IPCC: This is the last chance to avoid catastrophe

IPCC: This is the last chance to avoid catastrophe


There is nothing equivocal about the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is the earth’s last chance to avoid climate disaster.

The world will likely exceed 1.5 degrees of warming within a decade and is on track to a catastrophic 3.2 degrees by the end of the century, the report says, unless there are “immediate and deep” cuts in fossil fuel extraction and use.

“Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.

“The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

This week’s IPCC “synthesis report” collates the work of six previous reports, involving 700 scientists over six years, drawing on tens of thousands of scientific studies. It was signed off by 195 countries, including Australia.

It makes for disturbing reading but also offers a sliver of hope. “The 1.5-degree limit is achievable,” says the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, “but it will take a quantum leap in climate action.”

The report, Guterres says, provides a “survival guide for humanity”, a “how-to guide to defuse the climate time bomb”.

Specifically, he says, it requires that all countries stop all funding for coal and phase out its use by 2030 in developed countries and 2040 in other countries. Electricity generation must be net zero by 2035 for developed countries and by 2040 for the rest of the world. He says governments should redirect existing subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energy and the world must immediately stop all new oil and gas projects and any expansion of existing oil and gas.

Yet the Australian government, along with many others, is not doing what the IPCC says must be done. While the Albanese government plans to meet 82 per cent of electricity demand from renewables by 2030, there will still be some coal generation in the system beyond that date. Fossil fuel subsidies, both state and federal, continue. They totalled $11.6 billion in 2021-22.

Most importantly, both the Labor federal government and Coalition opposition remain intractably opposed to halting new fossil fuel extraction. Australia is already the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas and the second-largest coal exporter. The bipartisan position is that we should mine more.

At the most recent count there were 116 new fossil fuel projects on the federal government’s Resource & Energy Major Project list, which, according to analysis by The Australia Institute this week, would add 4.8 billion tonnes of emissions to the atmosphere by 2030. Put another way, these new projects would produce 24 times more emissions than the reduction promised by the government’s proposed safeguard mechanism.

The government excuses its encouragement of new and expanded coal and gas developments on the basis that the overwhelming bulk of emissions from burning those fuels would be released outside Australia, and therefore would not count against our emissions reduction target. That ignores the fact greenhouse gases do not observe national boundaries, and that the IPCC, along with the International Energy Agency and other multilateral bodies, says all new developments must stop, now. The only Australian political party that holds this position is the Greens.

The politics of the issue are becoming very willing as the government presses for the passage of legislation for its safeguard mechanism, which would force 215 of Australia’s biggest climate polluters to progressively reduce their emissions.

No doubt the mechanism represents a significant advance on the climate policy of the previous Coalition government, but it would cut Australia’s total emissions by only about 215 million tonnes, or 8 per cent, by 2030, at best.

The Greens are under internal pressure, including from former party leader Bob Brown, to vote against the safeguard mechanism unless the government also acts against new fossil fuel developments. Given that the Coalition parties are resolved to vote against the proposed legislation, the 12 Greens votes, plus one crossbench vote, would be sufficient to defeat it.

As Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen observed this week, it would be “pretty ironic” if those senators who support greater climate action were to vote the same way as the Liberal and National parties, which want less.“Every tonne of emissions matters and every fraction of a degree of warming matters … The challenge will always be to cut our emissions as quickly as possible.”

There also is countervailing pressure from more moderate elements of the Greens party, major conservation organisations and other climate activists to pass the safeguard mechanism legislation, on the basis that it is at least a small step in the right direction.

Greens parliamentarians, along with most crossbenchers in both houses, are also harshly critical of the fact that the government’s proposal would allow companies subject to the safeguard mechanism to avoid cleaning up their facilities and instead buy carbon offsets to cover up to 100 per cent of their emissions. According to credible critics, a substantial proportion of those offsets do not represent real, additional abatement. A variety of amendments have been proposed to try to address the major flaws in the government’s proposal.

“Right now the safeguard mechanism does more to safeguard the fossil fuel industry than it does to safeguard our climate and our future,” said one of those crossbenchers, Sophie Scamps, this week.

Under the terms of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, informed by the IPCC’s 2014 synthesis report, most of the world’s nations promised to “substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius while pursuing efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5 degrees”.

We inhabit a planet in peril. Our once temperate world is locked on course to become a hothouse entirely of our own making.

Hothouse Earth: an Inhabitant’s Guide provides a post-COP26 perspective on the climateemergency, acknowledging that it is now practically impossible to keep this side of the1.5C dangerous climate change guardrail. The upshot is that we can no longer dodge thearrival of disastrous, all-pervasive climate breakdown that will come as a hammer blow toglobal society and economy.

Bill McGuire, Professor of Geophysical and Climate Hazards, explains the science behindthe climate crisis, painting a blunt but authentic picture of the sort of world our childrenwill grow old in, and our grandchildren grow up in; a world that we catch only glimpses ofin today’s blistering heatwaves, calamitous wildfires and ruinous floods and droughts.

Bleak though it is, the picture is one we must all face up to, if only to spur genuine action- even at this late stage – to stop a harrowing future becoming a truly cataclysmic one.
Hothouse Earth

Since then, though, says the new report, “observed impacts, improved process understanding, and new knowledge on exposure and vulnerability of human and natural systems, including limits to adaptation,” has shown that the consequences of even small increases in temperature are far more serious than previously thought.

Indeed, you don’t have to be a scientist to see it. It’s in the news every day: melting glaciers and ice shelves, more intense storms, accelerating sea-level rise, dying coral reefs, unprecedented fires, floods, droughts, famine, record heat – the list goes on.

Some 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in parts of the world – mostly poor nations – identified by the IPCC as “highly vulnerable” to climate change. Between 2010 and 2020, says the report, human mortality from floods, droughts and storms was 15 times higher in those places than in regions with very low vulnerability.

This is happening now, with an average global temperature increase, to date, of 1.1 degrees. In that sense, the 1.5 number is arbitrary, just one point on a continuum of ever more severe consequences as temperatures rise.

In reality, says Zebedee Nicholls, a research fellow at Melbourne Climate Futures at the University of Melbourne, who worked on the IPCC report, “every tonne of emissions matters and every fraction of a degree of warming matters … The challenge will always be to cut our emissions as quickly as possible”.

That said, the IPCC report does present 1.5 degrees as the threshold between the dire and the catastrophic.

“Above 1.5°C of global warming, limited freshwater resources pose potential hard adaptation limits for small islands and for 17 regions dependent on glacier and snow melt,” it says. “Above that level, ecosystems such as some warm-water coral reefs, coastal wetlands, rainforests, and polar and mountain ecosystems will have reached or surpassed hard adaptation limits.”

As of the end of 2020, the report notes, the emissions reduction policy promises made by the world’s governments are consistent with two degrees of warming.

The difference between what governments have committed to and what the science says is necessary, says Nicholls, is called the “ambition gap”. While that half-degree gap does not look large on paper, the real-world consequences are, as the above quotes from the IPPC show, dramatic.

There is another gap, too, says Nicholls: “the implementation gap, which is the gap between countries’ ambitions and what they’re actually doing on the ground”.

The collective failure of world governments to keep even their inadequate promises, says the IPCC, has the world heading towards a 3.2 degree rise by 2100.

To get some idea of what this could mean, not just in the near future but for millennia to come, consider sea-level rise. Over the first 70 years of last century, the oceans rose by an average 1.3 millimetres a year. Since 2006, the rate has almost trebled to 3.7 millimetres.

That might not seem much, but the rate continues to increase and the seas will keep rising whatever we do. It is, says the IPCC report, “unavoidable for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt and sea levels will remain elevated for thousands of years”.

It is beyond human power to stop it, but we can limit it. If warming were restricted to 1.5 degrees, says the report, sea levels might go up less than two metres over the next 2000 years and less than six metres if limited to 2 degrees. An increase of between two and three degrees would see much greater rise as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets “almost completely and irreversibly” melted.

A worst-case scenario could see as much as a two-metre rise by the end of this century and 15 metres by 2300.

That is unlikely but, says the report, “current 1-in-100 year extreme sea level events are projected to occur at least annually in more than half of all tide gauge locations by 2100 under all considered scenarios”.

Not only will the seas continue to rise but, because they are rising and creating hotter seas, they will also fuel stronger storms. The oceans are becoming more acidic and deoxygenated, too, which has already adversely affected fisheries and aquaculture.

The tragedies resulting from climate change go on and on.

Extreme heat is killing people and will kill more. Climate-related food shortages and water-borne diseases are increasing.

Already, says the report, “roughly half of the world’s population currently experience severe water scarcity for at least part of the year due to a combination of climatic and non-climatic drivers”. This will get worse.

“Continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation, and very wet and very dry weather and climate events and seasons”, affecting food and water security.

Extreme weather is increasingly driving human displacement across Africa, Asia, North America and Central and South America. The consequences of rising temperature are myriad and addressing them will be complex, but the root cause is simple: the burning of fossil fuels, which Australia has in abundance.

We are also among the world’s most profligate users of them: 18.9 tonnes per capita in 2022, according to government figures. If we were held responsible for the emissions from our exports, that figure would be several times higher.

Which brings us back to domestic politics and the government’s excuses for its refusal to stop new fossil fuel projects.

One, as already noted, is that the emissions from our exports are not counted as Australian emissions.

Another excuse offered by government is that Australia needs to mine more gas to generate electricity, to see us through the transition to renewable energy. In noting this, it is important to remember the position of the IPCC and the Greens is not that we should shut down existing production, only new production.

The government’s argument is specious. Australia produces plenty of gas, it’s just that we export more than 70 per cent of it.

Even so, says Bruce Robertson, gas industry analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the country has “over eight years of fully developed reserves” available for domestic supply, without diverting any from the export stream.

Those figures are based on the assumption we keep burning gas at historical rates. In reality, the Australian Energy Market Operator is forecasting that gas usage in power generation will decline by 34 per cent by 2030.

As Robertson says: “We don’t need more gas for the transition.”

Australia would need a whole lot less gas still if the government got serious about moving households to electric heating, cooling and cooking.

Replacing gas with electricity, says Bruce Mountain, an energy economist and head of the Victoria Energy Policy Centre at Victoria University, would be expensive and “quite a big, technically complex implementation task”.

“But it’s eminently financable through government and private sector.”

It comes down to a question of priorities, he says. The government is not willing to spend the hundreds of billions needed for that energy transition but is prepared to spend hundreds of billions on nuclear submarines – which we are unlikely ever to use.

“The AUKUS deal is a nice number,” Mountain says. “And I think it’ll get used as a benchmark for all sorts of things, and quite reasonably so.”

On Tuesday, Chris Bowen put out a media release responding to the IPCC’s new report, saying it “confirms what we already know” – that the window for action was closing, that global warming has increased at an unprecedented rate over the past decade, and that by the 2030s “every region in the world is expected to face increasing risks from climate change”.

The release went on to boast that the government had “legislated Australia’s 43% emissions reduction target by 2030, along with net zero by 2050, supercharging a new offshore wind industry and delivering the $20 billion Rewiring the Nation investment to decarbonise our grid…”

A 43 per cent emissions target is big, especially compared to the 28 per cent target of the previous government, but it is well below what the IPCC and other experts say is needed. This week at the National Press Club the former head of the government’s Energy Security Board, Dr Kerry Schott, argued for an emissions reduction target of 70 per cent by 2035.

Bowen’s media release continued: “If passed, our Safeguard reforms will come into effect in just 101 days from now. And with only 82 months left before 2030 – it is critical that we seize every possible day of the remaining decade to drive down emissions.”

There can be no questioning that he is right, and that every day is critical. The IPPC makes that plain. What is in doubt is his plan for getting there. Even if the government passes the safeguard mechanism, and it achieves what he claims it will, that will not be enough. The world needs much more, much sooner. As the IPCC outlines: this is our last chance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2023 as “IPCC: This is the last chance to avoid catastrophe”.

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