At long last! Climate Change figures in the debate

After a long election campaign of some 7 months, including a change of leader and many policy debates, Climate Change finally raised its head on Monday – just three days before the media blackout.

The most important issue! And ne where the main parties differ:-  How to deal with Climate Change. There are two parts to this:- one is how to mitigate (reduce emissions) and the other is how to adapt. Adaptation has not raised a single question during the entire campaign. Not even the Greens have raised this issue or perhaps the media have failed to report such. But I will focus on mitigation as that has been the main part of the political debate for a long time.

First, lets look at the target: 5% is agreed by both Labor and Coalition parties, that is, 5% reduction on Australia’s year 2000 emissions by 2020. The argument is that this is a lot as on projections for increased demand in recent years, we would have increased our emissions by around 10% between 2008 and 2020 under the business as usual scenario. It should be pointed out that this is a 4% reduction on 1990 emissions – a woeful target when compared to the EU which has already reduced their emissions from 1990 levels by 11% and plan to reduce a further 10% or so by 2020.

What is to happen after 2020? Simply, we must drive emissions cuts further down beyond the 2020 target towards a totally carbon free economy. The target agreed by the world’s governments, to stay under 2 degrees rise, appears already to be outside of our ability. In any case we must do as much as can be humanly achieved to cut emissions or rue our neglect when the damage becomes too large to ignore.

Scientists have calculated that if we peak global emissions in 2015 we must cut at 5.3% per year to stay under the 2 degree safety limit. If we delay the peak until 2020 we must cut at 9% per year to stay under the same limit. As you can see the longer we wait the harder it gets to meet the target. These cuts are not impossible, but a rate of 9% per year will cause much more economic disruption than 5.3%.

Of course, these cuts have to continue past 2020 and get deeper into the 2030’s. Deeper cutting of emissions when we have already cut the easy emissions, the low hanging fruit, will be increasingly difficult. For example, cement production causes around 5% of global emissions and we don’t yet have a viable alternative to portland cement for making concrete. Alternatives are under development, but considerable research is yet required to get the alternatives to the large scale market.

So, to return to the political debate, Tony Abbott wants to be prime minister after Saturday. He has stated that the election is a referendum on the carbon tax (meaning a price on carbon) and he means to regard a win as a mandate to cut the program. I believe he thinks it is a referendum on global warming. He states he will remove the carbon pricing scheme on the first day in office and instigate a “direct action” program to achieve the 5% cut (agreed by both Labor and the Coalition). He appears to have no plan for what happens after 2020 when cuts must continue on the 15% and then to 30%.

The direct action program will be funded to $3.2 billion. He does not believe he will need to spend any more than that to achieve the 5% and has said he will not increase the amount to be spent. He has admitted that if the 5% target does not look like being achieved, he will abandon the target.

Comparing this to the scientific targets for the global reductions needed to stay under the 2 degree increase leads to the conclusion that he is not serious about making the necessary changes to our economy. Under the Coalition, we will not meet our international obligations or our responsibilities towards our descendants.

The only way I can see that Mr Abbott could ethically take this position is if he did not believe that our scientists are right about the contribution of fossil fuels to the warming of our planet. That he has rejected the 97% of scientific consensus for the crazy extremist view that its all a scare campaign.

Unfortunately, it is not just a few scientists making it all up to get research money. Global Warming is a fully accepted, well established science that measures changes so far, relates the changes to green house gases already emitted and shows unequivocally that we are headed for disaster if we burn our current fossil fuel reserves.

The Climate Institute stated recently that there was “no publicly available evidence” that the Coalition’s policies and funding could achieve the 5% target, and said if the Coalition wasn’t prepared to spend more money it would have to reduce emissions further through government regulation.

Modelling by Sinclair Knight Merz/MMA for the Climate Institute found the Coalition would have to find at least another $4bn for its climate policy or else break its pledge to cut emissions by 5% by 2020 and instead allow them to increase by 9%.

Modelling by Reputex climate analytics, commissioned by the environmental group WWF-Australia, found the funding would fall short by $5.9bn a year between 2015 and 2020, or between $20bn and $35bn in total.

What should the parties be proposing? They should be planning for the replacement of our fossil fuel electricity network with renewable energy. They should be driving cuts towards targets of 205 or 40% reductions by 2030 with further cuts to 90% by 2050. Where are the parties plans to do this?

Altogether, it is currently not a good position for Australia. We already sit very high on the world rankings, both for emissions per person and for emissions as a country. If our exports of fossil fuels (particularly coal) are included, we are responsible for more emissions than many developed nations with populations many times our size.

Other nations already cutting emissions or planning to do so or sweating on the impacts of climate change on their populations, look to Australia for leadership. When will we start showing such leadership?

A change of government due to an unpopular political situation should not result in such a serious outcome for the future. The stakes are simply too high. It therefore becomes imperative that the party promising the most action on climate change be elected.

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