The Climate Change Authority has recommended Australia triple its minimum target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, describing the current goal as inadequate.
The independent climate advisory body – which the Abbott government is trying to abolish – warned failing to significantly ramp up action would mean Australia could not do its part in avoiding dangerous climate change.
Authority chair Bernie Fraser said sticking with the five per cent target would make it “virtually impossible” for future generations trying to prevent a two-degree rise in global temperatures.
“The five per cent minimum present isn’t credible in terms of the task that has to be done and the timeframe,” the former Reserve Bank governor told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
The five per cent target was weaker than many comparable countries such as the UK and Norway, and also didn’t reflect recent strong commitments on climate change by major emitters China and the US.
The 15 per cent target recommended in the authority’s final report effectively becomes 19 per cent once extra emissions credits accrued under the Kyoto Protocol are carried over.
It’s the key but not sole number in the report, with the authority also recommending a longer-term emissions reduction target of between 40 and 60 per cent below 2000 levels by 2030.
For the first time, it also gives a clear indication of Australia’s carbon budget – the total amount of CO2 that can be emitted before the country overshoots its fair share in the global effort.
The call for greater action was welcomed by green organisations but business groups warned of economic catastrophe if a 19 per cent target was pursued.
The Minerals Council of Australia called it one of the harshest emissions targets on the planet and advised that “this climate policy relic” be ignored.
Businesses warn a higher target would further cripple Australia’s manufacturing sector and lead to more job losses.
But the authority warned there was a significant economic cost to a business-as-usual approach to climate change.
Treasury modelling says pursuing the ambitious target would see a dip in gross national income for each Australian by $100 in 2020.
“It seems that $100 over a few years looks like a fairly small sacrifice for Australians to make in order for Australia to make a credible contribution to action on global warming,” authority board member Clive Hamilton told reporters.
By far the cheapest option for meeting the 19 per cent target would be buying international permits through a government fund – an option ruled out under the direct action plan.
The authority concluded the cost of moving from five per cent to its recommended target through international purchases alone could range from $210 million to $850 million, depending on permit prices.
This is significantly cheaper than direct action, which proposes spending $1.55 billion over three years to achieve the five per cent target through carbon abatement activities just at home.
Mr Fraser hoped the government would find the report useful, even if they were determined to dismantle the board.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt will consider the authority’s work “respectfully and carefully”, but repeated the commitment to abolishing it as soon as possible.
The government remains committed to reducing emissions by five per cent with its direct action plan and spending $1.55 billion on low-cost carbon abatement.
“Any additional targets will be reviewed in 2015 in the lead-up to the Paris conference,” Mr Hunt said in a statement.
The Australian Greens warned extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and fires would worsen without real action now.