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One cheer for Labor’s 2050 zero net emissions target

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Labor leader Anthony Albanese is pushing for Australia to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (Screenshot via YouTube)

If Labor plans to keep its promise of emission reductions by 2050, serious action must be taken as time is running out, writes Professor John Quiggin.

EVER SINCE Labor’s surprise loss in last year’s Federal Election, the party has been in full retreat from its commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement (that is, global reductions sufficient to hold the increase in global mean temperatures below two degrees and ideally no more than 1.5 degrees). Even the catastrophic bushfires of the last six months, arguably the most dramatic manifestation of climate change so far, failed to produce any real commitment to action.

In this context, Labor’s commitment to a target of zero net emissions has attracted plenty of criticism. The alarmist claims of the political Right, that such a target would be economically catastrophic, can be dismissed as the nonsense they are.  Before moving to more serious problems with Labor’s position, it’s worth pointing out the positives.

Labor’s 2050 target is the same as that agreed by the EU. Given that the EU leads the world in reducing emissions, criticisms that the target is not ambitious enough seem unreasonable. It is true that the amount of carbon dioxide that will be emitted if the world goes to zero emissions by 2050 exceeds the budget consistent with a 1.5-degree warming target. 

That means that beyond 2050, it will be necessary to achieve negative net emissions of greenhouse gases. Beyond the obvious option of reforestation, this could be achieved through a gradual decline in concentrations of methane, the second most important greenhouse gas. As methane emissions remain in the atmosphere for only about 12 years on average, reductions in emissions would be reflected in lower atmospheric concentrations relatively quickly. 

One source of methane emissions, “fugitive” emissions from the production of natural gas, particularly by fracking, would be eliminated in the course of a transition to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. The others, such as from ruminant animals and paddy fields for rice could be reduced by changes in diet and farming practices.

Beyond these approaches, there are more exotic and probably more extensive possible approaches to direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Perhaps by 2050 these will be more feasible. For the moment it seems more useful to focus on the next 30 years.

A more pragmatic but politically potent implication of aligning ourselves with the EU is that it will be a necessary condition for a free trade agreement. The Morrison Government is currently trying to negotiate such an agreement with the EU. It is discovering, to its astonishment and dismay, that the denialist rhetoric it adopts at home does not work internationally and that the EU has no intention of allowing its domestic producers to be undersold by climate cheats. By committing to the 2050 target, Labor is well-positioned to exploit the Government’s likely failure in this area.

The problem here for Labor is that 2050 is only 30 years away. If net emissions are to be reduced to zero by then, we’ll need to end sales of internal combustion-engined vehicles by 2040, as already announced by the UK and France — perhaps even earlier. That means the shift to electric vehicles will have to be well underway by 2030, exactly as Labor proposed at the 2019 Election. 

The extra demand associated with all those vehicles implies the need for a more rapid expansion of renewable electricity generation, which will have to start almost immediately. So, even though Labor has disavowed the idea of a more ambitious 2030 target, its 2050 commitment implies one. This contradiction will have to be resolved sooner or later.

Similarly, although Labor is backing away from a carbon price, the question “how much will it cost?” has the obvious answer: “much less if done with a carbon price than any other way”. In fact, it is now evident that the benefits of a global reduction in emissions will far exceed the costs to Australia of our share of the task, assuming we take the cost-effective route of carbon pricing, backed up by regulation where necessary.

The remaining big issue is that of coal exports. There seems little chance that Labor will take any action to reduce exports, even of thermal coal. However, Australian government policy is only one of many points of pressure that can be applied by civil society, here and in the countries that buy our coal. We need pressure on financial institutions to divest from coal, support for campaigns against new coal-fired power stations and efforts to shut down existing power stations, particularly those responsible for deadly urban air pollution.

To sum up, if its logical implications are followed through, Labor’s 2050 target implies a commitment to serious climate action now. It remains to be seen whether this will be forthcoming.

Professor John Quiggin is an Independent Australia columnist and an economist and Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland. You can follow him on Twitter @johnquiggin.

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