Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Can Australia Meet the Paris Climate Challenge?

By Graeme Pearman

We need to accelerate our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Meeting the Paris goal of limiting global warming to 2°C or less will require a massive reduction in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and a much steeper emission reductions trajectory than is commonly assumed.

Much of Australia’s fossil fuel resources – coal, oil and gas – will need to remain safely sequestered in the ground. Energy will become more expensive. Society will adapt by rapidly expanding renewables and becoming more energy efficient.

Opinion on the causes and importance of climate change remains divisive across society. Nevertheless, the scientific evidence is robust. Scientific understanding of the drivers of the climate system has steadily advanced since the 1992 adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The most recent IPCC report in 2013 concluded: “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century”.

The 21st Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP-21) in Paris in December 2015 was the most recent of a series of international meetings attempting to reach agreement on policies to limit the impact of human activities on climate change. Both of the world’s largest emitters, the US and China, agreed to a course of action.

The main outcomes from the Paris Agreement were:

  • the establishment of a clear goal for containing global warming – reaffirming the goal of limiting global temperature increase to below 2°C, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C;
  • the establishment of binding commitments by all parties to make “nationally determined contributions” to emission reductions, and to pursue domestic measures aimed at achieving them;
  • the commitment of all countries to submit new contribution targets every 5 years, with the clear expectation that they will “represent a progression” beyond previous ones; and
  • an extension of the current goal of mobilising $100 billion per year by 2020 through 2025 in support of developing countries responding to climate change, with a new, higher goal to be set for the period after 2025.

Australia agreed to implement an economy-wide target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2030.

In order to keep global warming to 2°C or less, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (the direct effect of CO2 plus a small additional impact of other gases, expressed as CO2-equivalents) must be less than 425 parts per million by the end of this century.

This budget must be shared between all nations. Therefore limiting global emissions to keep warming below 2°C is only feasible with immediate and strong international action, especially by the major emitting countries.

Besides adopting a more rapid reduction target, we need to improve our assessment of the risks associated with climate change at both the global and regional levels.

A major component of our response to climate change involves generation and utilisation of energy. R&D investment is required in a wide range of options but, in the meantime, new forms of energy production are needed to both serve existing and expanding energy needs.

The challenge of emission reduction is paramount. The role of fossil energy will change significantly through the next decade.

This demands policy that reflects a portfolio of options that is constantly reviewed in light of new knowledge and technologies and is unafraid of the fact that the energy world of tomorrow will be markedly different from today.

Energy utilities will develop new business models of retailing energy. The impact of domestic and centralised energy storage and the growth of electric vehicles could both facilitate and complicate the transition of our energy systems.

Meeting Australia’s ambitious emission reduction targets and then revisiting them in 5 years will be demanding for successive Australian governments. The greatest demand will be for visionary leadership, both at the corporate and government level. A de-carbonised world will be different from today, and the transition presents large challenges and opportunities.

Leadership is required to ensure that continuing delays in decision-making do not compound the expensive and invasive nature of the changes, but rather encourage the capture of opportunities and entrepreneurialism that arise in this new world state of energy sourcing and usage.

Dr Graeme Pearman AM FAA FTSE was CSIRO Chief of Atmospheric Research from 1992–2002, and is now a consultant who holds senior appointments at Monash University and Melbourne University. Dr Brian Spies FTSE has held senior research and management roles in the mineral exploration, petroleum and environmental sectors in Australia and the US, including Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO and Director of Physics at ANSTO.