Climate Council: ‘Too late to limit warming to 1.5°C’

Communities want serious climate action. Pictured is artwork in Chippendale, NSW, by Scottie Marsh. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

A decade of inaction means that the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C will not be met. This is the view of the independent Climate Council, Australia’s leading climate change organisation.

Its new report, , details what needs to be done to reduce emissions by 75% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2035.

It is virtually impossible to limit warming to 1.5°C, the report said, but that simply means more work has to be done to stop 2°C warming.

It details a scenario whereby significant warming — where temperatures rise above 1.5°C — is followed by a “drawdown” where carbon dioxide (CO2) is sucked out of the atmosphere. Drawdown techniques include improving forest cover, land restoration and soil carbon sequestration. Other methods include bio-energy,  carbon capture and storage.

However, the report also stated that these technologies cannot currently be rolled out on the required scale and, as the reported, have not been proven to work.

The growing thawing of permafrost and the rise in frequency and intensity of bushfires also reduce the effectiveness of any drawdown. If temperatures stay above 1.5°C for a significant amount of time the ecosystems on which human communities survive will be even more severely damaged.

The goal now, according to the Climate Council, is to limit warming to 2°C — and this coming decade will be our last chance.

The differences between 1.5°C – 2°C are significant. The report said severe heat would increase from once every 5 years to once every 2.6 years causing the number of ice-free Arctic summers to increase. Vertebrate and plant species would decline, and marine fisheries would be devastated. The amount of permafrost would be up 38%, and the damage to coral reefs would increase by 29%.

In Australia, the likelihood of heatwaves, power blackouts, bushfires, floods, water restrictions and reduced crop yields would significantly increase. Food security would be endangered as rising CO2 levels would affect crop nutrient content and yields, livestock health, fisheries, aquaculture and land use.

Poor countries and those vulnerable to rising sea levels would be at risk of their whole country disappearing, as well as crop failures and conflicts over resources.

Tipping points

The report cited evidence of governments’ inability to limit warming to 1.5°C for example: observed, projected and committed temperature rises; updated estimates of climate sensitivity; past changes in the climate; and analyses of the remaining global carbon budget.

The world has already warmed 1.1°C and it is now experiencing more powerful storms, devastating marine and land heatwaves, a new age of megafires and an increase in coastal erosion.

Last year in New South Wales, Sydney’s northern beaches, the Central Coast and the Northern Rivers were impacted by the rise in coastal erosion.

The report noted that Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change compared with other developed countries: its population is five times more likely to be displaced by a climate disaster compared with those living in Europe.

Tipping points are being crossed with temperate broadleaf and mixed forests losing 21% over the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires, and some ecosystems are now at risk of . Half of the hard coral of the Great Barrier Reef is already gone due to unprecedented mass bleaching in 2016, 2017 and 2020.

Looking to the past can help understand how devastating climate change can be. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum period, which occured 56 million years ago, led to sea level rises of 12-15 metres, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, and large changes in the terrestrial biosphere and the water cycle mass.

At one point, 0.6 billion tons of carbon was released by volcanoes and organic-rich sediments per year. This led to one of the smaller mass extinction events.

Today, human-induced climate change is underway because 11 billion tonnes of carbon are being emitted each year.

This speed of climatic change is unprecedented — the only comparison is the meteorite event that wiped out non bird-like dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Exporting carbon

Australia is the world’s , with only Russia and Saudi Arabia exporting more. It is the exporter of coal — with exported emissions now greater than domestic emissions from Germany, Canada, Turkey and Britain. Exported emissions rose 4.4% from 2018-19 and exports are , even with the China coal import ban.

Despite claims that its national emissions only have minimal effect on the global climate, Australia is in fact a major contributor to global climate change.

China, and contributes to 30% of emissions, sourced around 57% of its thermal coal from Australia in 2019. As tensions rise between Australia and China, Indonesia has become China’s , and Australia has increased its coal exports to India.

In the first two months of this year, thermal coal from Australia accounted for around . In 2019, Australia was also the source of 60% of Japan’s . India and Japan are two of the world’s five worst emitters of CO2.

Adding exported coal to domestic emissions makes Australia the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the Climate Council said.

Challenges

Australia’s Paris Agreement commitments are very weak compared to other advanced countries. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency — ostensibly to increase the supply of renewable energy — is now being used for carbon projects, and the only federal statutory body to monitor climate change, the Climate Commission, was abolished by former prime minister Tony Abbott.

The current federal government remains captive to the fossil fuel industry, as shown by its controversial gas-led pandemic recovery plan. New coal mines are being given the go-ahead despite ,  and the irresponsible approach to the deepening climate emergency.

PM Scott Morrison is still only pledging to cut emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero “preferably by 2050”.

The Climate Council, however, is urging the government and businesses to cut emissions to 75% below 2005 levels by 2030, and to reach net zero emissions by 2035. This would have the best chance of limiting warming to below 2°C. Global emissions need to be halved by 2030, for net zero to be reached by 2040.

In summary, the Climate Council warned that the timeframes being considered for reaching net zero targets are too long.

Achieving net zero by 2050 is at least a decade “too late”, it said, as it carries the risk of irreversible global climate disruption which will worst affect those countries least responsible for the climate crisis.