Mission Zero: ‘Game on, not game over’ says Climate Council

September 28, 2023
Our future can't wait: 2050 is too late, September climate strike Meanjin/Brisbane
Our future can't wait: 2050 is too late, September climate strike Meanjin/Brisbane. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

A new report from the Climate Council (CC), Mission Zero: How today's climate choices will reshape Australia, reaffirms the need for Australia to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 and aim for net zero by 2035.

As this year shapes up to be the hottest year on record, with a likelihood that 2024 (the second year in an El Niño cycle) will be even hotter, the report updates a 2021 CC publication Aim High, Go Fast by the late Will Steffen.

It said even this target is a compromise since “there are strong grounds to argue for an even earlier net zero date” than 2035.

However, it is considerably more ambitious than Labor’s inadequate “target” to reduce emissions by 43% by 2030, with net zero, theoretically, by 2050.

It further emphasises that “Australia is not on track” to even meet that target.

Green Left has previously pointed out that the “safeguard mechanism” — the government’s main climate policy tool — is not even designed to reduce emissions. It does not even ensure that the government’s inadequate target can be reached.

The CC argues that “we need more than targets: we need an action plan that spells out how it will be done”. It insists that no new fossil fuel developments should be approved.

Its key findings include the claim that “anyone proposing to use more coal, oil or gas is reckless” and that “it’s like adding more fuel to an already raging fire”.

“Corporations and governments that plan to dig up more coal, oil or gas are ensuring that the truly nightmarish outcomes (mass extinction and the collapse of human societies) are still among the plausible futures we face,” it said.

So far, environment minister Tanya Plibersek has approved four new coal mines, alongside other fossil fuel approvals, and there is no indication she will stop there.

In addition to fixing national environment laws to prevent new fossil fuel projects the report motivates measures including strong fuel efficiency standards, to slash vehicle pollution, and “speed up the electrification of homes, businesses and transport, while reshaping how our cities are designed so liveability and sustainability comes first”.

It acknowledges that net zero by 2035 is a “gargantuan task”.

“We don’t make the recommendation lightly, but this report makes very clear all that is at stake.”

Chapter 4 puts these risks and consequences of the climate crisis in stark relief.

“Already, at global warming of around 1.2°C, we are witnessing the destruction of critical ecosystems and communities pushed to their limit by extreme heat, fire, storms and floods.

“Put simply, there is no ‘safe’ level of warming.”

While global average temperatures rise by small increments, the weather extremes that this creates impact us abruptly.

In addition, much of the warming has been absorbed by oceans. According to Professor Mathew English, who is quoted by the CC, this “lulls people into a false sense of security that climate change is progressing slowly” but the oceans have only “stored the problem [and now] it’s coming back to bite us”.

The report outlines the dangers of crossing “tipping points” which can lead to abrupt, non-linear and irreversible changes.

“The consequences of crossing these tipping points would be catastrophic,” the report argues.

Examples include 10 metres of “irreversible sea level rise” following the collapse of major ice sheets and the amplifying feedbacks of thawing permafrost or loss of rainforests.

Every increment of additional warming increases the risks of extreme weather events and crossing tipping points.

The report is a call to take dramatic action. It acknowledges global and domestic efforts to “cut harmful emissions” but says “our future depends on far more determined and deliberate action than we have seen politically to date”.

“While it is important to acknowledge progress, we need to move from slow and steady progress to lightning quick transformations across our economy.”

It emphasises that “a developed country like Australia needs to reduce our emissions at a significantly faster rate than the global average, and achieve net zero emissions earlier than most other countries”.

Further, it is critical to actually reduce emissions rather than rely on offsets. “Planting trees doesn’t balance out digging up and burning coal, oil or gas.”

“Offsetting is not an equal exchange, because when we dig up fossil fuels we release carbon from long-term, stable storage and it keeps cycling between land-based ecosystems, the upper ocean and the atmosphere, where it contributes to the blanket of carbon dioxide that is heating the planet.”

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