How many wake up calls do we need? The latest International Energy Agency figures, published recently in The Guardian newspaper, show global carbon emissions are at their highest ever levels.
As IEA chief economist Fatih Birol notes “I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions. It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”
Alongside recently released reports from Professor Ross Garnaut and the Climate Commission this is yet another resounding wake up call for Australians to focus our vision and energy on the nation building challenge of our time: designing and constructing a just and sustainable road to a post-carbon economy and society.
Adaptation will only take us so far
The time has surely now come for Australians to move beyond the foolishness of climate change denial and to honestly face the full consequences of our climate change responsibilities.
We will have to lift our gaze well beyond wishful thinking. We need to let go of the hope we can address climate change risks without significant changes to business-as-usual lifestyles and policies.
Of course we have to help communities deal with the impacts of increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events. This will take far sighted, strategic investment to build the infrastructure, resilience and adaptability required.
But it is naïve in the extreme to think that adaptation alone will allow us a smooth path through a world in which global warming exceeds four degrees.
As Lord Nicholas Stern warns, a world beyond four degrees will be an utterly different world to the Earth we now know.
“Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce.”
Alarmist? Ask Heather Smith, Deputy Head of Australia’s Office of National Assessments, who has also noted that current emissions trends have us well on track for global warming of four degrees by 2100.
ONA analysis suggests that, by 2030, decreased water flows from the Himalayan glaciers will already be triggering a “cascade of economic, social and political consequences”.
Does anyone seriously think that adaptation alone will enable Australians to remain immune from changes of this magnitude?
It will take more than a carbon price to get us out of this
We do need to set a price on carbon – but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that market based mechanisms will, on their own be sufficient.
Clearly a wide variety of policies will be needed to do the heavy lifting to drive innovation and investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy and carbon sequestration.
Germany and Spain are, for example employing a feed-in tariff for large scale wind and solar thermal plants with considerable success.
The key elements for a rapid transition to a zero carbon economy are now well known.
The richest societies and citizens must reduce their material consumption. We must make a complete switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy plus forest and soil based carbon sequestration.
A just and sustainable transition will also require unprecedented investment in adaptation. We will need income and resource redistribution to protect the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable and least affluent communities – within and beyond Australia.
Visionary initiatives such as Zero Carbon Australia and Zero Carbon Britain demonstrate that the technological obstacles to the rapid achievement of a zero carbon future are not insurmountable. We need to inspire and encourage a 21st century Renaissance in post carbon creativity and innovation.
Time to catch up, Australia
The recent decisions by conservative governments in the UK, Germany and Japan to set strong emissions reduction and renewable energy targets suggest that the economic and political obstacles can be overcome. It just takes courageous political leadership driven by broad public mobilisation and support.
These decisions should certainly put an end to the nonsense that Australia is leading rather than trailing the world in emissions reduction.
While the German and UK strategies and timescales still fall well short of the required milestones, the contrast with the depressingly narrow political vision being demonstrated in Australia is striking.
The likelihood that Australia will be left behind in the economic paradigm shift to a renewable energy future grows stronger by the day.
Many Australians – particularly young people – believe, with some justification, that it is already too late to prevent significant climate change tipping points and impacts.
An overly linear analysis of current trends in Australian public opinion, political debate and corporate power can lead one to believe the climate change crisis will not end well.
But history has many examples of resistance and transformation against apparently overwhelming odds. The end of slavery; the US civil rights movement; the overthrow of apartheid; and the current democratic revolutions in the Middle East remind us that transformational change rarely occurs in an entirely predictable and linear way.
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently noted when she informed the German parliament that, in the light of the Japanese nuclear crisis, Germany would speed up plans to abandon nuclear power and reach the age of renewable energy as soon as possible: “When in Japan the apparently impossible becomes possible, then the situation changes”.
Australians face a stark choice. We can wait for a series of escalating climatic disasters to wake us from our fossil fuelled complacency.
Or we can demonstrate the maturity, leadership and vision needed to ensure that we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
(This is an updated version of a piece that was originally published in The Conversation on 30 May 2011.)
BBC (2011) “Japan crisis: Germany to speed up nuclear energy exit” BBC News Europe 17 March, 2011 [online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12769810 ] accessed 17 March, 2011
Dorling, P. and Baker, R. (2010) ‘Climate change warning over south-east Asia’, The Age, 16 December, 2010 [online: http://www.theage.com.au/national/climate-change-warning-over-southeast-asia-20101215-18y6b.html ] accessed 6 June, 2011
Garnaut, R. (2011) The Garnaut Review 2011: Australia in the Global Response to Climate Change, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press [online: http://www.garnautreview.org.au/update-2011/garnaut-review-2011.html ] accessed 6 June, 2011
Harvey, F. (2011) ‘Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink’ The Guardian, 29 May, 2011 [online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/29/carbon-emissions-nuclearpower ], accessed 30 May, 2011
Steffen, W. (2011) The Critical Decade: Climate science, risks and responses, Climate Commission Secretariat, Commonwealth of Australia [online: http://climatecommission.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/4108-CC-Science-WEB_3-June.pdf ] accessed 26 May, 2011
Zero Carbon Australia 2020: http://beyondzeroemissions.org/zero-carbon-australia-2020
Zero Carbon Britain: http://www.zerocarbonbritain.com/