We must fight climate change like it’s World War III – here are 4 potent weapons to deploy



Lukas Coch/AAP

David Blair, University of Western Australia; Bruce Hobbs, CSIRO; David Franklin Treagust, Curtin University, and Malcolm McCulloch, University of Western Australia

This article is part of a series in The Conversation on radical ideas to solve the environmental crisis.


In 1896 Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius explored whether Earth’s temperatures were influenced by the presence of heat-absorbing gases in the atmosphere. He calculated that if carbon dioxide concentrations doubled, global temperatures would rise 5℃ – even more at the poles.

Just over a century later, the world is on track to fulfilling Arrhenius’ prediction. If we continue on the current trajectory, Earth will warm up to 4.8℃ above pre-industrial times by 2100.




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We are a group of experts in physics, geology, science education, coral reefs and climate system science. We believe the lack of progress by governments in reducing global emissions means bold solutions are now urgently needed.

We must fight climate change like it’s World War III – and battle on many fronts. Here we examine four of them.

The world’s emissions are headed in the wrong direction, despite a century of warnings to act.
STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

1. Plant a lot more trees

Tree-planting has enormous potential to tackle to climate crisis. Recent research calculated that worldwide 900 million hectares of additional tree cover could exist outside of already-established forests, farmland and urban areas – sufficient to store 25% of the current atmospheric carbon pool. Forests act to increase cloud and rainfall and reduce temperatures.

The grand vision of the Gondwana link project in Western Australia is an example of what can be done. It is reconnecting fragmented ecosystems to create a continuous 1,000km corridor of bushland.




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Broadscale land clearing must cease and a massive program of tree planting should be implemented in all possible areas. Such a program would provide huge small business employment opportunities. It requires incentives and partnerships that could be funded through taxes on carbon emissions.

Renewable energy-powered desalination may be required in some places to provide the water needed to establish forests in drought conditions. This meshes with an important new technology: carbon mineralisation.

Millions of hectares of forest should be planted to act as a carbon sink.
CHRISTIAN BRUNA/ EPA

2. Turn carbon dioxide into rock

Carbon mineralisation involves turning carbon dioxide into carbonate minerals by emulating the way seashells and limestone are made naturally.

Many techniques have been researched and proposed. These include capturing carbon dioxide from industrial plants and bubbling it through brine from desalination plants, or capturing it from nickel mine tailings using bacteria.

Huge quantities of CO₂ can potentially be captured in this way, creating useful building materials as a by-product.

Demonstration plants should now be trialled in Australia, with a view to rapid scaling up to commercialisation.

3. Make Earth’s surface more reflective

Solar radiation management describes techniques to reflect solar energy (sunlight) back to space, and so counteract planetary heating.

Changing the reflectivity of surfaces, such as by painting a dark roof white, reduces absorbed heat enormously and could cool cities. On larger scales we can dust asphalt roads with limestone, retain pale stubble on farms over summer and plant paler crops.

Studies suggest lighter land surfaces have good potential for cooling at a regional scale, and may lower extreme temperatures by up to 3℃.

Such methods also indirectly cut greenhouse gas emissions by reducing air-conditioner use.

White roofs, such as on the Greek Island of Santorini, can help reflect solar radiation and lower temperatures.
Yvette Kelly/AAP

4. Reimagine transport

Economic mechanisms are essential to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, energy storage and zero-emission transport.

The international shipping industry emitted about 800 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2015, and this figure is expected to double by mid-century.

For all ships not powered by renewable energy, research suggests speed limits could be lowered by 20% to reduce fuel use. Australia could lead the world by scaling berthing charges according to satellite-monitored ship speeds.

Australia should also follow the lead of Norway which offers generous financial incentives to encourage zero-emission vehicles (powered by hydrogen or electricity). These include sales tax exemption and free parking in some places. And it’s worked: almost 60% of new cars sold in Norway in March 2019 were reportedly entirely electric-powered.

Forcing ships to sail more slowly could lower carbon emissions.
ALI HAIDER/EPA

Where to next?

The above list is by no means exhaustive. Australia’s bid to sell emissions reduction to the world as renewable hydrogen and electricity should be massively accelerated, and expanded to the scale of the Apollo mission’s race to the Moon.

We must slash emissions from agriculture, and re-establish soil carbon reservoirs lost through modern agriculture. We also suggest a major military response to bushfire, including a water-bombing air fleet and airfields within two hours of every fire risk location.




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Finally, the war demands a central headquarters providing leadership, information and coordination – perhaps a greatly expanded version of the Greenhouse Office established under the Howard Coalition government in 1998 (but later merged into another government department). The office should provide, among other things, information on the climate cost of every item we use, both to aid consumer choice and tax climate-harming products.

Some technologies may prove too costly, too risky, or too slow to implement. All require careful governance, leadership and public engagement to ensure community backing.

But as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, governments must deploy every weapon available – not only to win the war, but to prevent the terrible social cost of despair.

The full report on which this article is based is available here.The Conversation

David Blair, Emeritus Professor, ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery, OzGrav, University of Western Australia; Bruce Hobbs, , CSIRO; David Franklin Treagust, John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Professor of Science Education, Curtin University, and Malcolm McCulloch, Professor, University of Western Australia

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

How changes brought on by coronavirus could help tackle climate change



David Sasaki/Flickr

Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo

Stock markets around the world had some of their worst performance in decades this past week, well surpassing that of the global financial crisis in 2008. Restrictions in the free movement of people is disrupting economic activity across the world as measures to control the coronavirus roll out.

There is a strong link between economic activity and global carbon dioxide emissions, due to the dominance of fossil fuel sources of energy. This coupling suggests we might be in for an unexpected surprise due to the coronavirus pandemic: a slowdown of carbon dioxide emissions due to reduced energy consumption.




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Based on new projections for economic growth in 2020, we suggest the impact of the coronavirus might significantly curb global emissions.

The effect is likely to be less pronounced than during the global financial crisis (GFC). And emissions declines in response to past economic crises suggest a rapid recovery of emissions when the pandemic is over.

But prudent spending of economic stimulus measures, and a permanent adoption of new work behaviours, could influence how emissions evolve in future.

Global fossil CO2 emissions (vertical axis) have grown together with economic activity (horizontal axis) over extended periods of time.
Glen Peters/CICERO

The world in crisis

In just a few short months, millions of people have been put into quarantine and regions locked down to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Around the world events are being cancelled and travel plans dropped. A growing number of universities, schools and workplaces have closed and some workers are choosing to work from home if they can.

Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has cancelled a critically important meeting and will instead hold it virtually.

The International Energy Agency had already predicted oil use would drop in 2020, and this was before an oil price war emerged between Saudi Arabia and Russia.




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The emissions rebound after the GFC: why greenhouse gases went up in 2010


The unprecedented coronavirus lockdown in China led to an estimated 25% reduction in energy use and emissions over a two-week period compared to previous years (mostly due to a drop in electricity use, industrial production and transport). This is enough to shave one percentage point growth off China’s emissions in 2020. Reductions are also being observed in Italy, and are likely to spread across Europe as lockdowns become more widespread.

The emission-intensive airline industry, covering 2.6% of global carbon dioxide emissions (both national and international), is in freefall. It may take months, if not years, for people to return to air travel given that coronavirus may linger for several seasons.

Given these economic upheavals, it is becoming increasingly likely that global carbon dioxide emissions will drop in 2020.

Global air travel is down significantly as a result of the pandemic.
Andy Rain/EPA

Coronavirus is not the GFC

Leading authorities have revised down economic forecasts as a result of the pandemic, but so far forecasts still indicate the global economy will grow in 2020. For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) downgraded estimates of global growth in 2020 from 3% (made in November 2019) to 2.4% (made in March 2020). The International Monetary Fund has indicated similar declines, with an update due next month.

Assuming the carbon efficiency of the global economy improves in line with the 10-year average of 2.5% per year, the OECD’s post-coronavirus growth projection implies carbon dioxide emissions may decline 0.3% in 2020 (including a leap year adjustment).

But the GFC experience indicates that the carbon efficiency of the global economy may improve much more slowly during a crisis. If this happens in 2020 because of the coronavirus, carbon dioxide emissions still could grow.

A decomposition of CO2 emissions growth into economic growth (orange) and carbon efficiency improvements (green) to estimate future emissions based on OECD economic growth projections.
Glen Peters/CICERO

Under the worst-case OECD forecast the global economy in 2020 could grow as little as 1.5%. All else equal, we calculate this would lead to a 1.2% decline in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020.

This drop is comparable to the GFC, which in 2009 led to a 0.1% drop in global GDP and a 1.2% drop in emissions. So far, neither the OECD or International Monetary Fund have suggested coronavirus will take global GDP into the red.

The emissions rebound

The GFC prompted big, swift stimulus packages from governments around the world, leading to a 5.1% rebound in global emissions in 2010, well above the long-term average.

Previous financial shocks, such as the collapse of the former Soviet Union or the 1970s and 1980s oil crises, also had periods with lower or negative growth, but growth soon returned. At best, a financial crisis delays emissions growth a few years. Structural changes may happen, such as the shift to nuclear energy after the oil crises, but evidence suggests emissions continue to grow.

Global fossil CO2 emissions (in Gigatons or billions of tonnes of CO2) and carbon intensity of world Gross Domestic Product (grams of CO2 per $US, 2000), with the most important financial crises.
Global Carbon Project

The economic legacy of the coronavirus might also be very different to the GFC. It looks more like a slow burner, with a drop in productivity over an extended period rather than widespread job losses in the short term.

Looking to the future

The coronavirus pandemic will not turn around the long-term upward trend in global emissions. But governments around the world are announcing economic stimulus measures, and they way they’re spent may affect how emissions evolve in future.

There is an opportunity to invest the stimulus money in structural changes leading to reduced emissions after economic growth returns, such as further development of clean technologies.

Also, the coronavirus has forced new working-from-home habits that limit commuting, and a broader adoption of online meetings to reduce the need for long-haul business flights. This raises the prospect of long-term emissions reductions should these new work behaviours persist beyond the current global emergency.




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The coronavirus is, of course, an international crisis, and a personal tragedy for those who have lost, and will lose, loved ones. But with good planning, 2020 could be the year that global emissions peak (though the same was said after the GFC).

That said, past economic shocks might not be a great analogue for the coronavirus pandemic, which is unprecedented in modern human history and has a long way to go.The Conversation

Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo

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

From crocodiles to krill, a warming world raises the ‘costs’ paid by developing embryos




Dustin Marshall, Monash University

Apart from mammals and birds, most animals develop as eggs exposed to the vagaries of the outside world. This development is energetically “costly”. Going from a tiny egg to a fully functioning organism can deplete up to 60% of the energy reserves provided by a parent.

In cold-blooded animals such as marine invertebrates (including sea stars and corals), fish and reptiles, and even insects, embryonic development is very sensitive to changes in the temperature of the environment.

Thus, in a warming world, many cold-blooded species face a new challenge: developing successfully despite rising temperatures.




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For our research, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, we mined existing literature for data on how temperature impacts the metabolic and development rates of 71 different species, ranging from tropical crocodiles to Antarctic krill.

We found over time, species tend to fine-tune their physiology so that the temperature of the place they inhabit is the temperature needed to minimise the “costs” of their embryonic development.

Temperature increases associated with global warming could substantially impact many of these species.

The perfect weather to grow an embryo

The energy costs of embryonic development are determined by two key rates. The “metabolic” rate refers to the rate at which energy is used by the embryo, and the “development” rate determines how long it takes the embryo to fully develop, and become an independent organism.

Both of these rates are heavily impacted by environmental temperature. Any change in temperature affecting them is therefore costly to an embryo’s development.

Generally, a 10°C increase in temperature will cause an embryo’s development and metabolic rate to more than triple.

This photo shows a developing sea urchin, from egg (top left) to larva, to a metamorphosed (matured into adult form) individual.
Dustin Marshall, Author provided

These effects partially cancel each other out. Higher temperatures increase the rate at which energy is used (metabolic), but shorten the developmental time.

But do they balance out effectively?

What are the costs?

For any species, there is one temperature that achieves the perfect energetic balance between relatively rapid development and low metabolism. This optimal temperature, also called the “Goldilocks” temperature, is neither too hot, nor too cold.

When the temperature is too cold for a certain species, development takes a long time. When it’s too hot, development time decreases while the metabolic rate continues to rise. An imbalance on either side can negatively impact a natural population’s resilience and ability to replenish.

As an embryo’s developmental costs increase past the optimum, mothers must invest more resources into each offspring to offset these costs.

When offspring become more costly to make, mothers make fewer, larger offspring. These offspring start life with fewer energy reserves, reducing their chances of successfully reproducing as adults themselves.

Thus, when it comes to embryonic development, higher-than ideal temperatures pack a nasty punch for natural populations.

Since the temperature dependencies of metabolic rate and development rate are fairly similar, the slight differences between them had gone unnoticed until recently.




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Embryos at risk

For each species in our study, we found a narrow band of temperatures that minimised developmental cost. Temperatures that were too high or too low caused massive blow-outs in the energy budget of developing embryos.

This means temperature increases associated with global warming are likely to have bigger impacts than previously predicted.

Predictions of how future temperature changes will affect organisms are often based on estimates of how temperature affects embryo survival. These measures suggest small temperature increases (1°C-2°C) do not reduce embryo survival by much.

But our study found the developmental costs are about twice as high, and we had underestimated the impacts of subtle temperature changes on embryo development.

In the warming animal kingdom, there are winners and losers

Some good news is our research suggests not all species are facing rising costs with rising temperatures, at least initially.

We’ve created a mathematical framework called the Developmental Cost Theory, which predicts some species will actually experience slightly lower developmental costs with minor increases in temperature.




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In particular, aquatic species (fish and invertebrates) in cool temperate waters seem likely to experience lower costs in the near future. In contrast, certain tropical aquatic species (including coral reef organisms) are already experiencing temperatures that exceed their optimum. This is likely to get worse.

It’s important to note that for all species, increasing environmental temperature will eventually come with costs.

Even if a slight temperature increase reduces costs for one species, too much of an increase will still have a negative impact. This is true for all the organisms we studied.

A key question now is: how quickly can species evolve to adapt to our warming climate?The Conversation

Dustin Marshall, Professor, Marine Evolutionary Ecology, Monash University

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

Transport is letting Australia down in the race to cut emissions



e2dan/Shutterstock

Philip Laird, University of Wollongong

At a time Australia is meant to be reducing its greenhouse emissions, the upward trend in transport sector emissions continues. The latest National Greenhouse Gas Inventory report released last week shows the transport sector emitted 102 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO₂-e) in the 12 months to September 2019. This was 18.9% of Australia’s emissions.

Overall, the trend in emissions from all sectors have been essentially flat since 2013. If Australia is to reduce emissions, all sectors including transport must pull their weight.




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Overall trend emissions, by quarter, September 2009 to September 2019.
National Greenhouse Gas Inventory

Transport emissions have gone up 64% since 1990. That’s the largest percentage increase of any sector.

Transport emissions, actual and trend, by quarter, September 2009 to September 2019.
Source: National Greenhouse Gas Inventory

Transport sector emissions include the direct burning of fuels for road, rail, domestic aviation and domestic shipping, but exclude electricity for electric trains.

Transport emissions are now equal second with stationary energy (fuels consumed in the manufacturing, construction and commercial sectors and heating) at 18.9%. The electricity sector produces 33.6% of all emissions. The main reasons for transport emissions trending upwards are an over-dependence on cars with high average fuel use and an over-reliance on energy-intensive road freight.

Inevitable results of policy failure

Increasing transport emissions are a result of long-standing government policies on both sides of politics. In 2018, the Climate Council noted:

Australia’s cars are more polluting; our relative investment in and use of public and active transport options is lower than comparable countries; and we lack credible targets, policies, or plans to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from transport.

John Quiggin and Robin Smit recently wrote about vehicle fuel efficiency for The Conversation. They cited new research that indicates emissions from road transport will accelerate. This is largely due to increased sales of heavier vehicles, such as four-wheel drives, and diesel cars.




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The government has ignored recommendations to adopt mandatory fuel-efficiency standards for road passenger vehicles. Australia is the only OECD country without such standards.

Research by Hugh Saddler found a marked increase in CO₂ emissions from burning diesel (up 21.7Mt between 2011 and 2018). A 2015 Turnbull government initiative to phase in from 2020 to 2025 a standard of 105g of CO₂ per kilometre for light vehicles was “shelved after internal opposition and criticism from the automotive lobby”.

At the same time, the uptake of electric vehicles is slow. Economist Ross Garnaut, in his 2019 book Superpower: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity, sums it up:

Australia is late in preparation for and investment in electric road transport.




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Australia’s low transport energy efficiency (and so high CO₂ emissions) has also attracted overseas attention. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy rates the world’s 25 largest energy users for sectors including transportation. In 2018, Australia slipped two places to 18th overall. It was 20th for transportation with just 6.5 points out of a possible 25 on nine criteria.

On four of these criteria, Australia scored zero: fuel economy of passenger vehicles, having no fuel-efficiency standards for passenger vehicles and heavy trucks, and having no smart freight programs.

For vehicle travel per capita, the score was half a point. For three metrics – freight task per GDP, use of public transport, and investment in rail transit versus roads – Australia scored just one point each.

Only in one metric, energy intensity of freight transport, did Australia get full marks. This was a result of the very high energy efficiency of the iron ore railways in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also questioned the Australian government’s preference for funding roads rather than more energy-efficient rail transport. The IMF says Australia should be spending more on infrastructure, but this should be on rail, airports and seaports, rather than roads.

What can be done

The first thing is to acknowledge that our preferred passenger transport modes of cars and planes cause more emissions than trains, buses, cycling and walking. For example, CO₂ emissions per passenger km can be 171 grams for a passenger car as against 41g for domestic rail.


Data source: Greenhouse gas reporting: conversion factors 2019

For freight, our high dependence on trucks rather than rail or sea freight increases emissions by a factor of three.




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A 1996 report, Transport and Greenhouse, from what is now the federal Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), reviewed no fewer than 16 measures (including five “no regrets” measures) to cut transport emissions. In a 2002 report, Greenhouse Policy Options for Transport, BITRE offered 11 measures to reduce vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT), nine measures to reduce emissions per VKT, and four road-pricing measures (mass-distance charges for heavy trucks, tolls, internalising transport externalities and emission charging).

BITRE last appeared to revisit this important issue in a 2009 report on transport emission projections to 2020. This report projected a total of 103.87Mt CO₂-e for 2019. Actual 2019 transport emissions will be about 102Mt.

It’s important to note that BITRE’s 2009 projection was on a business-as-usual basis. The current level of about 4 tonnes a year per person is where Australia was in 2000.

Clearly, Australia needs to do better. As well as the BITRE remedies, another remedy would be to adopt a 2002 National Action Plan approved by the Australian Transport Council in collaboration with the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. The plan included, within ten years, “programs that encourage people to take fewer trips by car” and a shift “from predominantly fixed to predominantly variable costs” to “ensure that transport users experience more of the true cost of their travel choices”. This did not proceed.

However, New Zealand has effectively adopted this approach for many years. Petrol excise is now 66.524 cents per litre (just 42.3c/l in Australia) and the revenue goes to the National Land Transport Fund for roads and alternatives to roads, resulting also in lower registration fees for cars. New Zealand has had mass distance pricing for heavy trucks for 40 years. These measures have not stopped its economy performing well.

Why do measures that would reduce transport emissions continue to be so elusive in Australia?The Conversation

Philip Laird, Honorary Principal Fellow, University of Wollongong

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

Vital Signs: a 3-point plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050



Shutterstock

Richard Holden, UNSW

Every January Larry Fink, the head of the world’s largest funds manager, BlackRock, sends a letter to the chief executives of major public companies.

This year’s letter focused on climate risk. “Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” Fink wrote. To put sustainability at the centre of its investment approach, he said, BlackRock would stop investing in companies that “present a high sustainability-related risk”.




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Now business leaders – even big money managers – express opinions all the time, and major companies keep doing what they are doing. But this was different.

Fink, who’s in charge of US$7 trillion (that’s not a typo – $7,000,000,000,000), says in his letter: “In the near future – and sooner than most anticipate – there will be a significant reallocation of capital.”

It’s emphasised in bold type. That’s something to which chief executives pay attention.

Even before the letter was sent – but knowing what was coming – major US companies like Amazon, Delta Air Lines and Microsoft announced new climate action plans.

These three companies are in different industries with different abilities to take action. But the plans they’ve outlined illuminate the three key strategies needed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Delta Air Lines

Delta, being an airline, burns a lot of fossil fuels. Bar an extraordinary technological shift in aircraft, it will burn a lot of fossil fuels well into the future.




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The airline’s goal by 2050 is to cut its carbon emissions to half the levels they were in 2005. It plans to do this through a combination of fuel-efficiency measures and helping spur the development of more sustainable jet fuels. In the medium term (up to 2035), its goal is “carbon-neutral growth”, buying carbon offsets for any increases in emissions from jet fuel due to business growth.

Delta Air Lines operates about 5,000 flights a day. Jet fuel accounts for about 99% of its total emissions.
Shutterstock

Let’s consider the economics of the Delta plan – at least up to 2035.

Buying carbon offsets increases the airline’s costs. These are passed on to customers – in which case it is simply a form of carbon tax – or paid for by shareholders through lower profits. I’m betting it’s not the shareholders who will pay.

So Delta is essentially imposing its own carbon tax in the hope customers who care about the environment will be more attracted to its brand or that other airlines follow suit.

Amazon

Amazon, which reported a carbon footprint of 44.4 million metric tons in 2018, is doing two broad things.

The company has a fleet of about 30,000 delivery vans. It plans to have 100,000 electric vehicles by 2024. This will reduce the company’s carbon footprint so long as the vans are charged with power from sustainable sources.

Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, has also announced the Bezos Earth Fund, which will give away US$10 billion in grants to anyone with good ideas to address climate change or other environmental issues.

Again, let’s consider the basic economics at play here.

Moving to electric vehicles is a smart hedge against rising fuel costs from a price on carbon – something that already exists in California.

The Bezos Earth Fund, meanwhile, is an excellent example of taking money generated from maximising shareholder value – Amazon is valued at about US$1 trillion and Bezos’s personal fortune (pre-divorce) was about US$130 billion – and redistributing it to socially productive causes.

Microsoft

Finally, Microsoft – the least-carbon-intensive business of the three mentioned here – plans to be carbon-negative by 2030, and by 2050 to have offset all the emissions it has been responsible for (both directly and through electricity consumption) since its founding in 1975.

Since 2012 it has had an “internal carbon tax”, which in April 2019 was doubled to US$15 a tonne. This price mechanism is used to make Microsoft’s business divisions financially responsible for reducing emissions.

On top of this, Microsoft has developed the AI for Earth program, which provides cloud-computing tools for researchers working on sustainability issues to process data more effectively.

Lessons for Australia

Australia’s Coalition government and Labor opposition would do well to heed the lessons of these three companies.

Together they show three clear strategies:

  • a technological push to lower emissions
  • a price on carbon to drive technological innovation and uptake
  • clear goals to reduce emissions.

Our political parties both have one out of three. Right now Labor has announced a goal. The Coalition is promising a technology plan some time soon.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is right to criticise Labor for not having a plan. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is right to criticise the Coalition for not having a suitable goal.

But neither of them advocates a price on carbon, without which neither technology road maps nor ambitious goals will translate into sufficient emissions reductions.




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Technology investment, a carbon price and clear goals are all necessary to effectively reduce carbon emissions. Without all three we are bound to fail.

And we no longer have time for that, according to climate scientists.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

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

Carbon pricing: it’s a proven way to reduce emissions but everyone’s too scared to mention it


Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese sought to claim the climate policy high ground last week with his commitment to a net-zero emissions target by 2050.

But figures on Australia’s emissions from the Department of the Environment and Energy help frame the political debate, and put the policies of both Labor and the Coalition in context.




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Australia’s emissions fell from 611 million tonnes of CO₂-equivalent in 2005 to 532 million tonnes in 2019 – an average annual reduction of 5.6 million tonnes.

But the government’s projections show this will slow to an average of only 2.4 million tonnes per year over the next 10 years.

Achieving Labor’s target of net-zero by 2050 would require much faster emissions reduction: about 25 million tonnes a year.

Business groups and economists agree putting a price on carbon is the best way to meet this objective in a low-cost way. But amid this climate policy hodge-podge, no one is talking about it anymore.

Scott Morrison: building technologies, not policies

The summer bushfire crisis prompted demands from business and community for climate action, triggering a repositioning by the Morrison government

There are two arms to the government’s strategy.

The first uses the falling emissions of the past 15 years to support the argument that its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, is achievable. And, by implication, so will be any future targets.




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The problem with this claim is that the past success has been driven by not-to-be-repeated land use changes, the now-finished Renewable Energy Target, and coal plant closures. It has not been achieved with current policies. And even if the current target is met, it leaves a tough post-2030 challenge.

The second arm builds the case for future emissions reduction on technology and not policy, thereby avoiding the firm targets that are poison within the Coalition.

Morrison feels he must focus his narrative on a positive technology action story without quantifying the costs of these actions or of inaction. This is a high-wire act, but he has little political choice in the short-term. It may yet buy him the space he needs in the medium-term.

Anthony Albanese: needs credibility

Albanese has almost certainly made the right political call to embrace the target of net-zero emissions by 2050. He is on the right side of the broad Australian debate.

Yet, this call brings its challenges. Labor has a year or so to develop a clear and compelling narrative that uses the target as the long-term objective, builds an economy-wide pathway to its achievement, and is supported by a policy framework to follow that pathway.




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Labor has considerable experience, much of it painful, from which to learn. It must provide enough substance to be credible but avoid getting bogged down using economic modelling as a precise forecasting tool. It must also directly address the role of government in supporting structural adjustment as the new economy emerges.

The big difference this time around is Labor can harness the widespread support across many areas of industry and the community.

Albanese has already begun to build his narrative around these themes. His challenge is to sustain the momentum.

Resurrecting the carbon price

In all the strategies and tactics of this round of the climate wars, the most disturbing development must be that carbon pricing became roadkill on the way.

Emissions must be reduced across the economy at lowest cost. Business groups, including the Business Council of Australia, as well as economists, recognise a carbon price is the best way to meet this objective. And there are several models to choose from, including cap-and-trade, baseline-and-credit and emissions intensity schemes.




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The key advantage of an economy-wide carbon price is that it provides an overall emissions constraint and leaves it to the widest possible range of businesses and economic activities to find lowest-cost solutions.

Sector-based approaches or having governments pick winners – such as the Commonwealth’s Underwriting New Generation Investment scheme – can reduce emissions. But this will always come at a higher cost than a carbon price – a cost borne by consumers and taxpayers.

The government seems captured by its own past success in killing carbon pricing mechanisms, such as Labor’s carbon price regime which ran from 2012 to 2014. This is despite the fact that two existing policies it has overseen – the Climate Solutions Fund and the Renewable Energy Target – incorporate explicit and implicit carbon prices respectively.

Labor seems captured by its past failure with carbon pricing, such that Albanese now argues it’s unnecessary. At the same time, he refers positively to the abandoned National Energy Guarantee as the sort of policy he could support, without apparently recognising it would have included a form of carbon pricing and trading.




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222 scientists say cascading crises are the biggest threat to the well-being of future generations


As we settle into the third decade of the 21st century, it seems our best hope for the near-term is a combination of sector-based, technology-driven, third-best policies that will deliver progress for a while.

Long-term environmental and economic success will depend on returning to first-best policies when we learn from the consequences.The Conversation

Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

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

Australia: Climate Targets Further Threatened by Northern Territory Gas Plans