The United Nations and its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has delivered a stark warning to Australia that its climate and clean energy policies are at direct loggerheads with scientific consensus, and what the world needs to do to address climate change.
The IPCC’s latest synthesis report – described as the most important yet made – says the world needs to act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically; it needs to decarbonise its energy systems; it needs to stop burning coal, and it needs to shift investment from fossil fuels to clean energy.
All four recommendations are diametrically opposes to the current policy positions of the Abbott government, which has dumped the carbon price and ignored calls to scale up its reduction targets; which is trying to so slow down or even stop the deployment of renewable energy; which insists that coal is the primary energy source of the future; and which labels calls for divestment of fossil fuels as “stupid” or even treasonous – and certainly not part of “Team Australia.”
The IPCC synthesis report – the culmination of six years work, with the input of more 2,000 scientists, and three interim reports – suggests that such actions are pure folly if the world is to try and avoid the worst impacts of climate change – and try to keep average global warming to 2C, as all countries agreed to do in Copenhagen.
The UN hopes that by the time of the Paris climate change conference in December next year that the world will have agreed on how they will achieve that pledge – either through a new global accord to succeed Kyoto, or through a series of individual and regional targets and actions.
The IPCC report will be the document that guides the science behind those talks, which will continue in Lima next month and conclude in Paris next December. UN secretary general Ban ki-moon says Copenhagen failed to get such action because world’s leaders were more focused on national priorities.
Today, he says, world leaders (or most of them, at least) are more engaged. “We are confident that we will do it, we can make it happen,” he said.
The key scientific findings from the report are that human impact on the climate is clear, temperatures are rising (see graph below), and the impacts are being felt.
This puts Australia in a tricky position. As Greens leader Christine Milne said on Monday, Australia “carries the shame of being the OECD’s biggest per capita polluter”, being a major exporter of thermal coal and being the only nation to dismantle an active emissions trading scheme (and to try and wind back the ambition of a renewable energy target).
“”It beggars belief that while the IPCC says ‘go renewable and get out of fossil fuels,’ the Abbott Government is trying to destroy the RET and CEFC,” Milne said.
The irony is that Australia is actually a global leader in renewable energy technologies – not just their development but also their deployment.
South Australia, with the addition of the 275MW Snowtown wind farm which was formally opened on Sunday, now produces around 40 per cent of its electricity demand from wind and solar, the highest penetration of “variable” renewable energy sources in a major economy. On some days, it rises to 100 per cent, sidelining both coal and gas fired generation.
Australia also has the highest penetration of rooftop solar in households in the world. Across South Australia, it is 23 per cent – in some regions in S.A, Queensland, NSW and Western Australia, it is more than 40 per cent. This put Australia – with great solar resources and high domestic electricity prices – at the vanguard of the huge transition that is forecast for energy markets across the world – one that will see half of all demand produced and stored on-site, in homes and businesses.
Australians themselves seem unaware of such developments, and the significance of them. Which is why the Abbott government thinks it might be able to get away with its current policy position designed to slow down that deployment of both large scale and small scale solar, mostly to protect the interests of the incumbent fossil fuel generators.
“The good news is that if we act now immediately and decisively we have the means to build a better and more sustainable world,” Ban ki-moon said.
“Many tools and technologies are available. Renewables are increasingly competitive. There is a myth … that climate action will cost heavily. But I am telling you that inaction will cost much more.”
Youba Sokona, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III said if the world acted now, it wouldn’t cost much – maybe a reduction in economic growth of 0.06 per centage points.
“The longer we wait to take action, the more it will cost to adapt and mitigate climate change,” Sokona said. “It is technically feasible to transition to a low-carbon economy.”
Ban Ki-Moon’s reference to divestment is particularly significant, given the recent debate in Australia, and the fierce reaction from conservatives in the government and the media.
Jeremy Leggett, the founder and chairman of Solarcentury and chairman on CarbonTracker, said it was important that the UN had “majored” on the role of business in the phase out of fossil fuels that they now see as imperative in decades ahead.
“I know many industry leaders who will respond well to that. On the flip-side of action, the WMO raised the real prospect of accountability for those who foot-drag or worse, given that ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse, with the advent of this report.
“From this day on, I think such business leaders will need to be worrying about their liability insurance, class–actions in their retirement from people and investors impacted, and so on.”
Both Leggett and Ban ki-moon, and the synthesis report, referred to the so-called “carbon budget”. This slide featured prominently in presentations: if the world is to reach its targets, it needs to leave most of its fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
As for the international debate that ensues from this reportr, the first stop will be in Brisbane later this month, where Tony Abbott hosts the G20 nations having finally agreed – under immense pressure from the US and Europe – to include the subject of climate change as an item of “discussion”, but not on the formal agenda.
Then negotiators will convene in Lima, Peru, to negotiate a draft of what an agreement in Paris a year later may look like. This will be a crucial time for Australia, which last year in Warsaw reversed its moderate role to become an outlier in the climate negotiations. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will attend this year’s talks. It will be a test of the country’s most popular Cabinet Minister to see if she rides above the domestic political rhetoric.