The most significant failure of global leadership by governments in recent times is the failure to act decisively and as a matter of urgency on climate change.
Surely we have moved beyond the ignorant and irresponsible mumbling of the climate deniers with mounting evidence from across the world of the effects of climate change. The unprecedented heatwave in Europe. The unprecedented drought in China. The megadrought in the United States. Greenland’s collapsing icecap. Near-famine in several parts of Africa. According to a recent United Nations report, one-third of Pakistan is under water. In Australia, we face La Niña for a third consecutive year, foreshadowing another very wet summer and more flooding.
The concern is we will fail to contain global warming to the Paris Agreement objective of containing global warming to an increase of well below 2 degrees Celsius (preferably just 1.5 degrees), with what will be catastrophic consequences for the planet. The US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, has warned of the possibility of 3.7 degrees global warming, even if all countries meet their full Paris commitments. Although the most recent COP26 in Glasgow was said to have produced a firming of intentions and commitments, this has not been matched by policy actions since to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, the risks have risen as governments continue to rely on – and develop – fossil fuel projects and maintain subsidies to fossil fuel companies.
As Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, told The Guardian, “We have built a civilisation based on a world that doesn’t exist anymore.” That article also noted that the world hasn’t been hotter than this for at least 125,000 years, and the atmosphere contains more heat-trapped carbon dioxide than at any time in the past two million years.
The world is already on average about 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the pre-industrial era. Scientist Lijing Cheng, lead writer of a 2019 oceans study, said “The amount of heat we have put in the world’s oceans in the past 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions.”
The industrial revolution was driven by burning fossil fuels without any recognition of the environmental and social consequences. Even though many governments still cling to a desire to sustain this strategy, it was always clearly unsustainable, especially as the consequences started to be recognised and quantified. Unfortunately these consequences still need to be taken more seriously. There has been a sort of “set and forget” mentality where governments finally commit to a realistic target for, say, emissions reductions but don’t follow up with the magnitude and urgency of the policy responses necessary to achieve those objectives. Instead they are hoping for a political tick for the announcement itself, and are then moving on to other issues and distractions.
Recently, Australia has had a pretty unedifying debate about a 2030 target for emissions reduction, en route to our commitment for net zero by 2050. Yet as we demonstrated in the report of the Climate Targets Panel – of which I was a member, along with leading climate scientists and experts – using the government carbon budget model and official data, the 2030 requirement should be closer to a 75 per cent reduction in emissions. So even though the Albanese government has taken an important step in the right direction, it is not enough for us to even achieve our Paris commitments. In crude terms, the world needs to cut emissions by about 50 per cent by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Perhaps the most disappointing outcome of COP26 was that the summit still enabled plans to burn fossil fuels well past what is allowable to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes it abundantly clear just how significant that 50 per cent reduction is to achieving the Paris Agreement target.
A clause in the draft text for the outcome of COP26 that called for accelerating efforts towards “the phaseout of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels” was excluded as members failed to agree on the “phaseout” of coal use, following late objections from India and China that saw the wording revised to “phasedown”.
The IMF has pointed out that fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion in 2020 – dwarfing the amount developed countries are prepared to spend on financing climate change adaptation. Nevertheless, as the first occasion where a UN climate declaration mentioned the need to rapidly reduce dependence on fossil fuels, COP26 was a clear signal to financial markets of the end of the coal era.
While governments are falling short of providing the required leadership on climate, the corporate sector is certainly driving the pace in two important areas. In manufacturing, companies are encouraged by the need to find affordable and reliable green power for their operations, as the energy crisis has bitten them very hard, and they’re seeking to decarbonise these activities. And in the investment community, the globe’s largest investors and asset owners are increasingly focused on the risks to their holdings in climate-exposed industries. Banks and financiers are becoming more reluctant to finance new fossil fuel projects, with insurers also increasingly unwilling to insure them.
A significant failure of the Morrison government was that it was not prepared to face the reality of its dependence on fossil fuels, and went to some length to hide its continued support for the big fossil fuel companies. Hypocritically, the Coalition claimed to focus on technology solutions, but didn’t want to be seen as “picking winners”. They committed millions to carbon capture and storage (CCS) – when there was little evidence to suggest that it would work – simply as a means to keep fossil fuel projects alive and to channel financial support to their mates and donors under this guise.
The concept was that fossil fuels could be burned, the CO2 emissions captured, and the problem solved. However, to catch the gas, to then liquefy it, transport it, and then store it, is potentially very expensive – assuming these stages can be delivered, amounting to as much as $US100 a tonne. So even if CCS can be done, it would need a carbon price of about that order of magnitude to be commercially viable. So much for the bullshit slogan “Technology not taxes”.
I am not aware of any such projects in relation to coal-fired power being successful anywhere in the world.
Nevertheless, Scott Morrison relied on the lack of transparency to run mixed messages to different sections of the community, claiming both climate cred and support for coal. Similarly, his government failed to adopt emissions reduction standards for vehicles and ran a diversion in the form of a future fuels strategy (FFS), pushing the decision off to 2028 and ignoring the pollution and health consequences. It also channelled millions to the global fuel refiners, notionally to keep our refineries open – a strategy that failed as the refiners took the money and then still closed some of the refineries.
Governments seem to have lost sense of their carbon budgets and how easily they can blow them up by continuing to burn fossil fuels. Many governments still have plans to continue to expand fossil fuel industries. Britain has about 50 new projects in the pipeline, including plans to develop the currently paused Cambo offshore oil field in the North Sea. In the US, a series of court battles has meant President Joe Biden has struggled to keep in place a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal land.
In November last year, Australia had 72 new coal projects and 44 new gas projects under development – not prospective – including the exploration of new gas fields such as the Beetaloo and Canning gas basins in northern Australia, supported by significant subsidies. It has been estimated the new projects would double Australia’s coal and gas production, emitting some 1.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year.
It is noteworthy that Origin Energy has announced this week that it is selling its stake in Beetaloo and plans to divest all its remaining interests in upstream gas exploration permits to “grow cleaner energy and customer solutions and deliver reliable energy through the transition”.
While acknowledging the political difficulties for governments, the most disturbing aspect of all this is the considerable disconnect between the political response to climate change and the scientific reality we face. The Global Carbon Budget 2021 report estimates that the world has only about a decade left of burning carbon at the current rate if humanity hopes to avoid catastrophic warming.
Unfortunately, it is easier for politicians to boast about emissions reduction targets than it is to do what is right to validate those commitments. It demands genuine leadership by governments willing to take their voters into their confidence and explain what is necessary and why, and to commit the detail of their role in delivering a just and fair transition. The costs of inaction will be catastrophic for our government, for our nation and for the planet.
The key question to be put to all governments is, what price for humanity’s survival?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Global warning".
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