Getting emissions reduction back on track

Climate change has become a complex web of competing arguments that create a lot of confusion. Nothing seems to be able to cut through. Two simple but effective principles might help.

The first is to “get back to basics” in order to see what we are really trying to achieve. The second is “a picture is worth a thousand words” – it helps us to see the bigger picture.

Putting these two principles together in regard to Australia’s Emission Reduction Target leads us to the graph above, based on the Australian Emissions Projection Report Dec 2019 (1), Page 8, Figure 4.

The black arrow is the ‘transition glide-path’ that is needed to reach net-zero. Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement is in jeopardy unless we can get back on track. The graph clearly shows Australia’s Emission Reduction Target should be 55% by 2030.

A third basic principle is relevant here – ‘risk management’. This diagram uses an appropriate colour scheme to illustrate the principle.

The red rectangles could easily represent the bushfires currently burning in large areas of Australia. These are risks that have both high probability and high impact. Even if the “Likelihood” is low, the “Impact” and consequences can be catastrophic.

The IPCC Special Report 1.5 Summary for Policy Markers1, (Section C.1.3) states that “the remaining carbon budget of 580 GtCO2 for a probability of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. and 420 GtCO2 for a 66% probability…is being depleted by current emissions of 42 Gt/year”. They predicted a window of only 12 years remained for decisive action to be taken; 2 of those years have already passed. The Carbon Budget Clock website2 shows only 8 years remain before we use up our budget to stay under 1.5 degrees C.

Risk management requires us to act now in order to reduce the probability of ‘High Impact’ consequences occurring in the future. Reducing emissions towards zero is essential to manage this risk. Drawing down carbon into our soils, rapidly growing seaweed and other carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies such as hemp-crete are important, but still in their infancy.

CCS techonolgy however is still unproven. The Global CCS Institute3 itself states that “The global capture and storage capacity of projects currently operating or under construction, stands at around 40 million tonnes per annum.”(p.12) This means that CCS technology is capturing only 0.04Gt/year of the current global emissions of 42 Gt/year, less than one-thousandth (0.016%) of what is needed.

In the same report Professor Sally Benson estimates that if the US (world leader in CCS) were to double its scaleup rate to 20% p/a, it will only reach 1 Gt/year by 2040, still a fraction of current global emissions of 42Gt. (p.13)

CCS cannot do the job that is so desperately needed. So, we must get back on track to the ‘transition glide-path’ depicted by the black arrow; this would mean a 55% reduction by 2030 on 2005 benchmark. This is a huge task that needs many complementary solutions.

One powerful solution, carbon fee and dividend4, would provide a firm foundation for achieving this.It puts a fee on carbon emissions and returns all the net revenue to taxpayers as a dividend. Richard Holden and Rosalind Dixon at UNSW have modelled a carbon fee and dividend policy in the Australian economy and presented it as the Australian Climate Dividend Plan5. A recent community survey6 found 73% support for such a policy which lowers emissions and encourages investment in natural and technological solutions while stimulating the economy.

British Columbia implemented a revenue-neutral carbon price over a decade ago that reduced emissions, stimulated the economy and is increasingly embraced by the community. Due to this success, other provinces are now pricing carbon and the Canadian Federal government has implemented a fee and dividend policy for the remaining four provinces. Citizens will get their second annual dividend shortly.

In conclusion, the graph clearly shows that we must rapidly reduce emissions. Getting back to basics demands that we use the most effective means possible, including a market-signal that makes the use of our remaining carbon budget as efficient as possible and steadily reduces our use of fossil fuels in a brisk transition to net-zero by 2050.This logically means a steady reduction in fossil fuel consumption and no new fossil fuel developments.

At the same time, we need to draw down as much carbon as possible and continue to do so until atmospheric carbon is at 350ppm or less.

References:

1. https://publications.industry.gov.au/publications/climate-change/system/files/resources/4aa/australias-emissions-projections-2019-report.pdf

2. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/

3. https://www.mcc-berlin.net/en/research/co2-budget/

4.https://www.globalccsinstitute.com/wp- content/uploads/2019/12/GCC_GLOBAL_STATUS_REPORT_2019.pdf

5. https://au.citizensclimatelobby.org/a-carbon-fee-and-dividend-policy-for-australia/

6. https://www.auscarbondividend.com/

7. https://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/business-law/new-carbon-dividend-proposal-gets-community-support

Creating the political will for a liveable world