• Climate Change: the global context
• Climate Change Impact
• Existential Risk Management
• Political & Corporate Attitudes
• Community Response
• Legal Implications
• Conclusions and recommendations on Greenhouse Gas Assessment Guidance
Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to the Western Australia (WA) Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) on Greenhouse Gas Assessment Guidance.
The world is confronted by the urgent need to minimize the impact of human-induced climate change. Overwhelming scientific opinion, and evidence, has long established that this is being caused by carbon emissions from fossil fuels use, agriculture and deforestation. Warnings over three decades that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced, if catastrophic outcomes are to be avoided, have been ignored within political and business circles, Global carbon emissions are now at record levels and fossil fuel use massively expanded. The result is that climate change is occurring far faster and more extensively than expected. The risks to the climate system from increased concentrations of carbon dioxide have also been badly underestimated by the scientific community. Human-induced climate change is already a major economic and social cost and the greatest threat to preserving sustainable environments, and hence societies, at global, national and local levels.
This is the context in which the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Assessment Guidance must be considered.The rationale for that view is as follows:
Climate Change: the global context
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impact of 1.5degC and 2degC warming above pre-industrial levels sent a stark reminder to humanity about the existential threat posed by climate change. That is a threat posing permanent large negative consequences to humanity which can never be undone. One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential .
The 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, the successor to the Kyoto Protocol and which Australia has ratified, came into force on 4th November 2016. It requires the 196 countries participating to hold global average temperature to “well below 2degC above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5degC” . Regional temperature variations would be far greater than these global averages, rendering many parts of the world uninhabitable even at 2degC, beyond the capacity of human physiology to function effectively. This may well be the case across many parts of WA.
The figure demonstrates the speed with which global emissions have to be reduced to limit temperature increase to 2degC (blue, yellow and purple lines, representing rates of reduction beyond anything achieved historically). The later emissions peak, the more rapid the reduction required. Achieving the lower Paris limit of 1.5degC necessitates even greater reduction rates.
The red line indicates the “business-as-usual” path the world is currently on, which would result in a temperature increase above 4degC by 2100, possibly earlier.
The voluntary Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) made by individual countries as part of the Paris Agreement, if implemented, would see emissions levelling off by 2030, in line with the orange line, but not falling. This would result in global average temperature rising above 3degC.
The implications are dire. Dangerous climate change, which the Paris Agreement and its forerunners seek to avoid, is happening at the 1.0degC increase already experienced as extreme weather events, and their economic costs, escalate. The negative impact on human health and mortality is substantial .
Our current global emission trajectory would lead to a temperature increase above 4degC, a world which would be “incompatible with an organised global community”, with global population dropping from 7 billion to below 1 billion as the impact of climate extremes takes effect . The World Bank has pointed out that “There is no certainty adaptation to a 4degC world is possible” .
Even the +3degC outcome which would eventuate if the Paris INDC commitments were implemented, would result in outright social chaos in many parts of the world. The US Military Advisory Board warns against a “failure of imagination” in ignoring these implications.
Unfortunately the IPCC tend to underestimate the risks to which we are now exposed. This is highlighted in: “What Lies Beneath: The understatement of existential climate risk” (copy attached), a report co-authored by David Spratt and myself.
This publication collates what scientists, decision-makers and other stakeholders have been saying, often behind closed doors, about the culture of failure and scientific reticence in which climate policy-making has become embedded. It is a story that must be understood if we are to have any hope of addressing the existential climate risk which humanity now faces. The report analyses why:
• Human-induced climate change is now an existential risk to human civilisation unless dramatic action is taken. The bulk of climate research tends to underplay these risks, exhibiting a preference for conservative projections and scholarly reticence.
• Reports of the IPCC, including the 1.5degC report referenced above, around which international negotiations have been based, also tend toward reticence and caution, erring on the side of “least drama”, and downplaying the more extreme and more damaging outcomes. This is dangerously misleading with the acceleration of climate impacts globally.
• Potential climatic “tipping points” are a particular concern; the passing of critical thresholds which result in step changes in the climate system. Under-reporting on these issues is contributing to a “failure of imagination” in our response to climate change.
In the foreword, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and to Pope Francis, calls the report a “critical overview by well-informed intellectuals who sit outside the climate-science community”, highlighting crucial insights which may lurk at the fringes of conventional policy analysis but which have a new resonance when “the issue is the very survival of our civilisation, where conventional means of analysis may become useless”. He says: “climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences”.
The purpose of the report is to highlight that the crucial moment is now, to understand why that is so, and to encourage a fundamental emergency reframing of our approach to climate action.
To summarise the rationale for emergency action:
• Dangerous climate change is occurring at the 1degC temperature increase already experienced. 2degC now represents the boundary of extremely dangerous climate change.
• To stay below the upper 2degC temperature increase limit of the Paris Climate Agreement, global emissions would have to peak no later than 2020 and be reduced by around 7% annually thereafter. To meet the lower 1.5degC target requires even more rapid reduction. By contrast, emissions continue to rise in line with worst case scenarios.
• Probabilities used to define the carbon budget to stay below the Paris objectives are unrealistic. The IPCC uses 50 to 66% chance as the norm. Not good odds for the future of humanity. Carbon budgets, and emissions reductions, should be based upon a realistic chance, at least 90%, of reaching the goals. On that basis, there is practically no carbon budget left today to stay below 2degC, let alone 1.5degC.
• Climate inertia means that allowing any form of continued fossil fuel investment today, with its associated emission increases, risks locking-in irreversible, existential climatic outcomes. By the time the climatic impact of these investments becomes clear, it will be too late to take action and avoid extensive stranded assets. Hence the risk is immediate in that those decisions must be stopped now.
• Atmospheric aerosols produced by burning coal and oil are cooling the planet by around 0.3 to 0.5degC. As these concentrations reduce with the phase-out of fossil fuels, a commensurate one-off increase in temperature is likely, further compounding the problem of staying below warming limits.
• IPCC scenarios still rely heavily on carbon removal from the atmosphere as a prerequisite for meeting the Paris targets. The degree of dependence on such negative emissions technologies, none of which exist at scale today, is extremely dangerous, creating a false sense of security that there are easy solutions when none exist.
• The recent IPCC summary report understates key risks in moving from 1.5degC to 2degC warming. For example, a likely rise in climate-driven refugees, the danger of exceeding tipping points that could push the world on to an irreversible path to a “Hothouse Earth” , cyrosphere risks such as Antarctic ice sheet instability and loss of the Greenland ice sheet being triggered, leading over time to multi-metre sea level increase. Exceeding 1.5degC poses huge risks both for humans and natural systems.
The most recent indications confirm the underestimation of these climatic and related risks. For example:
• Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), May 2019. “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
• Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report August 2019 downgrades the overall outlook for the reef to “very poor” in the absence of rapid action to address its most significant threat, which is climate change.
• New IPCC climate models point to underestimation of climate sensitivity.
• IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cyrosphere may confirm accelerating ice melt and sea level rise.
In summary, climate change now represents an immediate existential risk to human civilization. It is impossible to now limit temperature increases to the lower 1.5degC limit of the Paris climate agreement, and probably to the 2degC upper limit unless state and non-state actors across the globe accelerate action on climate change to an emergency footing, akin to wartime.
Climate Change Impact
As indicated above, 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. There is mounting evidence that these tipping points are being crossed.
For example, Arctic weather conditions are becoming increasingly unstable as jetstream fluctuations warm the region 20-30degC 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, particularly the Australian Great Barrier Reef, are dying off as a result of record high sea temperatures . Global temperature increases are accelerating, with 2015-2018 being the hottest years on record . Major terrestrial carbon sinks, such as the Amazon, 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. The viability of the Middle East in toto is questionable in the circumstances now developing . Major centres of economic activity, such as the Pearl River Delta, responsible for 40% of China’s exports, the Mekong River Delta and other parts of SE Asia are now under threat from climate-induced sea level rise prior to 2050 .
The recent unprecedented hurricane seasons in the Atlantic, devastating bushfires in California, extreme heat in many parts of South Asia and extreme cold in parts of Europe and North America are only the most recent portents of what is to come as human-induced climate change intensifies natural extreme weather events .
The global climate-related damage bill for 2017 exceeded $340 billion, with insured losses at an all-time high of US$138 billion. Clearly, climate change has moved out of the twilight period of much talk and limited impact. It is now turning nasty, with the risk in some regions, often the poorest, translating into major disasters.
Australia, along with the adjacent Asia-Pacific region, particularly WA and Northern Australia, is considered to be “Disaster Alley”, where the most extreme impacts of climate change are already being experienced, as documented in our recent report . Events such as Cyclone Debbie, the collapse of much of the Great Barrier Reef, the 2019 Townsville floods, declining rainfall in Southern Australia, extensive drought and declining river flows, as in the Murray-Darling Basin, are clearly climate change-related.
On current trends, a 1.5degC temperature increase will be reached by 2030, and quite possibly 3degC by 2050. The latter scenario is explored in our latest report: “The Third Degree: Evidence and implications for Australia of existential climate-related security risk”. The hard-nosed practical impacts globally by 2050 might encompass:
• Ecosystem collapse
• Coral reefs
• Amazon rainforest
• Deadly heat > 100 days p.a.& extreme flooding in many regions
• Rising sea levels > 0.5 m
• Many nations & regions become uninhabitable
• 1 billion people displaced
• Significant drop in crop yields and food production
• Lower reaches of Mekong, Ganges & Nile rivers inundated
• Significant sectors of major cities abandoned – Chennai, Mumbai, Jakarta, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Manila, Bangkok, Lagos.
• “Hothouse Earth” triggered
Existential Risk Management
Climate risk is unlike anything previously encountered by humanity, and cannot be handled by conventional, reactive, learn-from-failure, risk management techniques. This is the context in which the EPA should be considering the assessment of greenhouse gases from proposed projects
Sensible risk management addresses risk in time to prevent it happening – with climate change, that is long overdue. When the risk is existential, there is even greater justification for action, and the use of the precautionary principle, rather than waiting for perfect information.
This requires existential climate risk to become the primary consideration in designing policy across the board, but particularly the climate change and energy interface. That policy should be built around existential risk management along the following lines:
• Normative Goal Setting. Incremental change from “business-as-usual” is not tenable. This must be replaced with a normative view of temperature and other limits which must be adhered to if catastrophic consequences are to be avoided, based on the latest science. Action is then determined by the imperative to stay within the limits, not by incremental, “politically-feasible” options.
• Change Mindsets, to now regard the climate change challenge as a genuine global emergency, to be addressed with an emergency global response.
• Genuine Global Leadership. Current responses reflect the dominance of managerialism – an emphasis on optimising the conventional political and corporate paradigms by incremental change, rather than adopting the fundamentally different normative leadership needed to contend with the potential for catastrophic failure.
• Integrated Policy. Climate change, though difficult, is only one of a number of critical, inter-related, issues now confronting the global community, which threaten the sustainability of human civilisation as we know it. Rather than viewing these issues separately in individual “silos” as at present, integrated policy is essential if realistic solutions are to be implemented. Climate and energy policy needs to fit within a systemic Australian approach to emergency action.
• Honesty. There needs to be an honest articulation of the catastrophic risks and the integrated sustainability challenge we now face, with extensive community education to develop the platform for commitment to the major changes ahead.
Political and Corporate Attitudes
For the last three decades in Australia climate change policy has been a political football with neither side of politics prepared to accept the science and evidence of escalating climatic impact from humanity’s continued reliance on fossil fuel, and to seriously address the issue. This largely stems from the fact that many Federal politicians, egged on by corporate fossil fuel interests, still do not accept that human-induced climate change is even a problem let alone an existential threat, as confirmed yet again in recent commentary . For a country whose entire prosperity has been based on innovative science and its sensible application, this is an astonishing, extremely dangerous, state of affairs.
The climate and energy policies adopted by successive Australian governments over those years, State and Federal, have deliberately refused to acknowledge this existential threat to our future security. The Australian emission reduction commitments made under the Paris Agreement are wholly inadequate on any fair global assessment. Our leaders have access to the best possible scientific advice and to the overwhelming evidence, locally and globally, that we have badly underestimated both the speed and extent of climate change impact. In such circumstances, to ignore this threat is a fundamental breach of the fiduciary and security responsibilities with which political, bureaucratic, scientific and corporate leaders are entrusted by the community they are supposed to serve.
Corporate and political attitudes can best be described as a process of predatory delay, that is the blocking or slowing of essential change, in order to make money off an unsustainable and unjust high-carbon fossil fuel economy for as long as possible, irrespective of the damage being caused to the community.
Perhaps the best recent demonstration was the political and industry reaction to the original EPA Greenhouse Gas Emission guidance issued on 7th March 2019. This suggested measures that might be taken to mitigate such emissions, including offsetting for emissions from a project’s direct activity (Scope 1 & 2), but possibly going further to consider emissions from end-use of the gas (Scope 3), either domestically or overseas.
The hysterical reaction of the industry and government was wonderous to behold. Massive investment and jobs losses were forecast, majors such as Woodside, Santos, Shell and Chevron professed outrage. WA Premier McGowan insisted that gas should not be disadvantaged as it provides a solution to climate change. Predictably the WA government forced the EPA to withdraw the guidelines for this current further consultation.
Sheer hypocrisy. The EPA was doing what these players supposedly want – providing certainty in setting out a sensible regulatory framework against which projects would be assessed for the real climate impact they create. Ironically, Shell, Woodside and others supposedly screen their projects against an internal carbon price to allow for the additional costs which are inevitably coming as the damaging externalities of fossil fuel use are finally brought to account, costs such as those implied by the EPA Guidelines. But actually paying for the damage created is, it seems, a bridge too far from internal screening .
Henceforth, no new fossil fuel projects should be built globally if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic, irreversible climatic outcomes; existing operations have to be replaced with low carbon alternatives, and carbon sequestration technologies which do not currently exist have to be rapidly deployed at scale .
Notwithstanding these risks, governments, business and investors complacently encourage the continuation of such investment, for example the expansion of WA LNG, the Adani coal project in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, similar coal investments in NSW, CSG expansion and now the possibility of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the NT and WA, all on the basis that the 2degC limit is some way off, with a substantial carbon budget still remaining. Neither proposition is correct.
LNG expansion is promoted by State and Federal governments as a solution to climate change, particularly replacing coal in the transition to a low-carbon world, on the basis that its emissions are substantially lower than both oil and coal per unit of energy, an assumption which is only true if methane leakage is minimized and which is yet to be confirmed generally in Australia. However LNG is a fossil fuel like any other. When there is no carbon budget left to stay below 2degC, let alone 1.5degC, particularly given the global of evidence escalating climate impact, all fossil fuel expansion must be stopped.
Political and corporate debate focuses around short term economics and ideology, completely ignoring the wider implications of the climate impact already happening around us. There is a total inability, or refusal, “to join the dots” and recognise the security implications of current dysfunctional and contradictory climate and energy policies. If Australia insists on massively increasing our carbon emissions as currently proposed, thereby contributing to escalating warming globally, the climate impact on Australia itself will only intensify, particularly in WA, inter alia more than negating any development benefit. Similarily in Asia and the Pacific, where Australia’s actions as a “climate pariah” have markedly diminished its reputation in recent years . In effect we have one foot lightly on the climate change brake whilst the other foot is hard on the accelerator.
We are continually told that Australia is such a small contributor to global emission domestically (about 1.3%), that anything we do is meaningless in attempting to solve the global challenge. Thus we can continue to expand our high-carbon economy with impunity. Such arguments completely ignore the massive carbon emissions we export with our fossil fuel commodities sold overseas which, under UNFCCC convention, are accounted for in the consuming country. If they are included, which they should be given the critical stage climate change has now reached, Australia is in the fourth largest carbon polluter globally and will shortly become the third largest if LNG expansion is ramped up as currently planned . Our denialist policies are acting as a major accelerant of climate impact worldwide, in turn increasing the damage to the Australian economy and society. Of course other countries, particularly China, the US and India, have to do more to curb their emissions, but what Australia does matters greatly.
In a broader geopolitical sense, it is totally untenable in a rapidly warming world, for Australia as one of the worst carbon polluters globally, to increase our carbon emissions at all, but particularly when we also have some of the world’s best renewable energy resources, much in WA, which we are not using to anywhere near their full potential. If allowed to continue, this will inevitably lead to conflict and further national security threats. The transition to a low-carbon economy is unprecedented. It represents the greatest investment opportunity the world has ever seen. Australia in particular has the technology, the expertise, wealth and resources to make it happen. This is where our future lies, but thus far we lack is the maturity to set aside political ideology and corporate vested interests to cooperate for the public good.
Record numbers of Australians are recognizing the need for urgent climate action. This parallels mounting concern internationally which has led to increasing civil disobedience, as witnessed by the Extinction Rebellion movement, global schoolchildren strikes and the declaration of climate emergencies by governments, councils and other organisations globally over the last year, currently encompassing some 1000 jurisdictions covering 212 million people .
The climate concerns outlined, and their escalating impact are now blindingly obvious to the community at large. Likewise the refusal of political and corporate leaders to seriously face up to the implications of continuing fossil fuel use. When leaders refuse to lead in addressing the greatest threat confronting us, people are not going to sit as rabbits in the headlights waiting to be run over by the climate leviathan; they will act to force the incumbency to change direction. So escalating civil action is inevitable unless leaders respond; which they should do, if for no other reason than it is now in their own immediate self-interest.
A further dimension of the climate debate is the increasing resort to legal action where the incumbency, political or corporate, refuses to face up to the implications of climate change.
Regulators globally have recognized that climate change now represents a systemic threat to the stability of the global financial system, far greater than the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Accordingly, corporations are being urged to voluntarily assess and disclose the climate risk they face, via the FSB Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure recommendations . This is a major step forward in forcing corporate action on climate, but it remains reactive. We have yet to see corporations taking a proactive stance in committing to contribute to achieving a below 2degC world at the speed now required.
Likewise Australian regulators, APRA, ASIC and the Reserve Bank of Australia, are reminding corporate directors that they have a duty under corporations law to understand, assess and act upon climate risk.
Litigation against fossil fuel companies for damage incurred from climate impact is mounting as climate science increasingly provides the ability to identify causation and attribution of climatic events.
In a wider context, it is clear that the denialist attitudes of business and political leaders in Australia are infringing international law, as set out for example in the Oslo Principles on Climate Obligations , and the related Principles on Climate Obligations of Enterprises . These will increasingly be brought to bear on both government and corporate entities.
However it is arguable that climate change denial has moved beyond this point, in that it is now a crime against humanity, particularly in the blatant and deliberate manner being adopted by our Federal government. For example, in firstly rejecting the very real concerns of communities already being affected by climate-related sea level rise in the Pacific, and secondly in deliberately seeking to profit from massively expanding fossil fuel use, as outlined above, when viable and attractive low-carbon alternatives are available.
Australia ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 2002. Article 7 states: “Crime against humanity means the following when committed as part of a widespread or systemic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: item 1k: Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.
That, in essence, is what continual climate denial, obfuscation and inaction in the interests of short-term gain, is doing, particularly given the scientific knowledge on the implications of climate change readily available to our leaders.
Conclusions and recommendations on Greenhouse Gas Assessment Guidance
Climate change now represents an immediate existential threat to every city, country, company and community in WA and elsewhere, 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 emergency action 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, particularly in WA. 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.
The objective of the EPA is:
• to protect the environment
• to prevent, control and abate pollution and environmental harm
The EPA role is restricted to WA, and to environmental considerations. However, if policies at the national level in regard to Greenhouse Gas Assessment are inadequate or non-existent, as is the case, and such shortcomings potentially impact on the WA environment, as is the case with carbon emissions, then it is entirely appropriate that the EPA enact provisions in WA seeking to mitigate those emissions and consequently minimize the risk of contributing to climate change. This includes consideration of not just Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, but also Scope 3 even if this applies to exported LNG, given that climate change is a global problem, and that any increase in emissions overseas from the consumption of WA fossil fuel now impacts back on WA, as well as globally.
In that context, the EPA Guideline on Greenhouse Gas Emissions originally issued on 7th March 2019 and subsequently withdrawn, are appropriate. However, they are too conservative compared with measures which are now required to avoid potentially catastrophic damage to the WA environment. In current circumstances, more specific conditions must apply, built around the precautionary principle and the principle of intergenerational equity. In particular:
• no approval should be given to any new fossil fuel project, whether coal, oil, gas, using conventional (LNG) or unconventional (fracking) technologies, for domestic or export consumption, unless it has proven, safe and secure mechanisms in place from the outset for the long term sequestration of all carbon emissions produced by that project, encompassing Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.
Accordingly I recommend that the original EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions guideline be re-instated with this additional caveat.
Ian T Dunlop
“They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent……Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have now entered upon a period of great danger….. The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In it’s place we are entering a period of consequences….. We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…..”
“Sometimes we have to do what is required”
Winston S. Churchill