Opinion Pieces


December 19, 2019

While communities struggle with unprecedented fire emergencies, some Coalition politicians and media commentators still deny this has anything to do with climate change. Yes, Australia has always experienced bushfires and drought. But our own scientists have been telling us for years that climate change is driving longer, more frequent and intense droughts and fire seasons that are affecting more parts of Australia.

This is not a “new normal”. If average temperatures continue to climb, the “new normal” will be even worse and we will see other dramatic impacts emerge.

Last year, the world’s scientists reported 2C of global warming would destroy more than 99 per cent of the world’s coral reefs, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And the world is tracking well beyond just 2C of warming.

Australia’s responsibility under the Paris Agreement is to reduce the emissions produced in Australia. But, as the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas, we are highly exposed to any action the rest of the world takes to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. And it’s an inescapable fact: to meet the commitments of the Paris climate agreement, the world needs to transition off fossil fuels.

The global energy industry itself recently reported that meeting the 2C commitment from Paris would see thermal coal demand plummet by 40 per cent by 2030 and two-thirds by 2040. Coking coal (used to make steel) would be expected to drop by 30 per cent by 2030 and by half by 2040.

The future of Australia’s export coalmines and liquefied natural gas plants won’t be determined by decisions taken in Canberra. These are private operations whose future will be shaped by decisions taken in Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi and the capitals of our other trading partners, as well as by the pace of technological innovation in industries such as steelmaking.

The responsibility of Australian governments is to be honest with the community about these issues and alive to the need to support regions that will be affected by decisions taken overseas.

The world’s nations must lift their ambition around emissions reduction if we are to have a chance of meeting the Paris Agreement commitments to keep global warming well below 2C and to pursue efforts around a 1.5C threshold.

Unsurprisingly, the Morrison government’s performance on climate change has been panned at the Madrid climate conference. The annual Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia dead last on climate policy. Scott Morrison’s performance on climate policy ranks below Donald Trump’s, and lower than Tony Abbott ever achieved.

The latest official government emissions data confirms Australia will not meet our Kyoto commitment to cut emissions by 5 per cent by next year. In fact, our emissions reduction will amount to little more than a rounding error of 0.3 per cent, putting the lie to the Prime Minister’s claim that we are meeting and beating our international commitments.

And the government’s own data suggests our emissions will come down during the next 10 years by only less than 5 per cent. At that rate, it will take Australia 230 years to reach net zero emissions, rather than the 30 years scientists tell us is necessary.

Labor consistently has set climate policy around the best scientific advice and our international commitments. Australia’s challenge is to transform our own energy, transport, industrial and land sectors through clean energy technology. Our unparalleled clean energy resources give us an enormous competitive advantage in the clean economy of the 21st century, bringing extensive jobs and investment if we get our policy settings right.

I don’t buy the argument that our emissions are too small to matter. While Australia doesn’t rank in the top 50 of the world’s nations by population, we do rank in the top 15 by total emissions. We produce more emissions per person than any other OECD nation. As one of the world’s wealthiest nations, if we won’t act, who should?

Australia finds itself in the middle of a climate emergency — one that threatens to get even worse for our children and grandchild­ren. It’s beyond time for an honest debate and some real action.

This was first published in The Australian on Thursday, 19 December 2019.