Australian leaders need to step up, put party politics to one side and make the decisions required to help the world stop sliding into a global warming catastrophe. By Zali Steggall.

Australia must act now to raise climate targets

A coal-fired power station.
Coal-fired Bayswater Power Station near Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley, NSW.
Credit: AAP Image / Mark Baker

At the recent Climate Ambition Summit in New York, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that while the world was currently headed towards a catastrophic temperature rise of 2.8 degrees Celsius, it was still possible to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. He declared it was up to the world’s leaders to write a future of clean air, green jobs and affordable clean power for all.

Guterres offered a message of hope amid all the dire warnings, emphasising there was still a small window of opportunity to avoid tipping points that would significantly affect the ability of our planet to sustain civilisation and life itself. And the summit focused more sharply than ever on fossil fuels as the biggest culprit of global heating. “We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels,” Guterres said.

Human-induced global warming is a global emergency. The UN’s warnings should be a rallying call for world leaders to prioritise climate action and resilience-building measures to protect our communities from the impending threats.

That includes Australia’s leaders.

The government’s modest policies will not drive the scale of change required to secure a safe planet for future generations. There is a serious lack of detail, urgency and ambition with our current targets. Australia is ranked a lowly 55th out of 63 nations for climate action.

Australia needs to commit to a minimum of 75 per cent emissions reduction by 2035 to stay true to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

The scientific advice is that Australia’s legislated 43 per cent emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 will not get us to net zero by 2050. While the government admits this is a “floor not a ceiling”, global climate tipping points are approaching faster than previously understood. That means our efforts to reduce emissions must also accelerate to meet the escalating threat.

Britain has legislated 78 per cent reduction by 2035 and the European Union  aims to be climate-neutral by 2050. This month, the EU has also legislated a carbon border tax, or carbon tariff, on carbon-intensive products that are imported into the bloc.

We need a significant step change, with more ambitious sectoral targets and a regulatory framework that incentivises rapid transition across all sectors of the economy. States are already taking action, with Victoria committing to 75-80 per cent emissions reduction by 2035, and net zero by 2045, and New South Wales promising a 50 per cent reduction by 2030. Tasmania has a plan for maintaining net zero emissions from the end of this decade.

It shouldn’t be a difficult conversation, because the biggest driver of cost-of-living increases will ultimately be climate change. Food, transport and insurance, to name just a few, will skyrocket from the ever-increasing physical impacts of global heating. And the longer Australia takes to get to net zero, the greater the transition costs.

By setting strong sectoral targets, each industry will have a clear understanding of its path to help us reach net zero. The government recently referred sectoral pathways to the Climate Change Authority, but it is only required to report back by August 1, 2024, to assist the government in preparing a 2050 plan. This is too little, too late. This is not emergency-level action.

Speaking at an earlier parliamentary briefing, Martijn Wilder, now the National Reconstruction Fund chairman, said Australia would need a wartime-like effort to decarbonise, which in turn could benefit the nation with the development of new industries and opportunities.

Official figures published in the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory report in late August show that in the year to March 2023, overall emissions in Australia increased. Despite the strong rhetoric about electric vehicles, transport emissions are up 6.4 per cent. With transport contributing about 20 per cent of Australia’s total emissions, there should be some urgency in this sector. However, 15 months on from the election Australia is one of only two OECD countries (the other being Russia) that still do not have vehicle emissions standards.

Agriculture emissions, which accounted for about 14-16 per cent of total emissions, are also up 3.2 per cent, and the recent Intergenerational Report notes productivity losses alone from climate change will cost the Australian economy $423 billion over 40 years.

If the government is serious about its bid to host COP31, it will need to convince the international community that Australia is committed to decarbonisation. Our Pacific neighbour co-hosts, whose homelands are some of the first affected by rising sea levels and severe weather, are calling for a delay in international support until Australia stops approving new and expanded fossil fuel projects.

New fossil fuel projects are accelerating global heating and threaten Australia’s environment and communities. Since winning last year’s election the government has approved four new or expanded coalmines. Just last week the Federal Court dismissed legal action against Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek’s assessments of two coalmine expansions in NSW. Despite the minister’s acknowledgement that coal extraction and burning has contributed to the adverse impacts of climate change, the latest judgement found Plibersek had not breached her duties by declining to consider potential environmental harm in her review.

The minister has made no decision on these projects as yet, but if this obvious omission is legal, it’s clear our environment laws and climate policies are not fit for the times.

And what about the opposition? The Coalition is staying resolutely silent on any prospect of revising its 2030 target for emissions reduction, which remains at 26-28 per cent. Instead, it has opposed every small measure the government has proposed to date and is now running a “dead cat” strategy pursuing nuclear energy. With wind and solar energy already far cheaper, experts agree nuclear power makes no economic sense. The protracted build time for nuclear – which stretches to at least a decade – benefits the Coalition politically, enabling it to sow confusion about the direction of transition and delay the phasing out of coal and gas even longer, maintaining the profits of some of its biggest donors. The National Party’s federal member for Lyne, David Gillespie, told parliament this week: “Renewable energy is cheap if you can get it, but all the grid costs, all the land use costs and all the environmental destruction just get a leave pass.

“We need to stop this madness now, maintain our coal plants and consider clean zero-carbon nuclear energy, which has none of those problems.”

Right now, we are seemingly in a deadlock of limited ambition and distraction and I have a real concern our leaders have lost sight of the actual goal – that of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees, and what’s at stake if we don’t.

Australians watched in recent months as the northern hemisphere was battered by fossil-fuelled, unnatural climate disasters that experts warn are now heading our way. The Bureau of Meteorology has officially declared we are in an El Niño event that will drive hotter and drier conditions across the country. Scientists have been shocked by the accelerated warming of global air and sea temperatures and the alarming loss of Antarctic sea ice in recent months.

At a recent parliamentary briefing I co-hosted with former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW Greg Mullins, he warned accelerated global heating, together with El Niño conditions, put Australia at risk of another catastrophe like the Black Summer of 2019-20.

At the same event, the former chief of the Australian Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, warned the threat of climate change had moved beyond more frequent and severe natural disasters and had become the No. 1 threat to Australia’s national security.

Concerns such as mass population displacement in our region, food scarcity, the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters and the need to provide substantial aid packages to Pacific countries affected by rising sea levels must be addressed with a clear national security climate strategy. So far, the government has none.

Climate change is accelerating. It’s putting the people and places we love at risk. As the new governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Michele Bullock, identified, it’s putting our economy and hence our future wellbeing at risk.

We cannot afford any more years of delay, distractions and timid policies. Australia needs to aim for a minimum 75 per cent emissions reduction by 2035, bring about widespread cooperation for a renewable energy led transition, set clear sectoral targets and build incentives and policies around those targets to give businesses and industry the confidence to move fast, and reap the rewards on offer in the new economy.

Scientists know this. Business knows this. Banks know this. It’s time the major parties put politics aside and bravely stepped up to the challenge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "Tough love".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription