Net zero emissions by 2050 is an “absolute minimum” target to aim for, a new scientific report has warned, if Australia is to avoid potentially insurmountable challenges to its cities, ecosystems, industries and food and health systems.
The report, published on Wednesday by the Australian Academy of Science, calls on the Morrison government to accelerate the nation’s transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions – a target the federal Coalition has so far stubbornly refused to adopt, let alone build policy around.
As a form of high-stakes motivation, the report’s authors have modelled the risks and challenges facing Australia at or beyond 3°C of global warming, which is where the world is headed on the current emissions trajectory of an international community where major economies still refuse to pull their weight.
It’s not a pretty picture: catastrophic fire seasons every other year; extreme heatwaves that would come around seven times a year and last an average of 16 days; large parts of the country rendered uninhabitable due to extreme heat or inundation; absolute devastation of coral reefs.
“Australia is facing an extremely challenging future under the current emission trajectory of the international community,” the report says.
“If the world continues on this pathway, [Australia] will lose many of its vital ecosystems (native forests, Great Barrier Reef, alpine regions), and will place its agriculture and health systems in jeopardy of failing.
“The argument that Australia doesn’t contribute ‘significantly’ to the GHG emission problem and therefore should not act on climate change ignores the enormous losses that Australia will experience if it doesn’t work with the rest of the world to achieve and exceed the Paris Agreement goals.”
The report delivers yet another wake up call to the Morrison government, which is failing on even the most basic requirement of looking after Australia’s interests, according to the director of the ANU’s Institute for Climate Energy and Disaster Solutions Professor Mark Howden.
“If we understand that climate change is a grim picture for Australia, then the first thing we should be doing is ensuring that we at least stabilise our greenhouse gas emissions, so we don’t make the situation worse, at least from a domestic point of view,” said Howden, who is one of the report’s 20 authors.
“Are we doing the most basic thing…? No we’re not. So, our core emissions, those fossil fuel based emissions have gone up since 2005. [They’re] only being dragged back by the land use, basically.”
Another of the report’s authors, Distinguished Professor of Biology and Pro Vice-chancellor at Macquarie University, Lesley Hughes, noted that while the world was now 1.1°C warmer than the pre-industrial period, Australia had actually warmed 1.4°C degrees, because of its position on the globe.
“So we are already only just underneath that 1.5 degrees [Paris] target,” Hughes said during a webinar launching the report, alongside fellow co-authors Howden, the ANU’s Frank Jotzo, and the University of Queensland’s Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who chaired the expert panel that developed the report.
“Emissions reductions over the next decade [are] absolutely critical … because they will determine what happens in the second half of this century and will absolutely determine the nature of climate change as an existential threat to humanity,” Hughes said.
“With three degrees of global warming, for example, in the Northern Territory, it’s been estimated that every single day of the year will be nominated as a heat stress day.
“At 3°C we would see between a 100%-300% increase in extreme fire days and what this would translate into is that the … unprecedented severity of fires and the unprecedented extent of the fires in the Black Summer would be a regular occurrence, possibly even every summer.”
On a more positive note, the report also makes 10 recommendations detailing how Australia can get to net-zero emissions by 2050, as well as how best to adapt to some of the climate impacts and changes “baked in” by the 1.1°C of global warming that is already seriously affecting Australia’s ecosystems.
And it also points out that on economic terms, the evidence is crystal clear: The costs of achieving deep emission cuts are far lower than the costs that climate change would impose. And in fact, reducing emissions is possible without compromising future economic growth.
But how to convince the Morrison government – and the Murdoch press – of this?
“What we’ve seen from our federal government is, you know, extreme reluctance to act,” said Professor Hughes.
“But if we can persuade the federal government that actually acting, putting a policy framework into place – for example, to support electric vehicles rather than inhibit their uptake, as just one example – then we could be leading the world in terms of renewable energy … and smart green manufacturing.
“I think that the other thing we must emphasise to the government is that delay is as damaging as denial,” she said.
“Just doing things slowly is just as bad, the science is telling us, as not doing them at all. So, the main message that we would have for the federal government is that what we do in Australia …in the next decade [is critical].
“This is the absolute critical most necessary transformational decade that the human race has probably ever faced.”