Hewson's View: Australia a climate ‘laggard’

This week saw the release of yet another disturbing report on the state of the global response to climate change, the 2018 Emissions Gap Report by UN Environment, following on the heels of the latest, damning, IPCC report a few weeks ago.

The report reveals that global emissions have hit a historic high and show “no signs of peaking”.

Australia is listed as one of the countries that won’t meet its Paris emissions reduction commitments, in our case a 26-28 per cent reduction by 2030.

Message to government: Hundreds of Canberra students protested outside Parliament House on Wednesday asking for climate change action. Thousands more, worried about their future, are striking around the country this week. Photo: Karleen Minney

Message to government: Hundreds of Canberra students protested outside Parliament House on Wednesday asking for climate change action. Thousands more, worried about their future, are striking around the country this week. Photo: Karleen Minney

“There has been no improvement in Australia's climate policy since 2017 and emission levels for 2030 are projected to be well above the [Nationally Determined Contribution] target,” the report states.

This assessment is directly at odds with the statement made by Prime Minister Morrison in response to the release of the IPCC report that we would easily meet our Paris commitments “in a canter”.

A particularly disturbing assessment in the report is that global efforts need to be tripled by 2030 to hold warming at 2C, and ramped up five-fold for warming to remain at 1.5C.

Clearly, the world needs to move faster and with greater urgency just to meet the Paris commitments, but these commitments are still well above what should be the global objective of at least net zero emissions by 2050, if not net negative.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that our then independent Climate Change Authority advised the then government that our Paris objective should be about double what was committed.

However, the 26-28 per cent target was welcomed at the time as it was feared that the climate denying Abbott government wouldn’t be prepared to commit to any target. In the end they did commit as one of the 195 countries that signed the Paris Agreement in 2015.

It should be a national concern that we are identified as a “laggard” in this report, especially given the very constructive “leadership” role we played in the development of the Kyoto Protocol in the 1980s.

Although our emissions are a small contributor to the total global challenge, we rate as one of the highest per capita emitters in the world, and are the second largest exporter of fossil fuels (coal and LNG) in the world. We are therefore seen globally as having an important role to play.

Moreover, with an enviable natural endowment of wind and solar resources, and Australian owned and developed technologies to produce base load electricity and to store it at globally competitive prices, short-term politicking over the last 2-3 decades, that has seriously delayed a host of projects, has cost us dearly in terms of billions of dollars of investment, and tens of thousands of jobs.

 How nationally embarrassing is it to now be assessed as a “laggard”, when we could so easily have been a “leader”, and enjoying very significant national economic and social benefits?

I recently hosted, in my role as Chair of the Australian Council, the Chief of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development in Sydney who was somewhat surprised that we are still debating in this country whether or not we should be making the transition to a low carbon society. He said in Europe the total focus is now on the management of the transition path, and on how it can be expedited.

Of course, our households have moved way ahead of our politicians in rolling out rooftop solar, with now the highest penetration in the world, and increasingly with storage. Many businesses are now also moving ahead, not waiting for governments.

However, the electricity sector accounts for only about a third of our total emissions – transport, agriculture, fugitive emissions from mining, land clearing, etc make up the majority.

Climate will certainly be a dominant issue at the next federal election.

Unfortunately, we lag even more noticeably in say transport where we don’t go anywhere near matching the vehicle emissions standards of Europe and the US, and we are well behind in the adoption of electric vehicles.

 As evidenced in the recent Wentworth by-election, voters want an effective Climate Action Plan. Political parties forfeit their right to govern without one. Climate will certainly be a dominant issue at the next federal election now scheduled for May next year. The Morrison government can’t hope to win on this issue by continuing to deny the undeniable.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.