Australia needs to commit to target of net-zero emissions by 2050

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons.

After two decades of refusal to acknowledge the science of climate change, it has taken a national bushfire tragedy for policy-makers to wake-up.

From climate change denial to recent acceptance is a remarkable transformation which has both astonished and frustrated climate and health scientists and environmentalists.

However, rather than outlining a comprehensive emissions reduction program, reports last week stated that the Australian Government is planning to take a “technology investment target” to the UN Summit in Glasgow later this year in an attempt to avoid signing up to a net-zero emissions target by 2050. If this is true, it would show there is still a long way to go on the path to redemption.

Acceptance of science must include acceptance that the climate is in crisis and urgent action is essential. Without this caveat, there can be no claim that “we now get climate change”.

Stark realities need to be stated.

Australia must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 in line with the IPCC's guidelines to restrict global-warming to close to 1.5˚C. This requirement is not only our share of the global effort but, being one of the most vulnerable developed countries to the effects of climate change, Australia cannot expect others to provide for its salvation without making its own firm commitments.

Recent climate and extreme weather events of drought and heat which promoted catastrophic bushfires, the smoke pollution that caused respiratory difficulties far afield, dust-storms, wind-storms and torrential downpours are still only a glimpse of the future climate impacts under a business-as-usual scenario.  

For those concerned with our economy, costs of climate impacts have been enormous, are likely to be recurring and are likely to far exceed the costs of transferring to a renewable energy economy.

Costs which are often ignored are those due to the toll on human physical, mental and emotional health. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also deliver huge health co-benefits, resulting in further economic savings.

Not only is human health and well-being under threat but as renowned naturalist David Attenborough states, “we are facing ecological mayhem”. Ocean-warming and acidification continue apace even when the weather around Australia in some regions appears to have forgotten summer.

Insect numbers and pollinators continue to decline. Species reductions and extinctions proceed at alarming rates. While species are resilient to many changes, the pace and extent of change in their environment are now beyond the ability to adapt. How the ecological damage will affect human health in future is a huge unknown but the outcome is unlikely to be favourable.

Can we allow this uncontrolled and potentially irreversible experiment to continue unchecked?                 

With anything less than strong and urgent action – action which signifies an appreciation of climate science – we are facing a bleak future.

So how do we ramp up emissions reduction if we do not pronounce openly that we have an emissions goal, but instead have a “technology investment target”?

Certainly, there is always the added bonus of new technologies enabling emissions reduction but new technologies have a latent period of development. When techniques exist to provide energy free of emissions, it would be more prudent to develop these to the fullest.

Steps which can be taken without delay include, for example, implementation of AEMOs Integrated Systems Plan which would enable established large-scale solar and wind-farms to be employed to their full potential. Multiple other renewable projects already on drawing boards would have the certainty to proceed. These projects will add jobs, will lower electricity prices and will have a positive impact on rural and regional Australia.

Expansion of thermal coal mining for either export or new coal-fired power stations is not an option in line with the global effort to limit warming. For senior politicians to suggest that Australia should continue and even expand its coal industry regardless, as well as being a financial risk, is an abrogation of our duty to our citizens, our neighbours and future generations.

To claim that selling coal overseas from a new coal-mine is similar to our importation of motor vehicles overlooks that one represents an expansion of a polluting industry while the other is an industry which has accepted the need for change to electric vehicles (and would do so more rapidly if our Government gave the appropriate signals).

A technology investment target is just a diversion from an effective emissions reduction target and is not a pathway to redemption.

Dr John Iser is the Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA). You can follow DEA on Twitter @DocsEnvAus.

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