Climate change is happening faster than previously anticipated, driven primarily by human carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, agriculture and land clearing. Uncertainties relate not to the basic climate science, which has been well-understood for decades, but to the speed and extent of climate impact, both of which have been badly underestimated.
• The Paris Climate Agreement voluntary emission reduction commitments, if implemented would lead to a temperature increase of around 3.5degC by 2100 if not earlier – a world which leading national security experts describe as “outright social chaos”. At present, we are on track for around a 4.5degC increase, which would be “a world incompatible with any organised society”, resulting in a substantial reduction in global population, toward 1 billion from the current 7.5 billion.
• Dangerous climate change is occurring at the 1degC temperature increase already experienced. The 2degC Paris upper limit now represents the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change.
• To stay below 2degC, global emissions must peak now and be reduced by around 7% annually, something no country has ever achieved. The lower 1.5degC Paris target requires even more rapid reduction. Meanwhile, emissions rise in line with worst case scenarios.
• This IPCC analysis assumes only a 50-66% chance of meeting the targets. Not good odds for the future of humanity. To have a sensible 90% chance, there is no carbon budget left today to stay below 2degC, let alone 1.5degC. Thus all fossil fuel consumption should stop immediately. Obviously that is not going to happen, but new investment must stop now, and the existing industry wound down as fast as possible.
• Emissions from continued fossil fuel investment, including gas, lock-in irreversible, existential climatic outcomes today. By the time the climatic impact of these investments becomes clear, it will be too late to take avoiding action. Hence the risk is immediate.
• Atmospheric aerosols produced by burning coal and oil are cooling the planet by around 0.3 to 0.5degC. As aerosol concentrations reduce with the phase-out of fossil fuels, a commensurate one-off increase in temperature is likely, compounding the problem of staying below warming limits.
• Proposed solutions to meet the 1.5degC target rely heavily on carbon removal from the atmosphere using negative emissions technologies, none of which exist at scale today. This is extremely dangerous, creating a false sense of security.
• The recent IPCC 1.5degC report understates key risks in moving from 1.5degC to 2degC warming. For example, increasing climate-driven refugees, exceeding tipping points that could push the world on to an irreversible path to a “Hothouse Earth”, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet instability triggering multi-metre sea level increase. Exceeding 1.5degC poses huge risks both for humans and natural systems, but it is likely that will occur within a decade.
In summary, it is now impossible to limit temperature increases to 1.5degC, and probably to 2degC unless global leaders fundamentally accelerate action on climate change to an emergency footing, akin to wartime.
• Accelerate innovation to further reduce cost of low-carbon energy alternatives
• Ban investment in new fossil fuel capacity from 2020, then phase-out coal, then oil & gas as alternatives become available
• Remove subsidies to fossil fuel industries
• Introduce realistic carbon pricing
• Tighten controls on fugitive emissions from fossil fuel operations
• Accelerate electrification to eliminate fossil fuel by 2040
• Redesign agricultural practices, emphasis on soil carbon sequestration
• Strong emphasis on energy conservation and efficiency
• Encourage debate and reframing of values toward evolution of sustainable societies in support of this transition
• Provide, and plan for, a fair transition for those people and regions adversely affected.
What Does Emergency Action Mean?
Climate change now represents an immediate existential threat to every city, country, company and community, which can only be realistically addressed by emergency action.
The threat is increasingly obvious as extreme climatic events escalate, and the climate emergency call is being taken up widely. In essence it means, akin to wartime, the suspension of business-as-usual, politically, corporately and socially, to do whatever it takes to resolve the climate crisis. There is no higher priority.
This does mean massive societal and cultural change, and fundamental reframing of virtually every policy arena; climate, energy, foreign affairs, defence, health, immigration, agriculture to name but a few. The upside is that Australia has far greater potential to prosper in the low-carbon future than in the high-carbon past. But realizing that potential requires an all-encompassing commitment to a low-carbon emergency transition. Certainly there will be costs, but the costs of ignoring climate change and continuing our current denialist stance will be far greater.