Heat, climate and policy failure

People struggled to keep cool during the heatwave.

 When flying foxes drop dead from the heat, parts of the Hume Highway melt and Penrith in Sydney’s west is the hottest place on Earth with a temperature of 47.3°C, it is clear that extremes of heat are having a devastating impact.  

The extreme heat during early January in south-east Australia was global news and follows the “angry summer” of 2016–17.

Globally, 2017 has smashed the record for the hottest year on record without an El Nino, which is responsible for enhancing warming in the Pacific, and is part of the long-term trend of rising global average temperature since the 1970s.

Records smashed

The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) released data on January 10 showing that 2017 was the third hottest year on record and that seven of Australia’s ten hottest years have occurred since 2005.

According to the Climate Council — the independent climate body that emerged after the government abolished the Climate Commission — the key findings of that report are that:

  • Sydney and Brisbane experienced their hottest summer on record;
  • The Northern Territory experienced the warmest daytime temperature on record during the May-September dry season;
  • Hobart experienced its highest annual mean daily maximum temperature on record;
  • South Australia experienced extreme heat in January and February;
  • Exceptional warmth during the last week of September set new record highs in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland;
  • Tropical cyclone Debbie caused widespread wind damage in late March and flooding in Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales.

The Climate Council’s Professor Will Steffen said the exceptionally warm year included some of the worst impacts of climate change seen to date including severe heatwaves and devastating coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

Climate Council spokesperson Amanda McKenzie said the BoM data underscores the urgency of serious action on climate change this year.

“Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution has been rising year on year since March 2015. This pollution is contributing to more frequent and more severe extreme weather, yet we are still left in limbo when it comes to effective federal climate and energy policy,” she said.

“Australia’s record heat comes as the southern US experiences extreme cold as air masses from the Arctic are pushed south with changing climatic conditions. Climate change is exacerbating extreme weather of all kinds, underlining how critical action is.”

But the federal government’s long awaited review of its own climate change policies — released just as the holiday shut down began in late December — is a classic example of climate change scepticism and bureaucratic evasion.

Weak targets

The 2017 Review of Climate Change Policies, which is supposed to ensure Australia meets its (weak) 2030 emissions reduction target and (weak) Paris Agreement commitments, talks up its own “effective policies” and “ambitious and responsible targets”.  

It states: “Australia is playing its role in global efforts to reduce emissions, while maintaining a strong economy and realising the benefits of the transition to a lower-emissions future”.

The federal government’s carbon pollution reduction target is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2030. This is completely inadequate given that Australia is the 16th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world and the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise.  

A sign of the climate policy effectiveness would be an actual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But Australia’s emissions — particularly in the electricity sector, which accounts for 35% of total emissions — continues to rise.  

In its submission to the Review of Climate Change Policies, the Climate Council noted that when emissions from the extraction, processing and transportation of coal, gas and diesel are added up together “electricity generation is clearly the dominant contributor to Australia’s emissions”.

It said that Australia’s emissions may be a lot higher as emissions from unconventional gas are not counted given that they are not being measured. It stated that any new fossil fuel project, such as the giant Adani Carmichael coalmine is fundamentally at odds with tackling climate change.  

“New coal, oil and gas infrastructure risks ‘locking in’ expanded fossil fuel use and exploration for decades into the future, and carries risks associated with emissions, electricity costs and asset stranding.”

Action needed

It made nine recommendations to the government, including that it:

  • Increase its carbon pollution reduction target and set its policies to reduce its emissions to 45–65% below 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Implement a systemic, economy-wide instrument that puts a price (or constraint) on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Remove all fossil fuel subsidies and divert the funds saved to support the transition to renewable energy.
  • Not provide any funding for new fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) power plants or fossil fuel supply infrastructure.
  • Introduce a national transition plan for the electricity system that ramps up a diverse range of renewable energy, energy efficiency and storage technologies to enable the phase-out of fossil fuelled electricity generation by 2040 and which achieves at least 50% renewables by 2030 and reaches net zero emissions well before 2050, aiming for 2040.
  • Maintain and increase carbon storage using land systems, stop clearing of old growth and carbon-rich vegetation and protect regrowth vegetation.
  • Ensure greater transparency of climate change tracking data and the continued funding of CSIRO, BoM and other world class climate organisations.

While most countries have committed to limiting warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels — a critical step towards decarbonising the world — this is the bare minimum of what needs to happen. Scientists say we need to stabilise temperature increase to below 1.5°C and this means pushing for an urgent and fundamentally new approach.

The technology exists and the plans have been proffered but without serious political pressure on the government, it will continue to get away with doing nothing — while all living creatures suffer the consequences.

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