Following a recent meeting of federal and state ministers with the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figures, the federal government announced that it will publish by mid-year the emissions target it will take to the Paris Climate Summit in November.
However, even if all the world's governments agree to limit future emissions to what would cause the global average surface temperature to rise by no more than 2°C from before industrialisation, it will not be enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Already existing emissions have raised the global average surface temperature by less than 1°C. This has already caused significant impacts: increases in frequency and intensity of weather events, such as fires, droughts, cyclones and floods. A safe level is to limit emissions to zero.
The Australian economy is heavily dependent on resource exports, including fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. This has brought much wealth to the Australian ruling class and created a political culture where governments are beholden to the mineral and energy sectors.
This has become particularly evident with the current government, under which investment in renewable energy has significantly declined. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is notoriously outspoken both in his disparagement of climate science (which he has described as “crap”) and his praise of fossil fuels.
“Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world … This is a sign of hope and confidence in the future of the coal industry,” he eulogised at the October 13 opening of the BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance Caval Ridge coalmine in central Queensland.
However, as the rest of the world moves tentatively towards stemming carbon emissions, Australia risks paying an economic price for its attachment to fossil fuels.
In a report, Fossil Economy, published last year by Beyond Zero Emissions, it was predicted that Australia’s revenue from emissions intensive exports would fall by $100 billion by 2030. By 2050 Australia would account for 16% of the world’s carbon budget, compared with 4% today. The government’s reluctance to move on climate change will lead to a “fossilised” economy overseen by a government of dinosaurs.
In Australia the technology exists for an immediate transition from fossil fuels to energy transmission from 100% renewables. In the short to medium term, retrofitting of existing housing and fitting out of new buildings (domestic and commercial); introduction of high speed rail on the Brisbane to Melbourne corridor; electric transportation in urban areas; increase in public transport; and moving to zero emission agriculture will achieve a zero (or negative) emissions target. However this requires federal, state and local governments with the political will to implement policies to achieve this.
This is not the case now, as governments of all political stripes show no inclination to a moratorium on coal mining: something the UN envoy, in her recent visit, said was essential. The push to privatisation of the energy sector is also a barrier to the shift to renewables.
The business-as-usual approach of the government will produce what has been termed a “carbon crisis” in the Australian economy.
On May 5, Beyond Zero Emissions released a report Carbon Crisis: Systemic risk of carbon emission liabilities. The researcher, Gerard Drew of the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research, measured a range of risks factors that would lead to an economic crisis, and also took into account the current geopolitical context.
It made five key points:
• The Australian economy is susceptible to systemic crisis.
• Australia is on track to be the source of 16% of the global carbon budget by 2050.
• Economic risks are globally determined, but action by the government can reduce our carbon liability risks.
• Australia has a greater than 50% chance of a systemic crisis as a result of global action to limit climate change. If punitive measures are imposed, Australia will have used up its “fair share of global carbon budget” in 10-17 years.
• A transition takes time. The earlier change takes place, the lower the likelihood of carbon liability risks resulting in a crisis.
Although the report does not canvass the issue of the limitations of market mechanisms to achieve action on climate change, it does conclude: “ No matter how well the market signals may lead to the appropriate long-run outcomes (and this has been allowed for in this study), the facts of the matter are that the lags in adjustment to market signals, as well as resource constraints, decide how effectively the market responds over a given time frame.
“Whatever the benefits of maintaining business as usual until an adjustment is unavoidable, these positive benefits will be more than outweighed by the impact of the required market signal (exchange rates/carbon prices) in increasing the probability of systemic crises.
“To reach desired objectives before a systemic crisis is triggered will require considered and effective forward planning.”
Australia is becoming an outlier in terms of its attachment to a carbon emissions-intensive economy. However, while other high emitting countries such as China and the US are taking some measures towards cutting emissions, the targets proposed and the market mechanisms that are supposed to realise them are woefully insufficient to stop a catastrophic change in climate.
The slogan of many in the environment movement, that what we want is “System Change not Climate Change”, certainly has resonance in the lead up to the Paris Climate summit.