Leading Australian climate and environmental scientists penned an open letter to Malcolm Turnbull, urging for action “while there is still time”.

The Three Sisters, Sydney, Australia.
Image credits Joshua Willson / Pixabay

More than 150 Australian experts have signed an open letter addressed to the country’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull urging for legislation and action on climate issues in tune with what scientists are reporting. The document was organised by Australian National University climatologist Andrew Glikson and urges the federal government to make “meaningful reductions of Australia’s peak carbon emissions and coal exports, while there is still time”.

The 154 signatories include hard-hitting names such as Climate Council member Tim Flannery, Will Steffen, Lesley Hughes, as well as reef scientists Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Charlie Veron. These aren’t some miss-informed activists — they’re leading minds in climate and environmental research, and they know what they’re talking about.

The letter points out that July 2016 was one of the hottest months ever, and it followed a nine-month streak of record-breaking temperatures. It also cites work showing that the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million in 2015 and is still rising at a rate of nearly 3 ppm each year. We’re already witnessing the effects shifting climate patterns have on the planet, the letter goes on to say, such as an increase in freak and extreme weather events, ocean acidification and melting of the polar ice sheets.

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We’re not aiming high enough

Last year at the UN conference held in Paris, Australia and a host of other 179 countries signed a climate treaty to limit to limit average global warming to “well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”. In a report issued on Wednesday, the Climate Institute highlighted that aiming for 1.5C instead of 2C would avoid longer heatwaves and droughts, and give the Great Barrier Reef a better chance of survival. The institute recommended that Australia adopts an emissions reduction target of 65% below 2005 levels by 2030 and phase out coal power by 2035.

Back in 2014, the Climate Change Authority, which advises the government on climate policy, recommended that Australia adopts a target of 40% to 60% below 2000 levels by 2030. The greenhouse gas target Australia agreed on at the Paris climate summit however only calls for emission levels to be reduced by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

But, as Glikson points out, “the Paris agreement, being non-binding, is in danger of not being fulfilled by many of the signatories”. The treaty will not come into effect until 55 countries ratify it, accounting for at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse emissions. He called for action to “transition from carbon-emitting technologies to alternative clean energy as fast as possible, and focus technology on draw-down (sequestration) of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere”. Even more, researchers have criticized the Paris goal as not being ambitious enough. ANU engineering professor Andrew Blakers believes the county can cut emissions by two-thirds until that time “at negligible cost”.

With the falling cost of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind power, clean energy plants can take over part or all of the conventional ones. Factor in replacing gas with electricity for heating and combustion engine vehicles with electric ones, and you’ve eliminated most emissions. Australia already adds 1 gigawatt of solar and wind power each year, but this would have to be increased to 2.5 gigawatts each year to reach 100% renewable energy by 2030. The remaining sources, such as shipping, aviation, and industry, could be dealt with after that time, as they will probably take a little more effort and investment.

Climate Council member and professor at the Macquaire University Lesley Hughes said that a number of factors are causing the gap between scientific fact and policy. Vested interests, perception of economic downsides of climate action, ideological biases and inertia in the system from investment in fossil fuels are some of the reasons he cited. But she said the “most important issue” was the difficulty in convincing people to act to reduce risk decades in the future.