Recent weeks have seen unsurpassed dishonesty and irresponsibility from national political leaders on Australian climate and energy policy – the biggest issue we now face.
The mantra trotted out continually by Government and Opposition alike is that “Coal is part of the national and international energy mix and will be so for decades to come” , parrotting coal industry leaders and lobbyists. Strictly true, but it is a rapidly declining part if we are to meet the requirements of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which Australia ratified on 10th November.
The International Energy Agency’s latest analysis indicates global coal demand falling 50% by 2040 . But facts are irrelevant as this mantra is used to spruik rapid expansion of our own coal production, to maintain “energy security” domestically for example in SA, and to “alleviate poverty” with international exports by developing numerous new coal mines including Adani’s megamine in the Queensland Galilee Basin.
The essential point ignored in this posturing is that we now face risks from global warming far beyond anything acknowledged officially here or overseas.
The Paris Agreement came into force on 4th November. It requires the 195 countries participating to hold global average temperature to “well below 20C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.50C” .
Any balanced assessment of the climate science and evidence accepts that that global warming is driven primarily by human carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, agriculture and land clearing, superimposed on natural climate variability, and that it is happening faster and more extensively than previously anticipated.
In this context, scientists have long been concerned about the extreme “tipping point” risks of the climate system; non-linear positive feedbacks which trigger rapid, irreversible and catastrophic change.
These feedbacks are now kicking in. For example, Arctic weather conditions are becoming increasingly unstable as jetstream fluctuations warm the region 200C or more above normal levels; sea ice is at an all-time low with increasing evidence of methane emissions from melting permafrost . Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting at worst-case rates , with the potential for several metre sea level rise this century.
The Antarctic Larsen ice sheet and Pine Island glacier are showing signs of major breakup as a result of warming Southern Ocean waters, a process which is probably now irreversible . Coral reefs around the world, not least the Great Barrier Reef, are dying off as a result of record high sea temperatures. Major terrestrial carbon sinks are showing signs of becoming carbon emitters. And much more.
The social disruption and economic consequences are already devastating, leading to extensive forced migration and economic collapse in some countries. The refugee crisis engulfing Europe, emanating from Syria and North Africa, is fundamentally climate change driven and a precursor of greater conflict ahead.
Without rapid carbon emission reductions far greater than Paris commitments, the planet will become ungovernable. Yet none of this rates a mention in our Orwellian parliamentary debates, which continue in blithe ignorance, or deliberate distortion, of the facts.
Dangerous climate change, which the Paris Agreement and its forerunners seek to avoid, is happening at the 1.20C increase already experienced. It is now impossible to stay below the 1.50C Paris aspiration. To have a realistic chance, say 90%, of staying below even 20C, means that no new fossil fuel projects can be built globally, that existing operations, particularly coal, have to be rapidly replaced with low carbon alternatives, and that carbon sequestration technologies which do not currently exist have to be rapidly deployed at scale  . Most dangerously, the climate impact of investments made today do not manifest themselves for decades to come. If we wait for catastrophe to happen, as we are doing, it will be too late to act.
This transition is unprecedented. We have the technology, the expertise and wealth to make it happen. What we lack is the maturity to set aside political ideologies, short-term corporate expediency and sheer stupidity to cooperate in the national interest.
And most importantly, time. Any realistic chance of avoiding catastrophic outcomes, requires emergency action to force the pace of change, starting with a serious price on carbon to remove the massive subsidy propping up fossil fuels. The last thing the world needs is a new coal province as Adani proposes in Queensland. Or any other new coal mines, CSG or oil and gas expansion. Massive poverty would be created not alleviated.
The irony is that this transition is the greatest investment opportunity the world has ever seen, from which Australia is better placed to benefit than virtually any other country.
So what will break the stalemate created by dysfunctional politics and corporate vested interests so disgustingly on display in recent days? Community anger, as natural disasters escalate, the true cost of this abysmal failure of national leadership becomes blindingly obvious and the future of our children and grandchildren is thrown away.
Ian Dunlop was formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chair of the Australian Coal Association and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He is a Member of the Club of Rome.
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