The heat is on

The urgent case for climate action

Andrew Leigh

Environment & energy, Government and governance | Australia, The World

15 February 2019

Australia has set a series of concerning climate records this year. What the country desperately needs is effective energy policies, Andrew Leigh writes.

It’s not easy keeping up with the bad news about climate change. Last August, 100 per cent of New South Wales was declared to be in drought. September 2018 was the driest Australian September on record. In ten of the state’s local government areas, day one of the summer fire season was declared in winter – for the first time ever. December 2018 was our hottest recorded December.

And all this happened before the national heatwave of January 2019, which set a whole bunch of unwanted new records. That heatwave gave us six of our ten warmest days in recorded history. In the first two weeks of the year, around a million fish died in the Murray-Darling Basin.

On 15 January, the top 15 temperatures recorded in the world were all reached in Australia. The next day, 16 January, nine new Australian records were set. The town of Noona, in Western NSW, had the hottest overnight minimum ever measured in this country – 35.9 degrees. Adelaide registered its hottest day ever.

Here in Canberra, we had our longest run of consecutive days over 40 degrees – four in a row. To put that in context, between 1973 and 1998, Canberra didn’t have a single 40-degree day at all. Between 1913 and 2006, we reached 40 degrees on a total of just nine days over the course of nearly a whole century. And in the decade since 2007, we’ve had 16 forty degree days.

Mind you, we should spare a thought for the people of Cloncurry, in western Queensland, which recorded 36 consecutive days above forty during the same heatwave. The bitumen roads started to melt; there were reports of car tyres blowing in the heat. To no one’s surprise, the Bureau of Meteorology has now confirmed January 2019 was not only our hottest January ever, but it was also our hottest month since records began.

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The point isn’t just that the news is alarming. The point is that it keeps getting more alarming. Globally, the past four years have been the hottest four years since record-keeping began. Recently, climate scientists predicted that 2019 will be hotter still.

They also predict a high chance of another El Niño event in the coming year, which means that the Great Barrier Reef will be in serious danger of experiencing its third major bleaching event in four years. Prior to the last three years, there’s only been one comparable bleaching event in the whole recorded history of the Reef.

We know that the world is already one degree warmer than it was before industrialisation began. And we know that if current trends continue, that figure is likely to reach two degrees a little over 40 years from now.

The results of crossing that two-degree mark would be catastrophic, according to the experts. Some 99 per cent of the world’s coral reefs would be destroyed. The Arctic sea ice would all but disappear: around once every four years, we could look forward to seeing an Arctic entirely free of ice – a sight modern humans have never seen.

Sea levels would rise by 10 centimetres by the end of the century, displacing tens of millions of people. Mass extinctions of species would occur. The Amazon rainforests would disappear. Extreme events such as floods and droughts would become far more common.

And some experts believe that we would cross a point of no return if we let global warming rise to two degrees. They believe that the earth, having been pushed beyond that tipping point, would be trapped in a feedback loop that would cause it to keep getting hotter, no matter what action we take afterwards.

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Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report called Global Warming of 1.5°C. As the title of that report suggests, 1.5 degrees is now viewed as a kind of magic number among climate scientists. The difference between keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and letting it blow out to two degrees, is now considered to be critical.

If we restrict warming to 1.5 degrees, catastrophe can still be averted. But the world has a lot of work to do if we’re going to achieve that aim. If we were to let global warming continue at its current rate, the 1.5-degree threshold would be crossed sometime between 2030 and 2052, and that catastrophic two-degree figure would be reached around 2060.

So while the goal of stopping warming at 1.5 degrees is still achievable, October’s IPCC report is likely to be the last one issued while this goal is still a realistic one. If we’re going to achieve it, the IPCC has recommended that global greenhouse gas emissions must decline by about 45 per cent by 2030, and reach zero by 2050.

During Labor’s six-year run in office between 2007 and 2013, carbon pollution came down by more than 11 per cent. But under the current government, thanks to a hard-fought effort to avoid implementing any effective climate policies, that progress hasn’t just halted; it’s been shamefully reversed.

Since 2014, greenhouse gas emissions have been rising. There is almost no other advanced economy in the world where this is still happening. Under this government, Australia’s carbon emissions are projected to go on rising until 2030, which is as far as the projections go. In terms of population, Australia doesn’t even rank in the world’s top 50 nations in the world. But in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, we rank in the top 15.

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Obviously, Australia has a serious obligation to do something about this. Not just to be a better world citizen, and a better neighbour to the island nations of the Pacific, but also an urgent matter of self-interest, since it’s clear that this country is already suffering some of the severest impacts of global climate change.

The economics of climate action are clear: we can make a smooth transition starting today, or put our heads in the sand and be forced to make a wrenching transition in the future.

The strange thing about the Liberals’ stance on climate is that it’s not just grossly out of step with the science; it’s also perversely out of step with the concerns of the business community.

In January this year, a survey of a thousand Global Business Leaders found that climate change was number one on their list of the gravest risks facing the planet. “Of all risks,” they said, “it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe.” Recent surveys of Australian company directors reach similar conclusions.

Launching Labor’s energy plan last year, Bill Shorten said, “the single most important thing about energy and climate policy right now is to have one.” Labor’s policy is designed, above all, to be practical; it’s designed to be something we can hit the ground running with. And it’s designed to work, even if the Liberals maintain their climate denialism after the election.

It’s built around two clear and achievable targets: we’ll be cutting pollution by 45 per cent by 2030, and we’ve set a target for 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Both are based on Climate Change Authority advice on Australia’s fair share to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Change Accords.

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Our preference is for a market-based mechanism, supported by both sides of parliament to maximise investor certainty. Recognising the importance of certainty, Labor has consistently offered bipartisanship on this critical issue, and if we’re elected later this year, we plan to offer it one last time.

Bill Shorten has said that he’ll sit down in his first week as Prime Minister and try to work with the opposition to reach agreement about a market-based solution. As a framework for that discussion, we’re willing to put the coalition’s own National Energy Guarantee back on the table.

We don’t think the National Energy Guarantee is perfect. But we know that, desperate for certainty and a policy that can work, every business group in the country supports it. We know that the current treasurer helped to design it, and that the current Prime Minister – when he was treasurer – was a strong advocate for it. So even if it’s not perfect, we think it represents the best hope for a bipartisan agreement for a framework going forward.

Although we’re prepared to work with the Liberals, we’re not going to wait for them. So if the Luddites on the right wing of the Liberal Party dig their heels in again – and judging by their past performance, it will be remarkable if they don’t – then Labor is going to move the country forward without them on board.

Back in 2012, Labor created the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, with an original funding of $10 billion. The Corporation has already proved a great success in channelling funds to new clean power projects. Starting in 2019, we’ll be providing the corporation with an additional $10 billion of funding over five years. The Climate Council has called this commitment “game-changing” and a “huge boost to renewables”.

Out of that $10 billion investment, a billion dollars will be allocated to clean hydrogen projects as part of our national hydrogen strategy. Hydrogen will be a major creator of jobs in this country, and a huge export opportunity. It’s another wave of the future that we can’t afford to miss.

This is one of the important points about clean energy. Even if we leave aside the environmental imperatives, clean energy is a winner in terms of jobs. If we reach 50 per cent renewables by 2030 – and that’s the Labor target – then we’ll be creating up to 60,000 new direct jobs in the clean energy industry, through construction and installation, according to modelling done by the Australia Institute.

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Labor has also set a target of a million new household battery storage systems by 2025. To help Australians get there, we’ll be providing a $2,000 rebate for 100,000 battery installations in households with an income of less than $180,000.

The world is moving relentlessly towards renewable energy. Currently, the world gets two-thirds of its energy from fossil fuels. Bloomberg has projected that this figure will flip over the next 30 years, so that by 2050 we’ll be at two-thirds renewables.

The only question is how long Australia will keep resisting, like an angry old man shouting at the wind. Australia is better placed than almost any other country to flourish in a renewable-powered world, with lower renewable costs and better resources than all our major trading partners. Renewables are the way of the future; but whether Australia embraces this future is another issue.

In January this year, while Australia was sweltering through that heatwave, Scott Morrison happened to be on an official tour of the Pacific Islands. While he was there, the Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, had to remind him that climate change is “no laughing matter” and poses an “enormous” threat to Fijians and Pacific Islanders.

In 2018, a Lowy Institute poll revealed that 59 per cent of Australians regard climate change as “a serious and pressing problem”, while 84 per cent said that the government should focus on renewables.

The future on climate can be a bright one. Whenever I speak at schools, I’m struck by the extent to which young Australians are energised and committed on the issue of climate change. They get the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. They’re excited by solar and wind, by electric cars and hydrogen energy.

Labor shares that passion for building a better world. Perhaps after the next election, Australia will have a government that is as committed to action on climate as young Australians are today.

 

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. This is an edited extract of a speech delivered to the Australian National University’s Climate Update (with thanks to David Free for drafting assistance).

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