In many ways, environment minister Greg Hunt's attendance at the New York signing of the Paris Agreement on April 21 underscored the Coalition government's resistance to in taking real action to curb toxic carbon dioxide emissions.
Hunt is so determined to support the fossil fuel industry that he has signed off on the Adani-Carmichael mega coalmine in Queensland — despite the world coal glut and depressed market. This mine project, which includes a new 189 kilometre railway line, is estimated to spew more than 4.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its 60-year lifetime. This alone is more than 0.5% of the Paris deal which aims to limit warming to 2°C.
Signing on to the Paris Accord was more political grandstanding from a government that pretends to walk the talk. Like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, these global agreements have little international legal or political weight to curb carbon dioxide emissions, even if they express a global desire for real action.
The Climate Institute's spokesperson John Connor said that on a per capita basis the government's commitment puts Australia “up there with Saudi Arabia, alone in the G20 as the highest per capita polluters”.
While much is being made of the 175 countries that signed the Paris Agreement, it is only the first of many steps to secure a non-binding voluntary global emissions reduction deal by the latter part of the 21st Century.
As Carbon Brief explained, the “long term goal” of keeping “well below 2°C” means that the world must aim to peak greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible”.
But, it added: “This has been widely interpreted as an agreement to bring emissions to net zero by the second half of this century”.
This is just too late for many island nations in the Pacific, low-lying coastal areas in the Middle East and poor communities who do not have the resources to deal with the weather extremes caused by global warming.
Dragged out process
The Paris Agreement is a dragged-out process, revealing how unserious the countries that profess to be concerned about global warming — such as Australia — really are.
For Pacific Island nations, staying below 1.5°C warming is a matter of life or death. But high-emitting countries have kept the wording of the Paris Agreement deliberately vague: it aims to keep global warming “well below” 2°C.
Last December in Paris, countries “adopted” the content of the agreement. On April 21, 175 countries “signed on” to the agreement — a process that stays open for a year, perhaps longer. After that, countries “join” the agreement — after they establish the policies they will implement domestically.
However, the Paris Agreement can only become a (non-binding) agreement to act under the United Nations Framework on Climate Change when at least 55 countries representing at least 55% of total global emissions ratify it. This could take a long time.
Even if all this happens, how many Pacific Islands will already be under water? How unbearable will the Middle East's heat have become? How many wars for water will have been started? And how many climate refugees will be destined to perish while rich countries refuse them entry?
The Turnbull government can say it is doing something, while appeasing the coal and unconventional gas industries and the climate change deniers — such as deputy National Party leader Fiona Pattern — in its own ranks.
Most independent experts in climate science say Australia's current environment policies will not deliver the carbon cuts that are necessary now to put the brakes on the runaway climate change epoch the world has already entered.
International environmental law professor Tim Stephens put it mildly when he told the ABC on April 21 that Australia has a “credibility gap”.
“Australia's current emissions reduction target of around 26% to 28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030, is just not consistent with the Paris agreement goal of keeping global average temperatures well below 2°C,” he said.
There is some consistency with the Coalition's push for more coalmines, unfortunately. Queensland Coalition MP Ewen Jones told the ABC's Q&A on April 18 he thought it would be a good idea for the government to use funds from the clean energy finance corporation to set up another coal-fired power station in north Queensland to power the controversial Adani-Carmichael coal mine. This would “deliver jobs for Townsville”, he said.
The Adani-Carmichael mine, which is slated to have a footprint 10 times larger than the City of Sydney, now has federal and Queensland approval. In Exporting climate change, killing the Reef Greenpeace said if it becomes operational, the mining and burning of its coal offshore will:
• Generate 4.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over its proposed 60-year operation;
• Consume 12 billion litres of water every year;
• Expand the Abbot Point Coal Port Terminal on the Great Barrier Reef coast which would involve dredging 1.1 million cubic metres of sea floor in the World Heritage area and dumping it next to nearby wetlands; and
• Increase the number of ships travelling through the reef's waters by up to 560 each year, thus increasing the chance of non-reversible maritime accidents.
Australia's preparedness to export carbon emissions abroad is further evidence that it is not serious about carbon dioxide mitigation strategies.
Greenpeace says Australia will increase its overall contribution to climate change by its “determined expansion” of fossil fuel exports.
Since 1990, there has been a 253% rise in Australia's carbon dioxide exports. This year Australia will produce “nearly twice as much carbon dioxide emissions through the coal it exports than it emits domestically, worsening its overall contribution to climate change,” said Greenpeace.
It says that if coal exports grow by more than 60%, as the Australian government projects, “the resulting increase in carbon emissions will erase the benefit of Australia meeting its Paris target nearly seven times over”.
The report noted that domestic emissions in 2016 are not much higher than in 1990, due mainly to reduced land clearing. But energy efficient appliances and a general heightened awareness of the dangers of global warming to the planet has also had an impact on people's thinking and habits.
Coal or reef?
Exporting Climate Change, Killing the Reef, which contains important data about Australia's dangerous carbon dioxide experiment, also focused on damage to the unique and underprotected Great Barrier Reef.
The researchers pose the choice “coal or reef”, because we cannot have both.
Researchers estimate that 93% of Australia's coral reefs have bleached as a result of ocean warming. Warming leads to stressed corals expelling the colourful small algae — zooxanthellae — that live in them, turning them completely white.
A reef is able to recover, but only if the event is not too severe and does not last for more than eight weeks. Many of the currently bleached corals are likely to die if the situation does not improve soon.
This is the canary in the coal mine. Warming contributes to growing acidity which, in fragile locations like the Great Barrier Reef, can lead to entire areas of the reef dying.
In the first few months of 2016, Australia recorded two of the hottest months ever and an El Nino event which helped raise temperatures even more.
Hunt says Australia is on track to meet its Paris target by 2020.
Greenpeace says otherwise. “Australia's actual domestic emissions until 2020 are forecast to rise by 6% on today's levels.” It said cutting annual emissions by 92 million tonnes between 2020 and 2030 will be erased by the projected expansion of Australia's annual coal exports.
“Australia's response to climate change cannot be credible so long as it sends more carbon emissions abroad than it saves at home.”
Greenpeace is among a growing number of environmental NGOs and social movement campaigners calling for an immediate halt to all new coalmines and new oil and gas projects and replacing fossil fuel energy with renewable sustainable energy alternatives.
Governments do know the science, and they can read the international predictions on future markets for fossil fuels. Science and rationality are not enough, however, to force the necessary change.
Unless we step up the public pressure and social movement organising, dangerous head-in-the-sand ministers, like Hunt, Nash, Jones and Turnbull, will continue on their merry way and in the process will not only destroy international treasures such as the Great Barrier Reef, but also destroy the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of poor people around the world.