Last week the Federal Government released the latest quarterly update on Australia’s greenhouse emissions. It is not pretty reading, for rather than breaking south and following a downward trend, our emissions are climbing, and have been ever since the Abbot government abolished the carbon pricing scheme and replaced it with its direct action approach.
Under the Paris agreement Australia has set itself the task of reducing our greenhouse emissions to 26-28% of 2005 levels by 2030. On current projections we will miss the target by around 700 mt CO2 -e (the area represented by the orange ‘triangle’ in the chart below).
The Prime Minister is confident we’ll get there “in a canter”. He points to the fact that the projected abatement task (the orange area in my diagram) has declined over time and argues that the Government has the policies to close the narrowing gap. This sees a number of policy initiatives that offer emissions abatements.
The biggest tool in the Government’s plan is to use Kyoto carry over credits. Before the Paris Agreement, which sets out emission reduction targets for 2021-2030, the Kyoto Protocol set out targets for the periods 2008-12 and 2013-2020. Australia negotiated very favourable targets for both periods. Consequently, we finished the first Kyoto period 128 mt CO2-e ahead of target and look like we’ll finish 240 mt CO2-e ahead for the second Kyoto period. Where most industrialised nations have said they will not count their Kyoto credits, the Australian Government has decided it will count the Kyoto “savings” as a credit against the 700 Mt CO2-e reduction required for 2021-2030. This halves the real world emission reductions we need to make from 2021-2030.
The remaining 330 mt CO2 emission reductions come from a grab bag of initiatives. Will they be successful? The only people who seem to think so are members of the Federal Coalition.
This however is not my chief concern. My concern is that the government’s policy is just another expression of the poisoned national debate around climate which in more than a decade has not been able to deliver a coherent and bipartisan approach, and a poisoned global climate politics in which nations agree that reducing emissions is vital to the future wellbeing of humankind and the planet, accept a target (such as to keep warming below 2 degrees) and then every nation seeks to do as little as they possibly can in meeting their targets.
Just last year a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that human activities had already raised global mean temperature by about 1°C above pre-industrial levels and that on current trends, 1.5 °C warming would be reached between 2030 and 2052. To have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 without overshoot (ie a scenario where we go above 1.5 for a while but then turn it around by taking carbon gases out of the atmosphere) the world needs to achieve a 45% reduction from 2010 levels by 2030 and zero net emissions by 2050. To achieve the 2 degree goal we need 25% reduction on 2010 levels by 2030 and to reach net zero around 2070.
Getting to net zero is a massive task that will see the end of economies built on the formula of burning fossil fuels. We need to transform the ways we produce power, do agriculture, construct our buildings, transport ourselves, etc. Which is why we need our government do better than find the path of least resistance to our 2030 Paris target. We need a roadmap to net zero that lifts us above captivity to local and global politics and against which interim targets can be measured.
Under the Paris Agreement the Australian Government is due to report its long-term emissions reduction plan by 2025. Rather than this being yet another report of the Dept of Environment that will get buried in climate politics, we need something that will lift our sights to an incredible act of nation-building. Perhaps a multi year bipartisan commission that brings together climate scientists, economists, the business community, civil society and relevant experts to map the way to net zero, an agreement from all sides of politics to implement it, and that directs a nation-building project that Australians will enthusiastically get behind? One thing seems certain. Politics as usual will almost certainly fail us, the planet and the future.
Last year Scott Morrison, then the Treasurer, carried a lump of coal into Parliament during Question Time, where he brandished it about, saying
“This is coal. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you…It’s coal that has ensured Australia has for over one hundred years enjoyed an energy advantage that has delivered prosperity”.
He went on to describe the Opposition as suffering from the malady of coalaphobia and possessing an
“ideological, pathological opposition to coal as being part of our sustainable and more certain energy future.”
Yesterday the international body responsible for updating our knowledge of climate change, the IPCC, release its latest report on keeping temperature rises below 1.5 degrees. Their report included this paragraph:
In modelled 1.5°C pathways with limited or no overshoot, the use of CCS would allow the electricity generation share of gas to be approximately 8% (3–11% interquartile range) of global electricity in 2050, while the use of coal shows a steep reduction in all pathways and would be reduced to close to 0% (0–2%) of electricity (high confidence). While acknowledging the challenges, and differences between the options and national circumstances, political, economic, social and technical feasibility of solar energy, wind energy and electricity storage technologies have substantially improved over the past few years (high confidence). These improvements signal a potential system transition in electricity generation (IPCC SR15 SPM p33)
The report notes that keeping temperature rises to 1.5° would have significantly fewer impacts upon the planet and the well-being of its people then a rise to 2°. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is likely to diminish in size at 1.5° temperature rise, but at 2° would likely disappear completely.
This has certainly wiped the smug tone from the government’s defence of coal, but not their determination to see coal as an ongoing part of Australia’s energy mix long into the future. The conversation we should be having is how we will replace coal with renewable forms of energy over the course of the next couple of decades. We have time to do it and to do it right. Instead we have a government burying its head in the sand, denying the IPCC report has any significance for us, and declaring support for the coal industry. I think we all know who the pathological ideologues are.
Rising energy prices have become a cause of widespread complaint and are cited as a reason we need to cling coal-powered electricity. As far as I can tell all the anxiety around rising electricity prices is way out of proportion to reality.
First, our electricity costs are only a small proportion of our household budgets. A 2012 ABS survey found that the households with the lowest 10% of income spend 2.7% of their income on household energy. The dollar amount spent on energy rises with income but falls as a proportion of income, so that the households with the top 10% of income spend just 1.7% of their income on household energy. 1)ABS 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, 2012. Prices have risen by about 20% since the survey, which would mean lower income households are now paying around 3% of their household income in energy bills.
Second, energy prices have gone up. In real terms (i.e. after allowing for inflation) the cost of residential electricity in Australia has almost doubled over the last decade 2)https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf.This means that the price rises in electricity have added 1.0%-1.5% to our household costs over the course of the last 10 years. While this presents a challenge to lower income households, for whom 1 in 5 could not pay their electricity, gas or telephone bills on time 3)ABS 4670.0 – Household Energy Consumption Survey, Australia: Summary of Results, 2012 , for those who aren’t in the bottom 10-20% of household incomes the hysteria over rising electricity prices is misplaced.
Third, the rise in energy prices is not due to the switch to renewables. In 2013/14 emissions reduction schemes and the renewable energy targets accounted for just 17% of the cost of electricity4)Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf. The bulk of the cost is in providing the networks (poles and wires). These accounted for 50% of the retail cost of electricity 5)Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf. Only a small proportion of the rise in electricity prices is being driven by the switch to renewables. The primary reason we have seen accelerating price rises is that we all want to run our air conditioners on really hot days. The Department of Industry’s own fact sheet says
Australia’s economic growth and increasing use of appliances such as air conditioners have put new pressures on networks, particularly at peak times – typically for a few hours in the afternoon on the hottest days of the year. Network companies are required to meet peak demand and generally build their infrastructure to meet energy demand at its forecast peak. This means that around $11 billion worth of infrastructure across the National Electricity Market is only being used for 100 hours each year.6)Australian Government department Industry. The Facts on Electricity Prices. https://industry.gov.au/Energy/EnergyMarkets/Documents/TheFactsOfElectricityPrices.pdf
The really disturbing thing about this debate is the way it is being used to argue against the use of renewable sources of energy. We have the Prime Minister, who was once a devotee of action to reduce the risk of climate change, now arguing that the Government should use the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to fund “clean coal”. Banks are refusing to finance new coal stations and businesses are getting out of them because they can see the writing on the wall. They are a bad investment. How ironic that we have a Coalition government now arguing that taxpayers should subsidise what the business sector sees as a lousy investment!
Even if countries reach the emissions the emission reduction targets they pledged in Paris in 2015, the world is still on track for a rise in temperatures in the vicinity of 3 degrees.7)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/03/world-on-track-for-3c-of-warming-under-current-global-climate-pledges-warns-un. If there’s anything we should be getting anxious about it’s that.
I released a short book today, A Beautiful World. Reframing our Relationship to Creation. It’s just four chapters and 70 pages long, plus a study guide at the back. The aim is for it to be short enough that a pastor could comfortably build a sermon around each chapter; that those who don’t regularly read books may find it surprisingly manageable to read a chapter a week and then join a small group using the discussion guide at the back; but that it will prove substantial enough that both voracious readers and those who don’t read much will find plenty of food for thought.
The book asks the question, what does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus in the age of “the Anthropocene”? The Anthropocene is the term a number of scientists are using to describe the age in which we live. It identifies humankind as the most significant natural force on earth, the species that has become so widespread and powerful that we are reshaping key environmental systems on which we all depend for survival. Our greenhouse emissions are changing the climate; our insatiable demand for land on which to live and farm and build is one of the chief culprits in the terrifyingly rapid decline of wild animal populations; our oceans are acidifying; and nitrogen that we artificially create is leaching into the rivers and lakes creating large algal blooms that suck the oxygen from the water.
For Christians there’s a lot of catch up. Most of us are the heirs of a theological tradition that undervalues the earth and its living creatures. This tradition taught us to see the drama of history as the struggle for the salvation of the human soul. The planet on which we live is but the stage on which this drama is played out and the nonhuman living creatures mere props designed to serve the real focus, which is the relationship of God and humanity.
I argue that from start to finish the story told by the Bible is far broader, richer, and exciting. The earth is imagined as the temple of God; the place God is to be found and that reflects God’s gracious and loving character, unrivalled wisdom, and extraordinary power. In the biblical universe God’s love blazes for every living thing and God’s attention is turned towards every living creature.
Far from the earth being merely the stage upon which the great drama of history is played out, it is part of the drama. Salvation is not God taking us from the earth and from our bodies to an immaterial heaven, but the work of God to make all things new, to bring everything to unity and completion under the reign of Christ – people, communities, planet, animals, environmental systems, and anything else you can think of. The image of eternity that it offers me is not an angel on a cloud playing a harp but whales dancing through oceans; humans in bodies, minds and hearts that are turned towards love, generosity, kindness and justice; a God whose presence is as tangible as the touch of a lover.
If this be the case, humankind’s commission to rule and subdue the earth must be understood through the biblical lens of service. Our responsibility is to secure the well-being of the planet and its living creatures and of one another, to be God’s representatives in this temple that is the world, caretakers of God’s creation.
In the age of the Anthropocene we bring a vision that is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric but theocentric. Our engagement with the earth is an opportunity to know God and to experience God’s love; to love and serve God; to participate in the joy of God; and to love our neighbour.
The book has been published by A Just Cause as a preaching, Bible study, and reflection tool. Before publishing we sought feedback from an Old Testament scholar, a scientist working on the environment, and an environmental activist, who all offered useful critique and helpful suggestions. Any flaws of course are mine.
Over the course of my life I’ve had the thrill of seeing some of the amazing forms of life on this earth. I have dived with great white sharks off the coast of South Australia; been delighted by fairy penguins making their way en masse from the ocean to their burrows in the sands of Phillip Island; been mesmerised by the giant sea turtles that haul themselves across the sandy beach of Selingen Island to dig a nest and lay their eggs, and then watched as hatchlings pop-up from the sand, furiously rotate their flippers and make their dash for the ocean; snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef with its kaleidoscope of colourful fish and corals; watched orangutans swing through the trees in Borneo; and spent a glorious day in a long extinct volcanic crater in Tanzania viewing lions, elephants, cheetahs, zebras, and hippopotamus.
Every one of these experiences has been an occasion for joy and wonder. It is a truly amazing world in which we live. Being a person of faith, this amazing diversity of life has pointed me to the wild imagination and stunning creativity of God.
It was with some dismay then that I recently read the Worldwide Fund Living Planet Report for 2016. It showed that between 1970 and 2012 the number of animals in the wild declined by 58%. Read that again. 58%. That’s over half the world’s population of wild animals gone in my lifetime.
The primary drivers are over-exploitation and habitat loss/degradation, along with climate change, introduction of invasive species and pollution. When it comes to over-exploitation, logging, hunting and over-fishing are the biggest culprits. With respect to habitat loss, the biggest contributing factor is land used for farming crops and livestock.1)Sean L. Maxwell,Richard A. Fuller,Thomas M. Brooks,James E. M. Watson, “Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers” in Nature news (Nature Publishing Group, 2016)
Not only are wild animal populations in decline, but many scientists believe we are experiencing the world’s sixth great extinction event. On five previous occasions the bulk of species on earth have become extinct. Today we are witnessing extinctions at 1,000-10,000 times the rate that would occur were it not for human impacts. What makes this extinction event different from the past is the rapid pace at which it is occurring and that humankind is the cause.
Of all the plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species that have gone extinct since AD 1500, 75% were harmed by overexploitation or agricultural activity or both (often in combination with the introduction of invasive alien species). Climate change will become an increasingly dominant problem in the biodiversity crisis. But human development and population growth mean that the impacts of overexploitation and agricultural expansion will also increase.2)Laurance and Ehrlich, “Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event” The Conversation Website, November 9, 2016. https://theconversation.com/radical-overhaul-needed-to-halt-earths-sixth-great-extinction-event-68221
If we ever needed a sign that there is something deeply flawed in how we are engaging the planet, surely we have it.
Bill Laurance, a research professor at Australia’s James Cook University, and Paul Ehrlich, President of the Center for Conservation Biology at America’s Stanford University, argue that we need to: 1. Slow the rate of human population growth; 2. Reduce overconsumption and overhunting; 3. Save remaining wilderness areas; 4. Expand and better protect our nature reserves; 5. Invest in conserving critically endangered species3)Laurance and Ehrlich, “Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event” The Conversation Website, November 9, 2016. https://theconversation.com/radical-overhaul-needed-to-halt-earths-sixth-great-extinction-event-68221.
What does that look like for me? I’ll continue supporting antipoverty projects around the world, for reducing poverty is the only realistic way to slow population growth. I’ll seek to reduce my meat consumption, for rearing livestock and growing the grains that we feed them require more land to be cleared any other form of food production; I’ll make sure that I demand much better from my politicians; and I will weep at the loss to this earth.
Sean L. Maxwell,Richard A. Fuller,Thomas M. Brooks,James E. M. Watson, “Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers” in Nature news (Nature Publishing Group, 2016)
Laurance and Ehrlich, “Radical overhaul needed to halt Earth’s sixth great extinction event” The Conversation Website, November 9, 2016. https://theconversation.com/radical-overhaul-needed-to-halt-earths-sixth-great-extinction-event-68221
One of the most repeated claims of climate change sceptics is that over the past decade or so warming has either paused or the rate of warming slowed dramatically. It’s often their killer argument in their case against climate change “alarmism”. Take this from Andrew Bolt
Turns out that that warming has been hiding in the ocean. Research published this week in Climate Change Nature shows that the oceans have been warming at a far more rapid rate than scientists previously thought. Indeed the research suggests that half the warming of the oceans since the Industrial Revolution has occurred in the last 18 years.
This is what happens when sceptics cling to gaps in what is otherwise a very consistent and clear scientific picture. Those gaps will get filled. So all sceptics, please, it’s time to give up the hiatus in global warming line.