Australia’s Climate Commission does the maths


US climate activist Bill McKibben recently toured Australia as part of his “Do the Maths” campaign advocating divestment from fossil fuels, based on the arithmetic which shows to avoid dangerous climate change we must leave most fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Of course, the Australian government and businesses scoffed. Now, this reality has been acknowledged by a government body for the first time. Australia’s Climate Commission, an independent scientific advisory body established in 2011, yesterday released its latest report The Critical Decade 2013: Climate Change science, risks and responses, co-authored by climate scientists Will Steffen and Lesley Hughes. The report’s name refers to the fact that 2011-2020 is the critical decade for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The whole report is worth reading for its comprehensive explanation of the science, but here I will focus on the fifth of its “key findings”:

5. Most of the available fossil fuels cannot be burned if we are to stabilise the climate this century.

  • The burning of fossil fuels represents the most significant contributor to climate change.
  • From today until 2050 we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to have a good chance of staying within the 2°C limit.
  • Based on estimates by the International Energy Agency, emissions from using all the world’s fossil fuel reserves would be around five times this budget. Burning all fossil fuel reserves would lead to unprecedented changes in climate so severe that they will challenge the existence of our society as we know it today.
  • It is clear that most fossil fuels must be left in the ground and cannot be burned.
  • Storing carbon in soils and vegetation is part of the solution but cannot substitute for reducing fossil fuel emissions.


Hughes put it even more bluntly in an ABC interview:

In order to achieve that goal of stabilizing the climate at 2 degrees or less, we simply have to leave about 80 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We cannot afford to burn them and still have a stable and safe climate.

This is not just me saying this – it is an Australian government body. Yet industry and government continue to scoff. When Greens leader Christine Milne asked in the Senate whether the Labor government agrees with the Climate Commission, the minister representing the Minister for Climate Change, Kate Lundy, thrice avoided the question before finally responding:

In the longer term these issues will be influenced by the extent to which the industry can commercialise carbon capture and storage technologies. Countries are responsible for their domestic emissions and how they meet their national targets which contribute to the global carbon budget. […] When it comes to exports, the majority of Australia’s coal exports go to Japan, South Korea, China and the European Union. All of these countries have introduced or plan to introduce a price on carbon through emissions trading schemes or carbon taxes that will apply to coal consumption in these countries.

What Lundy failed to mention was that these national emissions targets do not add up to anything like the global emissions cuts required to limit global warming to <2°C, and carbon capture and storage will not be deployed at scale during the required timeframe. Under such circumstances, Australia cannot deny responsibility for its exports.

The full exchange is shown in this video:

Bizarrely, other Senators seemed to consider the issue not important enough to pay attention, as they can be heard talking to each other.

Lundy’s response reaffirms something I have said before: despite Labor’s claim to accept the science of climate change and support action to address it, they remain in denial of the full implications. It also conclusively disproves the frequent claims by global warming deniers that the Climate Commission’s reports are Labor propaganda.

Similarly, a spokesperson for the opposition Liberal Party, which would abolish the Climate Commission if they win government, said they would “consider the report carefully but we do not support shutting down Australia’s major export industry.” And Minerals Council of Australia CEO Mitch Hooke responded that he “can’t find the environmental dividend” in shutting down the Australian coal industry.

The report also outlines potential climate change impacts in each Australian state. For example, here is a graphic showing the impacts on Victoria:

Victoria impacts

The Climate Commission has received a lot of criticism, but I find it refreshing that these scientists are fearlessly spelling out the reality of climate change although it is politically inconvenient. As Hughes told the Sydney Morning Herald: “We are simply presenting the facts as best we know them. Just because the facts may be unpalatable to some people doesn’t make them any less important.”

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