Leading scientists have demanded urgent action on the climate crisis as Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his government’s policies during the worst bushfire season on record.
Appearing on the ABC on Sunday morning, Mr Morrison said it was his “intention to meet and beat” Australia’s 2030 commitment to cut emissions 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels. And he left the door slightly ajar to cut more emissions if needed.
It’s a small but significant step considering just weeks ago Mr Morrison said he saw no need to change his climate policies.
In another move to show it is helping the environment, the Morrison government will on Monday announce it is pledging $50 million to help protect wildlife and fauna impacted by bushfires.
Could it signal that the bushfire disaster has finally woken the government up to do more to acknowledge and fight manmade climate change?
Experts aren’t holding their breath. And now the polls indicate the PM has some work to do to persuade voters amid fury over Mr Morrison’s bushfire response.
The latest Newspoll figures show Mr Morrison’s approval rating has plunged and Labor leader Anthony Albanese is now the preferred leader.
Mr Albanese leads the Liberal leader 43 to 39 per cent, according to the survey results released on Sunday night.
Labor is in front 51-49 on a two-party-preferred basis in the poll conducted for The Australian, a significant turnaround from early December when results showed the coalition led 52-48.
Support for the Greens rose one point to 12 per cent, while One Nation lost ground, falling one point to four per cent.
Meanwhile, scientists say Mr Morrison’s mea culpa on his holiday and hint on climate policy shift are nowhere near the strong response needed to show the government is going to commit to any meaningful change in their climate response.
Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University and a climate councillor at the Climate Council of Australia, said the government’s targets are so “weak” that it means little when the PM promises to meet or beat them.
“It’s like saying I want a 20 per cent pass rate on my exam. So we met those targets because they were so low,” Professor Hughes told The New Daily.
Meeting the 2030 Paris targets would rely heavily on including emissions reductions from the previous international agreement, the Kyoto protocol.
“The best analogy I’ve heard – and it’s not mine – but it’s like saying I got a really good mark on my kindergarten colouring test and I want to use that to pass my university test now,” Professor Hughes said.
On top of the targets being criticised as too low, the UN reported last year that Australia was not even on track to meet them.
“There has been no improvement in Australia’s climate policy since 2017 and emission levels for 2030 are projected to be well above the target,” the report found.
Central to the government’s climate plan is the Emissions Reduction Fund, which was allocated an additional $2 billion to purchase about 100 million tonnes of emissions from businesses between 2021 and 2030.
While the framework of the ERF has been praised, the OECD said in a 2019 report it would need to be scaled up to meet the Paris targets.
Australia is part of a growing cohort of G20 countries that are falling short. This will have dire consequences for our environment and economy, Professor Hughes said.
“If we do meet our 26 per cent reduction, it is not enough if you multiply that on a global scale to stop us from getting to three degrees of warming,” she said.
“This fire season has been with just one degree of warming. Just imagine three times – what that means. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Coal: Australia’s king
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has said the government is “refusing to act” on climate change, but he has also backed coal exports.
Jobs, especially the 37,800 that the coal industry creates, have now been pinned against real action on climate change.
On Insiders, Mr Morrison said he would not put jobs at risk or apply a tax to meet our emissions goals.
“What I’m saying is we want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it,” he said.
“I want to do that within a balanced policy which recognises Australia’s broader national economic interest and social interest.”
But Professor Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, said ending coal was inevitable – and it would lead to job creation. They just won’t be the same type of jobs.
“At a global level, achievement of the Paris targets is not compatible with large scale coal-fired power,” Professor Howden said.
Coal is the king of Australia’s economy; the industry is valued at $46 billion. Most of it is burnt overseas but including the emissions of exported fossil fuels pushes Australia’s share of global emissions up to 3.3 per cent, making our country one of the highest per-capita carbon emitters.
We’re selling it off to China and India in rapid rates. But long-term our big-buyers are looking to rely on their own mines.
“I think the writing is on the wall for the coal industry,” Professor Howden said.
“Globally the demand for coal will drop, it’ll be harder for coal activities to continue, to insure new coal companies – that’s not an ideology.”
But most importantly, transitioning to a clean future can mean more, not fewer jobs, he said.
“Whether it’s renewables or gearing up our systems to be more energy-efficient, there are lots of high-quality jobs if we do it sensibly,” Professor Howden said.
“There’s huge amounts of money to be made in new energy sectors. Locking ourselves into the way things have been done in the past does not look like a good proposition.”
Making sure communities don’t suffer in the transition is paramount, he said.
“We do need to look after those workers and their families. Unless we’re careful those people could suffer,” Professor Howden said.
But if we don’t make the change, he said, other people will suffer. For proof just look at the people left homeless by the bushfires tearing through communities across NSW and Victoria.
“The people on the South Coast, businesses who won’t get customers, lives that will be lost, homes destroyed,” Professor Howden said.
“They’re also costs. We need a much more transparent debate.”