Australia should be on a war footing against an accelerating global climate emergency

23 August 

Over the past three months the world has changed dramatically. Global air and sea temperature records have not only been broken but completely smashed. The global average daily air temperature exceeded the previous record for 36 consecutive days. The previous record of 16.9° was set on the 24th of July 2022. The new record of 17.2° was set less than 12 months later and represents a staggering 0.3° increase in just a single year. 

Global average daily air temperature. Source: Professor Elliot Jacobson 

And it’s not just air temperatures that are going off the charts, our oceans are also rapidly warming. 

Since May scientists have been shocked to see North Atlantic sea surface temperatures going vertical, reaching almost 1.4° above the recent mean. 

North Atlantic Sea Surface Temperature. Source: Professor Elliot Jacobson 

Described as “hot tub temperature” parts of the ocean off the coast of Florida recently hit 38° resulting in devastating mass coral bleaching. Meanwhile sea temperatures in the Mediterranean have been five degrees above average. 

The amount of sea ice that’s currently missing from Antarctica is roughly the size of Queensland and New South Wales combined. Scientists are calling it a six-sigma event which without anthropogenic fossil fuelled global warming, should only occur every 7.5 million years. Antarctic sea ice coverage has just experienced its second six-sigma event in two months.  

Antarctic Sea Ice Extent Anomaly. Source: Professor Elliot Jacobson 

While scientists have been horrified at the data coming out over the past two months, the effects of a rapidly warming planet have been playing out in real time with catastrophic consequences around the world. 

The sharp increase in global temperature data is being driven by a recent dramatic increase in the earth’s energy imbalance. In a stable climate system, the imbalance would hover around zero with roughly the same amount of energy entering the system as radiating away from of it.  

Thanks to increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane blanketing our planet, over the past few months the amount of heat energy being added to earth’s climate system is the equivalent of around 16 Hiroshima bombs every second. That’s 25% more heat being trapped than in recent years and four times the amount that was being trapped in the 2000s. 

Earth Energy Imbalance. Source: Professor Elliot Jacobson 

It’s not just getting warmer; it’s getting warmer faster. We have now entered a new accelerated phase of global warming. Climate scientists have long predicted that this would happen however many are shocked that it’s happening so soon. While the world’s scientists have done an incredible job of identifying and articulating what has been happening to our planet over recent months, our political leaders have been largely silent. 

The government's actions need to match the seriousness of the situation. In the US, the government's Inflation Reduction Act is supercharging private investment in the transition. A recent report from the American Clean Power Association showed that since the IRA became law, companies have already invested an additional $US270 billion ($A420 billion) in clean energy projects. The private sector is expected to invest trillions more over the next decade in manufacturing of EVs, batteries and solar to take advantage of the government incentives. President Biden recently said since the IRA came into law 12 months ago, the US has added 170 000 clean energy jobs and will add another 1.5 million over the next 12 months.

After taking a small target climate policy approach to the election, the Albanese government’s focus has been more about making announcements and getting headlines than real tangible outcomes that reduce emissions. To date the Albanese government’s new climate spending has been tokenistic in the millions rather than the billions of dollars needed. Australia’s chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley said that we need to be reducing emissions by about 16 million tonnes per year. Eight times faster than the current 2 million tonnes per year.

Aside from the $2 billion Hydrogen Headstart program, the government is yet to provide any major funding incentives to develop a local clean tech manufacturing industry. In fact, the Albanese government continues the Coalition’s reckless legacy of using taxpayer money to make the problem worse by subsidising huge fossil fuel projects.

With spin that Scott Morrison would be proud of, the Middle Arm gas processing hub, which paves the way for an additional 1.4 billion tonnes of emissions, has been described by Labor politicians as an “opportunity for energy transition”. Labor is handing the monster fossil fuel project $1.5 billion in taxpayer funding. 

And there are no signs that things are changing, during Labor’s National Conference the Albanese government rejected a push for the party to escalate its response to the IRA after the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) called for the Albanese government to seize the “most significant economic opportunity since the Industrial Revolution”. 

Together with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) the ETU is calling for $152 billion to incentivise a local clean technology industry and a five-fold increase in the National Reconstruction fund from $15bn to $76bn. 

Recent global events dictate that a shift of this magnitude is required however this would involve the Labor party moving away from its out-dated and reckless “small target” approach to climate policy. 

All signatories to the Paris Agreement have an obligation to do all things necessary to keep us under 1.5 degrees. Many experts are now calling for Australia to implement a proportional response to the US IRA. Such investment combined with sectoral emissions targets in agriculture, transport, industry, built environment and resources could spark the rapid shift we need to stay under 1.5 degrees. It would also help diversify Australia’s highly vulnerable coal and gas concentrated economy in a world that is now rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels.

Australia must also get its house in order in terms of measuring and reporting emissions. Earlier this year I accompanied the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Clean Air Task Force on a field trip to monitor fugitive methane emissions leaking from gas plants in New South Wales.

Zali Steggall MP and CATF Théophile Humann-Guilleminot recording fugitive methane emissions at NSW gas facility. 

The work done by ACF and CATF provides more evidence that Australian coal and gas mines are significantly underreporting methane emissions. Their investigation using infrared cameras found that methane was leaking or being vented from over 100 places at 35 fossil fuel sites in Queensland and New South Wales. 

Methane emissions are 80 times more potent in trapping heat than CO2 in the first 20 years. The IEA says that methane is responsible for around 30% of the current rise in global temperature and that Australia is underreporting its methane emissions by up to 60%. 

Significant underreporting of methane at Australian coal and gas mines invalidates all of Australia’s climate commitments including the Safeguard Mechanism cap. In Parliament earlier this month I asked the government if it would legislate to properly measure and stop leaking and venting of methane. 

Minister for Climate and Energy Chris Bowen acknowledged that fugitive methane leaks are a serious problem but the government is yet to explain how it will deal with the emissions discrepancies. In the meantime it should ban all new coal and gas projects. 

As Australians watch on while the northern hemisphere experiences record heat, fire and flood disasters almost daily, there’s a growing sense of anxiety for what our summer could have in store for us. Countries around the world are waking up to the seriousness and urgency of the climate emergency and their governments are now beginning to take bold action. 

The Australian government needs to acknowledge that over the past three months the world has changed. Global warming has accelerated, and current climate policies are completely inadequate. 

We have the solutions; we now need strong leadership to mobilise the nation into action.