Leading Australian climate scientists are calling for Australia to dramatically upgrade its climate policies in the light of new research that shows a decade of inaction means it may be too late to try and limit average global warming to just 1.5°C.
A review of recent climate science findings published by the Climate Council reveals a growing scientific consensus that the world is already on track to warm by more than 1.5°C, and that only an ‘overshoot and drawdown’ trajectory, requiring the extensive use of carbon capture and storage, will allow temperatures to be stabilised at that level.
It may still be possible to limit average global warming to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, but a rapid ramp-up of decarbonisation efforts will be required by all countries to meet the target. In Australia, that would translate into reaching 100 per cent renewables, or close to it, by 2030, and a 75 per cent economy-wide emissions reduction target by the same date.
In 2015 in Paris, countries agreed to limit global warming to 2°C, and ideally just 1.5°C. But Climate scientist and Climate Council member professor Will Steffen says it is becoming clear that global warming of at least 1.5 degrees is already inevitable.
“Talking to a lot of my colleagues, particularly in Europe, it’s just become clear to all of us behind the scenes that we’re not going to cap temperature rise at 1.5 [degrees],” Steffen said.
“Talking with my colleagues, I think the best we can do is well below [2 degrees], which is exactly what our report says. It’s not one piece of information. It is a synthesis of a wide range of observations.”
The research synthesis prepared by the Climate Council researchers, including Steffen, Macquarie University professor Lesley Hughes and Dr Simon Bradshaw, finds that the world is currently following a trajectory that would see the world warm by an average of 4 degrees by the year 2100 – a scenario that would lead to more frequent and catastrophic drought and floods, more extreme weather events, sea-level rise and the complete devastation of the world’s coral reef systems.
“[Australia is] one of the most urbanised countries in the world, and worsening climate change brings multiple threats to our cities and towns,” the Climate Council report says. “A one-metre sea-level rise, possible by the end of the century, would put 160,000 to 250,000 properties at risk of increasing coastal flooding.”
“The combination of rising sea levels and increasingly intense low-pressure systems and cyclones greatly increases the damage from storm surges, inundation and coastal erosion. Extreme heat, bushfires and severe storms put mounting pressure on urban infrastructure and dwellings, rendering many properties and businesses uninsurable.”
Steffen said there were a number of ‘tipping points’ that could rapidly accelerate the rate of global warming, but by their nature, they were inherently unpredictable.
“The thing about tipping points is there is innate uncertainty that we can never totally get over in them. As one of my colleagues said, the only way you know for sure where a tipping point lies is by tipping. And that is not an intelligent thing to do,” Steffen said.
“We’re going have to take a risk analysis here on these tipping points, like the Amazon, like on permafrost. And again, that argues very, very strongly that this decade is indeed a critical one, that we have to get emissions down.”
According to the Climate Council, Australia should set a 2030 emissions reduction target of 75 per cent, a substantial increase from the 26 to 28 per cent target of the current Morrison government – along with a target of achieving zero net emissions by 2035.
Steffen, who was formerly the executive director of the Australian National University Climate Change Institute, said that meeting the more ambitious targets would require a halt to growth in growth in the fossil fuel sector.
“The first thing I would do immediately would be to say ‘no expansion of the fossil fuel industry’,” Steffen said. “That’s an absolute must.”
“So, no expansion of the gas industry, no expansion of the coal industry, and, and certainly have a supportive phase-out plan that helps communities and workers who are in the fossil fuel industry, that has to be a very, very high priority.”
“Number two is we should reach 100 per cent renewable energy or very close to it by 2030,” Steffen added.
Steffen highlighted that the Climate Council was recommending a stronger 2030 emissions reduction target than that recommended by the Climate Change Authority in 2014, of between 45 and 65 per cent by 2030 on 2005 levels.
Steffen said a higher target was now necessary due to the lack of government action to reduce emissions in the period since the Climate Change Authority’s original recommendation.
“We’ve gone backwards since 2014, our emissions have drifted upwards, they haven’t come down. We’re a wealthy country, we can do more than many of the developing countries,” Steffen said.
“We have arguably the best renewable resource of any OECD country and apart from perhaps a few Middle Eastern countries, the best of any country in the world. We absolutely have enormous opportunities to be able to do this. I think we can do it with economic and social gains and developing an export industry.”
“If we can crack 75% or close to it by 2030, we’ll be on track to hitting net zero by 2035,” Steffen added.