Labor’s climate policy is too little, too late. We must run faster to win the race


Will Steffen, Australian National University

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.

Blowing the 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.




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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.

How does Labor’s policy stack up?

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℃?




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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.

Jokers in the pack

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.

What does effective climate action look like?

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:

  • cut domestic emissions by 50% by 2030
  • move the net-zero target date forward to 2045, or, preferably 2040
  • ban new fossil fuel developments of any kind, for either export or domestic use

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.




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The Conversation


Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University

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

Albanese pledges Labor government would have 2050 carbon-neutral target



AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Anthony Albanese will commit a Labor government to adopting a target of zero net emissions by 2050, in a speech titled “Leadership in a New Climate” to be delivered on Friday.

The opposition leader’s embrace of this target, which the ALP also took to the last election, is in line with the policies of state and territory governments, many companies and the Business Council of Australia. It is also the public stand of some Liberal moderates but is totally rejected by the Nationals and hard-line Liberals.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to adopt it.

“Currently no one can tell me that going down that path won’t cost jobs, won’t put up your electricity prices, and won’t impact negatively on jobs in the economies of rural and regional Australia, ” he said this week.

In his speech, released ahead of time, Albanese also says a Labor government would never use Kyoto credits to meet Australia’s Paris targets, as the government will do if that is necessary.

And Albanese again condemns the government for putting $4 million into a feasibility study for a coal-fired power station in Collinsville, Queensland.

But Albanese is leaving until closer to the election the shorter-term emissions reduction target Labor will adopt.

At the last election it committed to a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030. Labor first took that target to the 2016 election and Albanese has previously said it was a mistake not to review it before the 2019 poll.

He says in his speech the 2050 carbon-neutral target should be “as non-controversial in Australia as it is in most nations”.

“This will be a real target, with none of the absurd nonsense of so-called ‘carryover credits’ that the prime minister has cooked up to give the impression he’s doing something when he isn’t.

“That’s not acting. It’s cheating. And Australian’s aren’t cheaters.”

On the Collinsville project, he says: “Let’s be clear. There is nothing to stop a private company investing its money in such a proposal. The reason it hasn’t is it doesn’t stack up.”

The $4 million is “just hush money for the climate sceptics who are stopping any real reform and who stopped the National Energy Guarantee supported by Turnbull, Morrison and Frydenberg.

“It’s pathetic. If it made sense the market would provide funding.

“The climate sceptics are market sceptics as well,” Albanese says.

“Investors will not contribute because the economic risks are simply too great. The costs are higher and rising. And the cost of alternatives like renewables is lower and falling.

“Everyone in the electricity sector knows that the only way a new coal power plant will be built in Australia is through significant taxpayer subsidies, including a carbon risk indemnity that the Australian Industry Group estimates would cost up to $17 billion for a single plant.

“That’s why one hasn’t been opened since 2007, construction hasn’t begun on one since 2004 and tenders haven’t been called this century,” Albanese says.

Meanwhile the terms of reference for the bushfire royal commission, released by Morrison on Thursday steer away from the issue of emissions reduction.

They acknowledge “the changing global climate carries risks for the Australian environment and Australia’s ability to prevent, mitigate and respond to bushfires”. But the inquiry is to report on

  • improving coordination across all levels of government in managing natural disasters
  • improving preparedness, resilience, and response in dealing with natural disasters
  • whether changes are needed to Australia’s legal framework for the involvement of the Commonwealth in responding to national emergencies.
  • The Conversation

    Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

    We can be a carbon-neutral nation by 2050, if we just get on with it


    Anna Skarbek, Monash University and Anna Malos, ClimateWorks Australia

    This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.


    Strong action on climate change is vital if Australia is to thrive in the future. Lack of consensus on climate policy over the past two decades has cost us dearly. It has harmed our natural environment, our international reputation and our economic prospects in a future low-carbon world.

    The next two years will be crucial if Australia is to meet its commitment, along with the rest of the world, to limit greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst ravages of global warming.

    In 2015, nearly all nations signed the Paris climate agreement. They pledged to limit global warming to well below 2℃ and to reach net zero emissions. By our calculations, Australia needs to reach net zero before 2050 to do its part.

    As a first step, Australia has committed to reduce its total emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Under the Paris Agreement it will have to submit progressively stronger targets every five years. Unfortunately, Australia is not yet on track to meet even its comparatively modest 2030 goal.




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    Falling short

    Analysis by ClimateWorks Australia found that although Australia’s emissions have fallen by around 11% economy-wide since 2005, emissions have been steadily climbing again since 2013. In 2013 Australia emitted the equivalent of 520 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. By 2016 that had bounced back up to 533 million tonnes.

    While some parts of the economy cut emissions at certain times, no sector improved consistently at the rate needed to hit the overall 2030 target.

    Emissions are still above 2005 levels in the building, industrial and transport sectors, and only 3% below in the electricity sector, based on 2016 figures, the latest available. The overall fall was mainly delivered by the land sector, thanks to a combination of reduced land clearing and increased forestation. Increased energy efficiency and the growth of renewable energy also made modest contributions.

    Unfortunately, progress in reducing emissions has now stalled in most sectors and reversed overall.

    How fast should we be cutting emissions?

    We calculate that Australia needs to double its emissions reduction progress to deliver on the 2030 target. We will have to triple it to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

    Hitting net zero by 2050 means going much further than the Coalition government’s 2030 target of 26-28%, or the 45% proposed by federal Labor. Australia would need to cut total emissions by 55% below 2005 levels by 2030 (the middle of the range recommended by the Climate Change Authority) to get there without undue economic disruption.

    Fortunately, there are enough opportunities for further emission reductions in all sectors to meet our Paris targets. We can probably do better than that, given the falling costs of many key technologies.

    The gap to the 2030 target could be more than covered by further activity in the land sector alone, or by the electricity sector alone, or by the combined potential of the building, industrial and transport sectors. Emission reductions from energy efficiency – through better buildings, vehicles and white goods – can even save money in the long term.

    Clearly, not all sectors have the same potential to reduce emissions based on current technological progress, but all have significant room for improvement.

    We calculated that:

    • the electricity sector was on track to cut its emissions by 21% by 2030, but could cut them by nearly 70%
    • transport sector emissions are set to be 29% above 2005 levels by 2030, but with projected technology improvements could be 4% below
    • the land sector is set to hit 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, but with more support for planting could be 103% below – well into “negative emissions” territory. The land sector would then be sucking up carbon and making up for emissions from other sectors.

    How do we get there?

    To ensure a smooth, cost-effective transition to a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050, some sectors will need to do more sooner, to avoid putting too much onus on other sectors where emissions savings are harder and more expensive.

    This will require major upgrades to Australia’s current policy settings. Since 2013 Australia’s efforts to cut emissions have focused largely on the land sector via the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) and the electricity sector through the Renewable Energy Target. With the ERF due to run out of funds soon and no clear energy policy even as our ageing power stations shut down, policy certainty is urgently needed in both these areas to encourage investors.




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    Renewable energy is powering ahead and starting to tap into Australia’s huge potential in clean energy resources. However, ongoing policy support is needed to ensure our energy remains affordable and reliable through the transition.

    Despite the importance of the electricity and land sectors, we need emission reductions throughout the economy. Fortunately, there is plenty that Australia can do to cut emissions further, in many different ways:

    • in the land sector through revegetation and forestation
    • in electricity by increasing renewables and phasing out coal
    • in industry by bolstering energy efficiency, fuel switching and reducing non-energy emissions
    • in transport by introducing vehicle emission standards and shifting to electric vehicles and low-carbon fuels
    • in construction by increasing standards for buildings and appliances.

    With well-targeted policies across all sectors of the economy, we can get back on track and meet our Paris targets.

    Australia’s states and businesses are recognising how much they can and should do. For instance, 80% of Australia’s emissions are in states and territories with goals to reach net zero emissions by 2050, while many large companies and universities are pledging to be carbon-neutral or use 100% renewable energy.

    There is more than enough opportunity, but we have to act now.The Conversation

    Anna Skarbek, CEO at ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University and Anna Malos, Project Manager, climate and energy policy, ClimateWorks Australia

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