Opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s announcement on Friday that a Labor government would adopt a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 was a big step in the right direction. But a bit of simple maths reveals the policy is too little, too late.
Perhaps the most robust way to assess whether a proposed climate action is strong enough to meet a temperature target is to apply the “carbon budget” approach. A carbon budget is the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide the world can emit to stay within a desired temperature target.
Once the budget is spent (in other words, the carbon dioxide is emitted), the world must have achieved net-zero emissions if the temperature target is to be met.
So let’s take a look at how Labor’s target stacks up against the remaining carbon budget.
The term “net-zero emissions” means any human emissions of carbon dioxide are cancelled out by the uptake of carbon by the Earth – such as by vegetation or soil – or that the emissions are prevented from entering the atmosphere, by using technology such as carbon capture and storage.
(The net-zero emissions concept is fraught with scientific complexities and the potential for perverse outcomes and unethical government policies – but that’s an article for another day.)
So let’s assume every country in the world adopted the net-zero-by-2050 target. This is a plausible assumption, as the UK, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany and many others have already done so.
What then should the world’s remaining carbon budget be, starting from this year?
The globally agreed Paris target aims to stabilise the global average temperature rise at 1.5℃ above the pre-industrial level, or at least keep the rise to well below 2℃.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that from 2020, the remaining 1.5℃ carbon budget is about 130 GtC (billion tonnes of carbon dioxide). This is based on a 66% probability that limiting further emissions to this level will keep warming below the 1.5℃ threshold.
Current global emissions are about 11.5 GtC per year. So at this rate, the budget would be blown in just 11 years.
This is where the “net-zero emissions by 2050” target fails. Even if the world met this target, and reduced emissions evenly over 30 years, cumulative global emissions would be about 170 GtC by 2050. That is well over the 130 GtC budget needed to limit warming to 1.5℃.
So how far would Labor’s target go towards limiting warming to 2℃?
The carbon budget for that target is about 335 GtC. So a net-zero-by-2050 policy could, in principle, stabilise the climate at well below 2℃.
But a word of caution is needed here. The budgets I used above ignore two “jokers in the pack” that could slash the carbon budget and make the Paris targets much harder to achieve.
The first joker is that the carbon budgets I used assume we will reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, at about the same rate we reduce carbon dioxide.
But these potent non-CO₂ gases, which primarily come from the agriculture
sector, are generally more difficult to curb than carbon dioxide. Because of this, the IPCC recognises the carbon budget may have to be reduced if these gases are emitted at amounts higher than assumed.
Given the large uncertainties in how fast we can reduce emissions of these non-CO₂ gases, I’ve taken a mid-range estimate of their effect on the 1.5℃ carbon budget and consequently lowered it by 50 Gt. (This value is based on a median non-CO₂ warming contribution as estimated by the IPCC.) This reduces the remaining carbon budget to only about 80 Gt.
Second, the carbon budgets do not include feedbacks in the climate system, such as forest dieback in the Amazon or melting permafrost. These processes are both caused by climate change, at least in part, and amplify it by releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Emissions caused by feedbacks are expected to increase as global average temperature rises. Under a 1.5℃ rise, feedback processes could emit about 70 Gt of carbon dioxide. When the 1.5℃ budget is adjusted for both non-CO2 greenhouse gases and feedbacks, this leaves just one year’s worth of global emissions in the bank.
The corresponding reductions for the 2℃ warming limit reduce its carbon budget to 160 GtC. This is less than the cumulative emissions of 170 GtC if every country adopted a net-zero-by-2050 policy.
These calculations are confronting enough. But for Australia there is, in addition, a huge elephant in the room – or rather, in the coal mine.
Our exported emissions – those created when our coal, gas and other fossil fuels are burned overseas – are about 2.5 times more than our domestic emissions. Exported emissions are not counted on Australia’s ledger, but they all contribute to the escalating impacts of climate change – including the bushfires that devastated southeast Australia this summer.
So, what would an effective climate action plan look like? In my view, the central actions should be:
The striking students are right. We are in a climate emergency.
The net-zero-by-2050 policy is a step in the right direction but is not nearly enough. Our emission reduction actions must be ramped up even more – and fast – to give our children and grandchildren a fighting chance of a habitable planet.
Among the vast number of native species damaged by the recent bushfire crisis, we must not forget native pollinators. These animals, mainly insects such as native bees, help sustain ecosystems by pollinating native plants.
Native pollinator populations have been decimated in burned areas. They will only recover if they can recolonise from unburned areas as vegetation regenerates.
Since the fires, Australia’s beekeeping industry has been pushing for access to national parks and other unburned public land. This would give introduced pollinators such as the European honeybee, (Apis mellifera) access to floral resources.
But our native pollinators badly need these resources – and the recovery of our landscapes depends on them. While we acknowledge the losses sustained by the honey industry, authorities should not jeopardise our native species to protect commercial interests.
The European honeybee is the main commercial bee species in Australia. It exists in two contexts: in hives managed for honey production, and as a pest exploiting almost every wild habitat. Honeybees in managed hives are classified as livestock, the same way pigs and goats are.
Feral and (to a lesser extent) managed honeybees contribute a broad variety of crop pollination services, including for almond, apple and lucerne (also called alfalfa) crops.
Pollinators visit the flowers of the crop plants and ensure they are fertilised to produce fruit and seed. Beekeepers are often paid to put their bees in orchards since trees (such as almond trees) cannot produce a crop without insect pollination.
But native species of bees, beetles, flies and birds are just as important for crops. They are also essential for pollination, seed production and the regulation of Australia’s unique ecosystems – which evolved without honeybees.
The honeybee industry sustained considerable losses in the recent fires, particularly in New South Wales and on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Commercial hives were destroyed and floral resources were burned, reducing the availability of sites for commercial hives. This has prompted calls from beekeepers to place hives in national parks.
Currently, beekeepers’ access to conservation areas is limited. This is because bees from commercial hives, and feral bees from previous escapes, damage native ecosystems. They compete with native species for nectar and pollen, and pollinate certain plant species over others.
In NSW, honeybees are listed as a key threatening process to biodiversity.
Allowing commercial hives in our national parks compromises these valuable places for conservation and could do untold damage.
Australia’s native birds, mammals and other insects rely on the same nectar from flowers as honeybees, which are abundant and voracious competitors for this sugary food.
Many native plant species are not pollinated, or are pollinated inefficiently, by honeybees. This means a concentration of honeybee hives in a conservation area could shift the entire makeup of native vegetation, damaging the ecosystem.
Bringing managed hives into national parks would also risk transferring damaging diseases such as Nosema ceranae to native bee species.
Currently, the commercially important honeybee is kept mainly on agricultural land. In national parks and reserves, native species are prioritised.
The amount of land set aside for conservation is already insufficient to preserve the species and systems we value.
National parks must be allowed to recover from bushfire damage. Where they are unburned, they must be protected so native plants and animals can recover and recolonise burned areas.
The demand for commercial beekeeping in national parks is a result of native vegetation being cleared for agriculture in many parts of Australia.
In the short term, one solution is for beekeepers to artificially feed their hives with sugar syrup, as is common practise in winter. Thus, they could continue to produce honey and provide commercial pollination services.
While production levels may fall as a result of the reduced feed, and honey may become more expensive, at least consumers would know the product was made without damaging native wildlife and vegetation.
A long-term solution is to increase the area of native vegetation for both biodiversity and commercial beekeeping, by stepping up Australia’s meagre re-vegetation programs.
Unfortunately, vegetation clearance rates in Australia remain extremely high.
Protecting and enhancing native vegetation would have both commercial and public benefits. Programs like the recently announced Agricultural Stewardship Package could be designed, to pay farmers for vegetation protection and revegetation.
Increasing vegetation in our landscapes is an insurance policy that will not only protect biodiversity, but support the honey industry.
This article is the first in a three-part series on radical ideas to solve the environmental crisis.
As the Productivity Commission confirmed this week, Australia’s economy has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for 28 years straight. Specifically, our output of goods and services last financial year grew by 2%. Economists obviously see the growth of a national economy as good news – but what is it doing to the Earth?
If capitalism is still the dominant economic system in 2050, current trends suggest our planetary ecosystems will be, at best, on the brink of collapse. Bushfires will become more monstrous and wildlife will continue to be annihilated.
As my research has sought to demonstrate, an adequate response to climate change, and the broader environmental crisis, will require creating a post-capitalist society which operates within Earth’s ecological limits.
This won’t will be easy – it will be the hardest thing our species has tried to do. I’m not saying capitalism hasn’t produced benefits for society (although those benefits are distributed very unequally within and between nations).
And of course, some people will think even talking about the prospect is naive, or ludicrous. But it’s time to have the conversation.
Economic growth generally refers to gross domestic product (GDP) – the monetary value of goods and services produced in an economy. Historically, and across the globe, GDP and environmental impact has been closely linked.
Capitalism needs growth. Businesses must pursue profits to stay viable and governments want growth because a larger tax base means more capacity for funding public services. And if any government tried to slow or stop growth for environmental reasons, powerful economic forces under capitalism would offer fierce resistance – with some businesses perhaps threatening to leave the nation altogether.
Most mainstream economists and politicians accept the science on the dire state of the planet, but not many people think capitalism is the problem. Instead, the dominant response to the ecological crisis is to call for ‘green growth’.
This theory involves producing ever more goods and services, but with fewer resources and impacts. So a business might design its products to have less environmental impact, or a product at the end of its life could be reused – sometimes called a ‘circular economy’.
If our entire economy produced and consumed goods and services like this, we mightn’t need to abandon the growth economics inherent to capitalism. Instead, we would just “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact.
There are several big problems with green growth theory. First, it isn’t happening at the global scale – and where it is happening to a limited extent within nations, the change is not fast or deep enough to head off dangerous climate change.
Second, the extent of “decoupling” required is simply too great. Ecological footprint accounting shows we need 1.75 planets to support existing economic activity into the future – yet every nation seeks more growth and ever-rising material living standards.
But the faith in the god of growth brings all this undone. The United Nations’ development agenda assumes “sustained economic growth” is the best way to alleviate global poverty – a noble and necessary goal. But our affluent living standards simply cannot be globalised while remaining within safe planetary limits. We need degrowth, which means planned contraction of energy and resource demands.
Let’s do the maths. If all humans lived like Australians, we’d need more than four planets to sustain us. Earth’s population is set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Our current levels of consumption do not add up.
Something resembling a fair share could involve developed nations reducing energy and resource demands by 50% or even 75% or more. This would mean transcending consumer lifestyles, embracing far more modest but sufficient material living standards, and creating new post-capitalist modes of production and distribution that aimed to meet the basic needs of all – not for limitless growth.
The “downshift” in material consumption can begin at the individual level where possible. But more broadly we must create local and sharing economies that don’t depend on globalised, fossil-fuelled distribution chains.
A range of social movements will be needed to persuade politicians to adopt systemic change.
Ultimately, structural and policy inventions will be needed. This includes changes to land governance to make sustainable living easier. And we need to start having difficult but compassionate conversations about population growth.
I’m certainly not suggesting we adopt a centralised, Soviet-style state socialism. After all, a socialist economy seeking growth without limit is just as unsustainable as growth capitalism. We must expand our imaginations and explore alternatives.
I don’t have all the answers – and I think post-capitalist movements, now and in the future, will probably fail. But if we do not recognise capitalism’s inherent growth fetish as the central problem, we cannot formulate a coherent response.