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Time’s running out for federal climate action

Amanda McKenzie and Professor Will Steffen, Climate Council
Amanda McKenzie and Professor Will Steffen, Climate Council

Sydney summers will hit 50°C if global temperatures rise 2°C, according to the Climate Council, which today launched its big report of the year on the pressing need for climate action.

Already Australia’s heatwaves have become hotter, longer and more frequent; temperatures are already over 1°C higher than before the industrial revolution; and sea levels could rise by one metre this century. Australia must move and it must move fast, Critical Decade 2017: Accelerating Climate Action warns.

The report said Australia’s pollution levels were rising while action to tackle climate change flatlined. It called out the federal government on its failure to form a coherent, long-term national climate change policy to help Australia meet its Paris climate targets.

If action is not taken in this “critical decade”, Australia could suffer from increased flooding and water-borne diseases, increased mortality from extreme heat and bushfires, and marine heatwaves that could trigger coral bleaching events, increasing pressures on agricultural zones, coastal infrastructure and natural ecosystems.

At a press conference this morning at Sydney Harbour, Climate Councillor and scientist Professor Will Steffen said Australia needed to change the narrative on climate change.

“This really is a critical time because we have a lot of action going on at lower levels in Australian jurisdiction space, but we have gridlock at the federal level, and that is really holding us back,” Professor Steffen said.

“We have to play catch up and we have to do it fast.”

Australia’s a bad neighbour and China’s already met its goal

Australia is now considered a “laggard” when it comes to climate change action. Our emissions reduction target of 26-28 per cent by 2030 was labelled “unacceptably weak” by Steffen, which he said would not help Australians play their fair share in meeting the 2°C Paris target.

His statement came as Australia was deemed the “worst neighbour” by the Climate Action Network for approving plans to build the Adani coal mine, taking home the Fossil of the Day award at the COP23 climate talks in Germany.

China on the other hand is a key leader, with the Climate Council saying it had already met one of its Paris goals – to peak emissions by 2030.

States doing the heavy lifting

Despite Australia’s lack of federal policies, state and local areas have made remarkable progress, Climate Council chief executive Amanda McKenzie said.

“We are seeing states and territories, along with local governments, all rolling up their sleeves to do their bit, including the world’s largest lithium-ion battery and solar thermal plant in South Australia, to Canberra’s growing number of solar farms,” Ms McKenzie said.

The ACT is on track to be 100 per cent renewable by 2020 and there are plans to become completely carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest, Professor Steffen said. Their next task is to develop active transport with electric buses, cars and railways.

“Again, these things aren’t theoretical things for the future – they’re now, they’re mainstream and they’re becoming cheaper, delivering more reliable and cheaper energy than the ancient fossil fuel plants,” Professor Steffen said.

“I think the states and a lot of local cities are doing the heavy lifting now – that’s great – but what we’re lacking is a coherent national plan to put these pieces together to accelerate them and get us back on track to meet our Paris climate.”

A few years to get plans in place

Professor Steffen said action did not have to occur in two to three years, but the plans had to be in place by then. If not, it will be almost impossible to transform the economy towards a low-carbon future.

Because Australian states are taking matters into their own hands, Australia now leads the world in the uptake of solar PV. However, without the help from the federal government, Australia will continue to fall behind on climate change action.

Some change is better than no change, and globally, we can see these results.

The installation of solar and wind systems across the world double every 5.4 years, the report said, and maintaining this renewable expansion could see the world’s energy systems completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

“If you put your mind to it, the technologies are there. You have to get the policy plans and settings in place,” Professor Steffen said.

Expensive renewable energy is a myth

Many of the perceived issues regarding the switch to renewable energy have been about costs involved, but the evidence and data this report provides “blows that out of the water”, Professor Steffen said.

ACT’s electricity prices are the lowest in the country and they are second to South Australia on renewable energy supply, proving that expensive renewable energy is a myth.

Better infrastructure needed

Our current energy systems are aging and likely to be replaced within the next 10 years, Ms McKenzie said, but new infrastructure must be more resilient for worsening extreme weather events.

“It’s very clear in this report that the infrastructure Australia has been built on is built for the 20th century and not for the 21st century, and it means that as climate change progresses – and we will see the impacts becoming more severe – we need to make sure our energy and transport systems are all built for the future,” she said.

The report says the transition could happen efficiently and cheaply, but the federal government must guide Australians in the right direction with a stable, coherent plan.

“The solutions are there technologically and economically; it’s ideologies and politics standing in the way,” Professor Steffen said.

“We have to get over that.”

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