Australia is at risk of taking the wrong tack at the Glasgow climate talks, and slamming China is only part of it


Peter Martin, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National UniversityBuried within the prime minister’s response to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is just about everything we’re at risk of getting wrong at the Glasgow climate talks in October.

After slamming China — whose emissions per person are half of Australia’s — for not doing more to cut emissions, Scott Morrison said the Glasgow talks were the “biggest multilateral global negotiation the world has ever known”.

If he treats the talks as just another (big) negotiation, we’re in trouble.

The way the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade usually treats negotiations is hold something back, hold out the prospect of “giving it up,” and then only make the concession if the other side gives something in return. Even if holding back damages Australia.

Cars are a case in point. From an economic point of view, there is no reason whatsoever to continue to impose tariffs (special taxes) on the import of cars — none, not even in the eyes of those who support the use of tariffs to protect Australian jobs. Australia no longer makes cars.

Yet the tariff remains, at 5%, making it perhaps A$1 billion harder than it should be for Australians to buy new cars (although nowhere near as hard as it was in the days when the tariff was 57.5%).

The tariff seems to be in place largely to give the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade something to negotiate away in trade agreements: for use as what the Productivity Commission calls “negotiating coin”.

Australia removed tariffs on cars from Korea but kept them in place more broadly.

Here’s how it worked in the 2014 Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Australia agreed to remove the remaining 5% tariff on Korean cars, “with consumers and businesses to benefit from downward pressure on import prices”.

But Australia didn’t remove the tariff on car imports altogether, which would have given us a much bigger benefit but denied the department negotiating coin.

The next year the department did it again, agreeing to give up the tariff on imported Japanese cars in the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (but not on other cars) so Australians could “benefit from lower prices and/or greater availability of Japanese products”.

Two years later, it did it again, with cars from China.

When the UK and European agreements are negotiated, it’ll do it there too.

Australia holds back reforms

Eventually Australians will get what they are entitled to. But the point is that rather than advancing the cause of free trade, the department has held back, treating a win for the other side as a loss for us, when it wasn’t.

The Centre for International Economics believes the much bigger earlier set of tariff cuts lifted the living standard of the average Australian family by A$8,448.

Had our trade negotiators been in charge, we would still be waiting. Instead the Hawke and then the Keating governments pushed through unilateral reductions, asking for nothing in return.

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As former Trade Minister Craig Emerson put it, this gave Australia “credibility in international trade negotiations way beyond the relative size of our economy”.

Does that sound like the sort of thing Australia might need at Glasgow, to have enough credibility to urge even bigger emitters to deliver the kind of cuts on which our futures and future temperatures depend?

It won’t work with China

The prime minister is right to say that China is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, even though its emissions per person are low. Its high population means it accounts for 28% of all the greenhouse gases pumped out each year. The next biggest emitter, the United States, accounts for 15%

But China’s status is new. Until 2006 it pumped out less per year than the United States. Because the US has had mega-factories and heating and so on for so much longer, it is responsible for by far the biggest chunk of the greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere: 25%, followed by the European Union with 22%.

China might reasonably feel that countries like the US that have done the most to create the problem should do the most to fix it.

Like Australia, the US pumps out twice as much per person as China and has much more room to cut back.

On the bright side, China knows that being big means it is in a position to make a difference to global emissions in a way that other countries cannot on their own. And that’s a position that can benefit its citizens.

China’s latest five-year plan, adopted in March, commits it to cut its “carbon intensity” (emissions per unit of GDP) by 18%. If it beats that five-year target by just a bit (and it has beaten its previous five-year targets) its emissions will turn down from 2025.

It is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2060.

Australia needs China’s help

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that Australia is especially susceptible to global warming. We’re facing less rain in winter, longer heatwaves, drier rivers, more arid soil and worse droughts.

We are right to want China to do more, but the worst way to achieve it is to say “we won’t lift our ambition until you lift yours”.

Hardly ever a worthwhile strategy, it is particularly ineffective when we don’t have bargaining power.

Read more:
Climate change has already hit Australia. Unless we act now, a hotter, drier and more dangerous future awaits, IPCC warns

The only power we’ve got is to set an example, unilaterally, as we did with tariffs. And to ramp up our ambition.

If Australia said it would do more, and didn’t quibble, it might just count for something.

It’s all we can do, and it’s the very best we can do.The Conversation

Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


There’s no end to the damage humans can wreak on the climate. This is how bad it’s likely to get

Andrew King, The University of Melbourne; Nerilie Abram, Australian National University, and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSWA major new report published last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contained grave warnings on where Earth’s climate is headed. So what happens if humanity doesn’t get its act together? How bad could climate change actually get?

The IPCC report canvassed various scenarios, from the most terrifying to the best possible case. It’s increasingly unlikely Earth will follow the path of very high greenhouse gas emissions, represented in dark red on the graph below, which would very likely lead to global warming of 3.3℃ to 5.7℃ this century.

But given current policy settings, it’s plausible Earth will follow a mid-range emissions scenario such as that represented in orange. Such a pathway would lead to global warming of between 2℃ and 3.5℃, relative to pre-industrial levels.

So what will Earth look like under warming of that magnitude? And what will life on this planet be like? Academic research can shed light on those crucial questions. And a warning: the answers are confronting.

An angrier, less hospitable world

The IPCC report confirmed Earth has warmed 1.09℃ since pre-industrial times. This level of warming is already causing significant damage.

Around the world over the past few months, the damage has been strikingly evident. Record-shattering heatwaves have struck North America’s west and southern Europe, while extreme rain and flooding has hit central Europe and China.

At 3℃ global warming, heatwaves would be even more frequent, intense and longer, while extreme rain will be heavier. The relationship between average global temperature and heat extremes is very strong, although this varies across regions.

Over Australia, heatwaves are expected to be slightly hotter than the corresponding global warming threshold. So with 3℃ of global warming, the hottest day of a heatwave will be about 3.6℃ warmer than pre-industrial conditions.

What’s more, heatwaves in Australia are projected to become four to five days longer for each degree of global warming.

Read more:
Climate change has already hit Australia. Unless we act now, a hotter, drier and more dangerous future awaits, IPCC warns


The IPCC findings show in some parts of the world, there’s a clear relationship between future increases in global warming and a rise in extreme rainfall events. This includes the eastern part of the United States, Alaska and western Canada, Europe and parts of Russia and Africa. The projected increase applies to both daily rainfall events and those lasting five days.

Explore future projections of extreme rainfall and other climate variables with the IPCC’s interactive climate atlas.

Climate change has already damaged the world’s coral reefs. The Great Barrier Reef has bleached three times in the past five years, giving little time for the ecosystem to recover. In a 2018 report, the IPCC found coral reefs would decline by a further 70-90% under global warming of 1.5℃. Virtually all reefs would be lost with 2℃ warming.

Bushfire risk also increases the more we let the climate warm. As the Australian Academy of Science outlined in a report earlier this year, extreme fire days in Australia will increase with global temperatures.

Greater increases are projected for southern and eastern Australia. However, in much of Australia the frequency of extreme fire days increases by 100-300% once 3℃ global warming is reached.

And conditions conducive to mega-fires – such as those which occurred during the 2019-20 Black Summer – will occur more often over southeast Australia under continued climate change, especially during late spring.

Read more:
Seriously ugly: here’s how Australia will look if the world heats by 3°C this century

diver swims above bleached coral
At 2℃ warming, the Great Barrier Reef and others like it will be virtually gone.
ARC Centre of Excellence/Tane Sinclair-Taylor

On thin ice

The more the planet warms, the more we risk triggering disastrous irreversible changes known as “tipping points”. Scientists have identified several potential tipping points which might occur – especially if the climate warms by more than 2℃, in line with the IPCC’s midway scenario.

For example, global warming may cause the West Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, resulting in several metres of sea level rise. The exact extent of global warming required to trigger such changes is very uncertain, and climate projections suggest we won’t hit any trigger points this century.

However, these irreversible changes remain a distinct possibility if greenhouse gas emissions continue their current trajectory.

Read more:
Rising seas and melting glaciers: these changes are now irreversible, but we have to act to slow them down

thawed ice along Antarctic shoreline
Ice sheet collapse in Antarctica would trigger irreversible sea level rise.
Natacha Pisarenko/AP

The choice is ours

Some climate changes we’ve described under the midway emissions scenario are awful for society and our environment.

And as CSIRO climate scientist Pep Canadell, a coordinating lead author of a chapter of the IPCC report, told the Guardian last week, if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated “there is no bottom end to how much damage we can create”.

Humanity is now at a crossroads. The IPCC says if we halve global greenhouse gas emissions within the next 15 years, and reach net-zero emissions before 2060, we have a more than 90% chance of keeping global warming below 2℃.

That means every action matters. Each fraction of a degree of global warming prevented will reduce the climate damage and increase the chance Earth avoids the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.

Read more:
IPCC says Earth will reach temperature rise of about 1.5℃ in around a decade. But limiting any global warming is what matters most

The Conversation

Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, The University of Melbourne; Nerilie Abram, Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes; Deputy Director for the Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science, Australian National University, and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Chief Investigator on the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes; ARC Future Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.