This piece is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
It is almost five years since the landmark Paris deal was struck. Nearly 200 countries agreed to work towards limiting global warming to 1.5℃, beyond which the planet is expected to slide irreversibly towards devastating climate change impacts.
But few nations are on track to reaching this goal. Right now, we’re heading to warming above 3℃ by 2100 – and this will have catastrophic consequences for the planet.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called a major climate summit in New York on September 23, where countries are expected to announce more ambitious climate targets than they set in Paris, and solid plans to achieve them.
Ahead of the summit, let’s take stock of the world’s best and worst performers when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.
The Climate Action Tracker is an independent scientific analysis produced by two research organisations tracking climate action since 2009. It monitors 32 countries, accounting for more than 80% of global emissions.
We looked in detail at who has made the most progress since 2015, and who has done the least. Australia sits firmly in the group of governments we labelled as actually delaying global climate action, alongside the United States (which under President Donald Trump has walked away from the Paris agreement altogether).
Today, Australia’s emissions are at a seven-year high, and continue to rise. The government’s commitment to fossil fuels remains unwavering – from coal projects such as Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland to huge new gas projects.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, providing 29% of coal’s global trade, and last year also became the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Its exported fossil fuel emissions currently represent around 3.6% of global emissions.
Ethiopia, Morocco and India top the list of countries doing the most to tackle climate change. In total, eight international jurisdictions have made good progress since 2015, including the European Union, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, and Argentina (although they still have a lot of work ahead to meet the 1.5℃ goal).
While India still relies on coal, its renewables industry is making huge leaps forward, with investments in renewable energy topping fossil fuel investments. The country is expected to over-achieve its Paris Agreement target.
So what are they doing right? Costa Rica’s national decarbonisation plan covers the entire economy, including electrifying the public transport system, and huge energy efficiency measures in the industry, transport and buildings sectors. Costa Rica has also put a moratorium on new oil production.
The EU is set to overachieve its 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and is in the process of considering an increase in this to at least 50%. It has recently increased its renewable energy and energy efficiency goals, and is sorting out its emissions trading scheme, with prices of emission units increasing.
This, together with past investments in renewable energy, have helped to achieve a 15% reduction in German electricity sector emissions in the first half of 2019. Whilst Germany has missed its 2020 targets, it has begun a process to phase out coal no later than 2038 – still a number of years too late for a Paris-compatible pathway.
An increasing number of countries are adopting net zero emissions targets, many of them in the European Union, and some outside. Some, like the UK, have dumped coal, and are well on the way to achieving those targets.
A global phase-out of coal for electricity is the single most important step toward achieving the 1.5℃ warming limit. At the latest, this should be achieved by 2050 globally, by 2030 in the OECD and 2040 in China and other Asian countries.
There are some signs of optimism here. On one estimate, the number of coal projects in the pipeline shrunk by nearly 70% between 2015 and 2018, and investors are increasingly wary of the technology. Yet coal is still set to boom in Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and Turkey.
In 2018, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions reached a historic high. While coal reversed its recent decline, emissions from natural gas surged by 4.6%.
Renewable energy is the key to unlocking rapid decarbonisation. It already supplies more than 26% of global electricity generation and its costs are dropping rapidly. To accelerate this fundamental transition, more governments need to adopt and improve policies that enable renewable technologies to be rolled out faster. This would contribute to low-carbon economic development and job creation.
Nowhere is the alarming rate of global deforestation more obvious than in Brazil, now in the middle of a record fire season. It adds to damage wrought by President Jair Bolsonaro who has weakened his country’s institutional framework preventing forest loss.
In 2018, Brazil recorded the world’s highest loss of tropical primary rainforest of any country – 1.3 million hectares – largely in the Amazon. The deforestation reached 7,900 square km in 2018, a 72% increase from the historic low in 2012.
The past few weeks have shown us what 1℃ of global warming means. Hurricane Dorian, fuelled by high sea-surface temperatures, wiped out the northern Bahamas. Temperatures in the 40s set records across Europe. And in Queensland, the earliest fire season on record destroyed homes and razed rainforests.
The predicted 3℃ of warming by 2100 will bring a lot worse: widespread crop failures, dead coral reefs, more extreme heat waves and major threats to water supply and human health.
The world can avoid this, but time is running out.
It was framed as “the climate election”, but last week Australia returned a government with climate policies that make the task of building a zero-emissions, safe climate Australia even harder.
This result comes at a time when international studies are raising the real and imminent spectre of a mass extinction crisis and many communities are already struggling with the consequences of the climate emergency now unfolding around us.
Amid the growing strength of movements like Extinction Rebellion and climate activist Greta Thunberg’s advice to “act as you would in a crisis”, Australian film-maker Damon Gameau’s new climate change solutions film 2040 focuses on highlighting the huge range of climate action opportunities being explored and accelerated, not just in Australia but around the world.
Structured as a visual letter to Gameau’s four-year-old daughter, 2040 takes us on an engaging, upbeat journey, introducing us to a wide array of climate and energy solutions already underway. The film then fast-forwards 20 years to help us imagine how a zero-emissions world might unfold.
The film and accompanying book showcase a rich tapestry of climate action stories from around the world, from renewable energy microgrids in Bangladesh, to autonomous electric vehicles in Singapore and regenerative agriculture in Shepparton, Victoria.
Economist Kate Raworth speaks eloquently about the urgent need for a new “doughnut economics” approach, which grows jobs and health and well-being rather than consumerism, pollution and inequality.
Paul Hawken, founder of the Drawdown project reminds us we already have the tools required to build a just and resilient zero-carbon economy. Our key task now is to mobilise the resources and harness the creativity required to bring this work to scale at emergency speed.
Importantly, the 2040 project also includes the Whats Your 2040 website, where audiences can explore their own personal climate action plans.
I have had the privilege to contribute ideas and advice to the 2040 film project, drawing on research I’ve undertaken over the last ten years on strategies for accelerating the creation of post-carbon economies. Its also been exciting to see such enthusiasm and determination from audiences watching 2040, particularly among students and young people.
While 2040 doesn’t avoid hard truths about the rapidly escalating risks and dangers of the climate emergency, Gameau has made a clear choice to focus his narrative of “fact based dreaming” on stories of hope and action rather than just chaos and catastrophe.
The goal is to offer viewers a refreshing and energising change from yet more images of burning forests and melting glaciers.
Of course, some will also bear in mind the cautionary warning of Greta Thunberg:
I don’t want you to be hopeful…I want you to feel the fear I feel every day…I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.
US author Rebecca Solnit provides another valuable perspective. “Hope”, she argues “is not about what we expect. It’s an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world. Hope is not a door but a sense that there might be a door.”
In my work with climate scientists, activists and policy makers over the last ten years I’ve had many challenging conversations about finding the right balance between fear and hope; threat and opportunity; naive optimism and paralysing despair.
One useful source of wisdom in navigating this tension is research on effective and timely responses to more immediate natural disasters, like fast-moving storms, floods and fires.
Successfully dealing with an emergency requires recognising that decisive action is urgently necessary, possible in the time available, and desirable. Broken down, this means understanding:
There is certainly no shortage of scientific and experiential evidence about the scale and speed of the climate emergency which has now arrived at our door. But the case for radical hope, defiant courage and decisive collective action also continues to strengthen.
This challenge is also being taken up by some sections of the business world. (See, for example, Ross Garnaut’s recent lecture series outlining Australia’s great potential as a renewable energy superpower.)
Ideas like this are particularly important in developing a convincing and compelling narrative about a future post-fossil fuel economy that creates high-quality secure jobs and leaves no Australian worker or community behind.
The election outcome is clearly a significant setback for those who had hoped that there might now be clearer air for a more mature conversation in Australia about the necessity, urgency and desirability of accelerating the transition to a just and resilient zero-carbon economy.
None of us know exactly how our journey into a harsh climate future will evolve. We can however be sure that the journey will be far tougher if we close our eyes and fail to act with honesty and imagination; wisdom and courage. 2040 makes an important contribution to this urgent and essential work.
2040 was released in Australia on May 22.
Environmental news is rarely good. But even by those low standards, 2018 was especially bad. That is the main conclusion from Australia’s Environment in 2018, the latest in an annual series of environmental condition reports, released today.
Every year, we analyse vast amounts of measurements from satellites and on-ground stations using algorithms and prediction models on a supercomputer. These volumes of data are turned into regional summary accounts that can be explored on our Australian Environment Explorer website. We interpret these data, along with other information from national and international reports, to assess how our environment is tracking.
Whereas 2017 was already quite bad, 2018 saw many indicators dip even further into the red.
Temperatures went up again, rainfall declined further, and the destruction of vegetation and ecosystems by drought, fire and land clearing continued. Soil moisture, rivers and wetlands all declined, and vegetation growth was poor.
The combined pressures from habitat destruction, climate change, and invasive pests and diseases are taking their toll on our unique plants and animals. Another 54 species were added to the official list of threatened species, which now stands at 1,775. That is 47% more than 18 years ago and puts Australia among the world’s worst performers in biodiversity protection. On the upside, the number of predator-proof islands or fenced-off reserves in Australia reached 188 in 2018, covering close to 2,500 square kilometres. They offer good prospects of saving at least 13 mammal species from extinction.
Globally, the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accelerated again after slowing down in 2017. Global air and ocean temperatures remained high, sea levels increased further, and even the ozone hole grew again, after shrinking during the previous two years.
Sea surface temperatures around Australia did not increase in 2018, but they nevertheless were well above long-term averages. Surveys of the Great Barrier Reef showed further declining health across the entire reef. An exceptional heatwave in late 2018 in Far North Queensland raised fears for yet another bout of coral bleaching, but this was averted when sudden massive downpours cooled surface waters.
The hot conditions did cause much damage to wildlife and vegetation, however, with spectacled flying foxes dropping dead from trees and fire ravaging what was once a tropical rainforest.
While previous environmental scorecards showed a mixed bag of regional impacts, 2018 was a poor year in all states and territories. Particularly badly hit was New South Wales, where after a second year of very poor rainfall, ecosystems and communities reached crisis point. Least affected was southern Western Australia, which enjoyed relatively cool and wet conditions.
It was a poor year for nature and farmers alike, with growing conditions in grazing, irrigated agriculture and dryland cropping each declining by 17-20% at a national scale. The only upside was improved cropping conditions in WA, which mitigated the 34% decline elsewhere.
Although it is too early for a full picture, the first months of 2019 continued as badly as 2018 ended. The 2018-19 summer broke heat records across the country by large margins, bushfires raged through Tasmania’s forests, and a sudden turn in the hot weather killed scores of fish in the Darling River. The monsoon in northern Australia did not come until late January, the latest in decades, but then dumped a huge amount of rain on northern Queensland, flooding vast swathes of land.
It would be comforting to believe that our environment merely waxes and wanes with rainfall, and is resilient to yearly variations. To some extent, this is true. The current year may still turn wet and improve conditions, although a developing El Niño makes this less likely.
However, while we are good at acknowledging rapid changes, we are terrible at recognising slow, long-term ones. Underlying the yearly variations in weather is an unmistakable pattern of environmental decline that threatens our future.
Global warming is already with us, and strong action is required to avoid an even more dire future of rolling heatwaves and year-round bushfires. But while global climate change requires global action, there is a lot we can and have to do ourselves.
Australia is one of the world’s most wasteful societies, and there are many opportunities to clean up our act. Achieving progress is not hard, and despite shrill protests from vested interests and the ideologically blind, taking action will not take away our prosperity. Home solar systems and more efficient transport can in fact save money. Our country has huge opportunities for renewable energy, which can potentially create thousands of jobs. Together, we can indeed reduce emissions “in a canter” – all it takes is some clear national leadership.
The ongoing destruction of natural vegetation is as damaging as it is unnecessary, and stopping it will bring a raft of benefits. Our rivers and wetlands are more than just a source of cheap irrigation for big businesses. With more effort, we can save many species from extinction. Our farmers play a vital role in caring for our country, and we need to support them better in doing so.
Our environment is our life support. It provides us our place to live, our food, health, livelihoods, culture and identity. To protect it is to protect ourselves.
This article was coauthored by Shoshana Rapley, an ANU honours student and research assistant in the Fenner School of Environment and Society.
On March 15 2019 thousands of students across Australia will skip school and join the global strike for climate action. This is the second time students have taken to the streets to demand more government action on climate change. Last time they did so, in November 2018, the federal resources minister, Matt Canavan, told them:
The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue. Because that’s what your future life will look like, up in a line asking for a handout, not actually taking charge for your life and getting a real job.
Politicians are up in arms about tomorrow’s protest too. New South Wales is just over a week away from a state election where climate change is a key issue. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has slammed as “appalling” comments made by Opposition Leader Michael Daley in support of the strike.
Such attitudes do worse than just dismissing the students’ voices and their message of urgency. They fly in the face of international research and the aims of Australia’s own curriculum.
By seeking to understand a global issue such as climate change, taking action and clearly articulating their perspective, the students are demonstrating the skills, values and attitudes the curriculum states should constitute the aim of education. These are also the attributes employers look for.
The Australian curriculum is based on the Melbourne Declaration on Goals for Young Australians, signed in 2008 by all state and territory ministers. Its second goal is to graduate students who are “successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens”.
To help achieve this, the Australian curriculum includes a civics and citizenship strand in its humanities and social science subject. This encourages an inquiry-based approach, presenting students with multiple perspectives and empowering them to reach their own conclusions.
The curriculum also has three cross-curriculum priorities, which address contemporary issues such as sustainability, and seven general capabilities. The Australian curriculum shape paper describes the general capabilities as “21st-century skills”, designed to foster critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding and personal and social capability.
A 2014 review of the Australian curriculum concluded with overwhelming support to not only keep but further develop general capabilities that reflect 21st-century skills.
Canavan’s dole-queue comments also contradict research that identifies these general capabilities, sometimes described as “soft skills”, as the desired graduate attributes sought by employers in Australia and across the world. These skills are also acknowledged as equipping students for contemporary, transitory career patterns that require high levels of communication, mobility and critical and ethical thinking.
When the students marched in 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said they should be doing “more learning in schools and less activism”. But international research clearly shows that, by preparing for and participating in this strike, students are learning the skills of active citizenship, which they will carry into their adult life.
They are learning how to be the type of citizen we need to achieve the global sustainability goals. They are learning how to work together to effect change.
Australian students joining the movement, started by 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, also reflects research showing young people have no faith in politicians and the political system. This is why they are taking direct, grassroots approaches to political, social and environmental issues.
The students’ website, rallying the support of their peers, explains their reasoning for walking out of their classrooms:
In Australia, education is viewed as immensely important, and a key way to make a difference in the world. But simply going to school isn’t doing anything about climate change. And it doesn’t seem that our politicians are doing anything.
By making this choice, students are demonstrating their worldview and understanding of contemporary global issues, their ability to think critically and examine problems, to manage complexity, to communicate and work effectively with others, as well as values and attitudes that focus on the common good beyond their own self-interest. And they are taking action.
In other words, they are displaying all the elements of global competence, as identified by UNESCO and the OECD. In doing so they are fulfilling the Melbourne Declaration’s goal and acting as “active and informed citizens” of both their local and global communities.
Today, at least 50 rallies planned across Australia are expected to draw thousands of students who are walking out of school to protest climate change inaction.
These Australian students join children from over 82 countries who are striking to highlight systemic failure to address climate change.
But the strikes represent more than frustration and resistance. They are evidence of an even bigger process of transformation. My research investigates how young people’s sense of self, identity, and existence is being fundamentally altered by climate change.
Striking children are experiencing “existential whiplash”, caught between two forces. One is a dominant culture driven by fossil fuel consumption that emphasises individual success, encapsulated by Resources Minister Matt Canavan’s remarks that striking students will never get a “real job”:
The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue. Because that’s what your future life will look like […] not actually taking charge for your life and getting a real job.
On the other hand is the mounting evidence that climate change will make parts of the planet inhospitable to human (and other) life, and fundamentally change our way of life in the future.
Children are up to date with the facts: The Earth is currently experiencing its 6th mass extinction; Australia has just had its hottest summer on record; and experts warn we have just 11 years left to ensure we avoid the misery of exceeding 1.5 degrees of planetary warming.
Meanwhile many Australian adults have been living what sociologist Kari Norgaard terms a “double reality”: explicitly acknowledging that climate change is real, while continuing to live as though it is not. But as climatic changes intensify and interrupt our business-as-usual lifestyles, many more Australians are likely to experience the climate trauma that school strikers are grappling with.
Confronting the realities of climate change can lead to overwhelming anxiety and grief, and of course, for those of us in high carbon societies, guilt. This can be extremely uncomfortable. These feelings arise partly because climate change challenges our dominant cultural narratives, assumptions and values, and thus, our sense of self and identity. Climate change challenges the beliefs that:
Faced with these challenges, it can seem easier in the short term to turn away than to try to respond. But the short term is not an option for young people.
Striking students are calling out that simply standing by means being complicit in climate change. The school strikers, and those who support them, are deeply anguished about what a business-as-usual future might hold for them and others.
Striking students’ signs proclaim “no graduation on a dead planet” and “we won’t die of old age, we will die from climate change”. This is not hyperbole but a genuine engagement with what climate change means for their lives, as well as their deaths.
Notably, they are openly discussing and promoting engagement with climate distress as a means of inspiring action. As Greta Thunberg — who started the school strikes for climate — said in January:
I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
They know certain possibilities have already been stolen from them by the older generations. Rather than trying to hold onto dominant cultural narratives about their future, striking students are letting them go and crafting alternatives. They are enduring the pain of the climate crisis, while labouring to generate desirable and possible, though always uncertain, futures.
By connecting with other concerned young people across the world, this movement is creating a more collective and ecologically attuned identity.
They are both more ambitious and humble than our dominant (non)responses to climate change. This is palpable in signs like “Mother Nature does not need us; We need Mother Nature” and “Seas are rising, so are we”.
What will eventually happen – in terms of both cultural and climatic change – is of course, unknowable. But it is promising that children are already forging new identities and cultures that may have a chance of survival on our finite blue planet.
As adults, we would do well to recognise the necessity of facing up to the most grotesque elements of climate change. Perhaps then we too may step up to the challenge of cultural transformation.
A new OECD report has warned that Australia risks falling short of its 2030 emissions target unless it implements “a major effort to move to a low-carbon model”.
This view is consistent both with official government projections released late last year, and independent analysis of Australia’s emissions trajectory. Yet the government still insists we are on track, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison claiming as recently as November that the 2030 target will be reached “in a canter”.
What’s really going on? Does the government have any data or modelling to serve as a basis for Morrison’s confidence? And if so, why doesn’t it tell us?
The government’s emission projections report actually presents three scenarios: the “baseline” projection, which forecasts that emissions will rise by 3% by 2030, plus two other scenarios in which economic growth (and thus demand for fossil fuel consumption) is higher or lower than the baseline.
As the graph shows, all three of these scenarios would see Australia miss its 26-28% emissions reduction target by a wide margin. So why claim that our emissions are on track? The answer, as is so often the case with emissions targets, lies in the fine print.
The government is indeed poised to deliver on the “letter of the law” of its Paris commitment if two things play out. First, if it claims credit from overdelivering on Australia’s 2010 and 2020 commitments. And second, if the “low demand” scenario is the one that eventuates.
To reach our Paris target, the government estimates that we will need to reduce emissions by the equivalent of 697 million tonnes of carbon dioxide before 2030. It also calculates that the overdelivery on previous climate targets already represents a saving of 367Mt, and that low economic demand would save a further 571Mt. That adds up to 938Mt of emissions reductions, outperforming the target by 35% – a canter that would barely work up a sweat.
Let’s leave aside the technical question of whether it’s legitimate to count past performance towards future emissions targets, and focus for now on how the low-demand economic scenario might become reality.
The government’s report contains no discussion on the basis of the “low demand” scenario. But history suggests the annual baseline estimates of 2030 emissions have overestimated future emissions, with revisions downwards over time. For example, the 2018 projection for 2030 emissions is 28% lower than the 2012 projection for the same date (see figure 2 here).
In the real world, meanwhile, change is evident. Households and businesses are installing solar panels, not least to guard against high power bills. Businesses are signing power purchase agreements with renewable energy suppliers for much the same reason. State and local governments are pursuing increasingly ambitious clean energy and climate policies. Some energy-intensive industries may be driven offshore by our high gas prices.
New technology such as electric vehicles, ongoing improvement in energy efficiency, and emerging business models that break the power of big energy companies are transforming our economy. Investment in low-emission public transport infrastructure means its share of travel will increase. Farmers are cutting methane emissions by installing biogas production equipment.
Other studies also support the idea that Australia may indeed outperform its baseline emission scenario. ANU researchers recently predicted that “emissions in the electricity sector will decline by more than 26% in 2020-21, and will meet Australia’s entire Paris target of 26% reduction across all sectors of the economy (not just “electricity’s fair share”) in 2024-25”.
The government’s baseline electricity scenario uses the Australian Electricity Market Operator’s “neutral” scenario. But AEMO’s “weak” scenario would see 2030 demand in the National Electricity Market 18% lower than the neutral scenario (see figure 13 here).
Of course, many of these changes are happening in spite of the government’s policy settings, rather than because of them. Still, a win’s a win!
But is hitting the target in purely technical terms really a win? In truth, it would fall far short of what is really necessary and responsible.
This is partly because of the plan to use prior credit for previous emissions targets to help get us across the line for 2030. This may be allowed under the international rules. But we would be leveraging extremely weak earlier commitments.
For example, Australia’s 2010 Kyoto Protocol target of an 8% increase in emissions was laughably weak in comparison with the developed world average target of a 5% cut. Our 2020 5% reduction target is also well below the aspirations of most other countries. What’s more, several major nations have declared that they will exclude past “overachievements” from their 2020 commitments.
The government has obfuscated the issue further by deliberately conflating our electricity emission reductions target, which will be easily met, with our overall economy-wide target, which presents a much tougher challenge.
There’s more. Australia’s Paris pledge to reduce emissions from 2005 levels by 26-28% between 2021 and 2030 is inconsistent with our global responsibilities and with climate science. The target was agreed to by the then prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015 as the minimum needed to look credible. But as the Climate Change Authority pointed out, a 2030 target of 40-60% below 2000 levels is more scientifically responsible.
What is Australia’s “fair share” of the heavy lifting needed to stay below 2℃ of global warming, as agreed in Paris? If all humans were entitled to release the same greenhouse emissions by 2050, the average would be around 2 tonnes of CO₂ per person in 2050. In 2018, the average Australian was responsible for 21.5 tonnes.
There is plenty of heavy lifting still to do, and no point in pretending otherwise. The government must publish its data and modelling in full if its canter claims are to have any credibility.