On current trends, Australia will reach carbon neutrality — in 300 years

Brisbane climate rally in February 2020. Photo: Vincent Railton

The federal government’s commitment to a gas-led recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, supported by the Labor opposition, means that Australia is on track to reach net zero emissions in 300 years.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and Bureau of Meteorology’s biennial State of the Climate 2020 report, released last November, found that on average Australia’s climate had warmed 1.44°C since records started in 1910.

This warming is responsible for an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events, it said, and a decline in rainfall, ranging from 12–20% since 1970, depending on the time of year and part of the country.

The report also noted an increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season, particularly in southern Australia. Oceans are acidifying and have warmed by 1°C since 1910. It confirmed that sea levels are rising and that this results in more frequent extremes, which risk inundation and damage to coastal infrastructure and communities.

None of this is new to those who have been following the science. Australia’s refusal to act on the basis of the science, however, is becoming increasingly newsworthy.

Australia was not invited to the December Climate Ambition Summit, co-convened by the United Nations, Britain and France in partnership with Chile and Italy. This is because, as a step along the road to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), scheduled for Glasgow in November, only those countries that had made or had committed to make new commitments to deliver on the 2015 Paris Agreement to stay under 1.5°C warming were invited.

After bragging he would be addressing the December summit, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was not given a speaking spot. In fact, Australia was not invited to attend.

After that, a petulant Morrison told parliament on its last sitting day for 2020 he would not be changing domestic policy “to get to a speaking slot at some international summit”.

Morrison thought his announcement that Australia would not “need” to use its carry-over carbon credits (considered illegal by most countries) to achieve its Paris goals would earn it a speaking spot.

The UN thought differently, also because Australia has said it did not need to strengthen its low 2030 emission’s target — which is 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

In fact, Australia has refused to even set a net zero emissions target — for any year. It has also withdrawn from the UN Green Climate Fund despite agreeing to contribute.

The Climate Council estimates that, on current trends, Australia won’t reach net zero emissions for 300 years.

The countries that were invited to participate in the UN summit, together with those expected to make new carbon draw-down commitments early this year, represent about 70% of the world’s GDP and about 65% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The European Union, Japan and South Korea, together with more than 110 other countries, have committed to reaching net zero emissions (carbon neutrality) by 2050. China says it will do so before 2060. The United States under President Joe Biden has pledged to honour the Paris accord.

The UN said 2010–19 was the warmest decade on record. It said, on the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, the global temperature is expected to rise by 3–5°C by the end of century.

“To avoid the worst of warming (maximum 1.5°C rise), the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent per year between 2020 and 2030. Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2 per cent.”

Climate Action Tracker said that while emissions are estimated to be lower in 2020 compared with 2019 as a result of the pandemic, the reductions in energy-related emissions are “mainly temporary or with a small impact”. It said investment in renewable energy had significantly increased in recent years, but declined significantly in 2020 as a result of “policy uncertainty, regulatory risks, issues related to grid connectors, and the lack of network investment”.

Australia needs to make a serious commitment to net zero emissions by 2030 — not 2050. With the Morrison government committed to a “gas-led” recovery, we have a battle on our hands.

[Sarah Hathway is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]