders ignore the issue of climate change then they should be ready to face the international court as criminals.

  • David Boxall

    Knowing how this government swings, it’s probably a Trojan. More stringent targets could be spun as justification for nuclear power. They want to sell uranium.