A team of Australia’s top scientists warned of dire climate change yesterday in calling for the nation’s carbon-dominated energy sector to turn green, as the government struggles to win support for a carbon price to cut pollution.
In a report by a government--appointed Climate Commission, the scientists said many of Australia’s major cities faced a serious threat from rising sea levels, particularly Sydney.
The Great Barrier Reef will not be spared either, the report said, its coral a victim of rising ocean acidity from higher carbon dioxide levels from burning fossil fuels and felling forests. The report, titled The Critical Decade, aims to shift Australia’s current political debate over the government’s climate policy, which has polarized voters and been used by opposition parties to attack its parliamentary rivals.
“This is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change,” said the scientists, whose report was handed to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. “To minimize this risk, we must decarbonize our economy and move to clean energy sources by 2050. Carbon emissions must peak within the next few years and then strongly decline.”
Achieving that won’t be easy. Australia’s 22 million people are responsible for about 1.5 percent of mankind’s greenhouse gas pollution, making it the developed world’s top per capita carbon polluter.
Australia is also the world’s top coal exporter and relies on coal to produce about 80 percent of its electricity.
The booming mining, oil and gas sectors are also big carbon polluters, with billions of dollars pledged for the liquefied natural gas sector set to push emissions up further.
To try to reign in growing emissions, the government has staked its reputation on passing laws that impose a price on every tonne of carbon emissions from major polluters from next year. Full market trading of those emissions, in the form of permits, could start as early as 2015.
Australian Climate Commissioner Will Steffen said whatever policy the government chose, it needed to be strong enough to drive investment out of carbon and into greener energy.
Gillard’s planned carbon price, between A$20 (US$21) and A$30 a tonne, is meant to drive the power sector toward cleaner energy. Australia needs A$100 billion in fresh investment over the next decade to replace its old coal-fired power stations.
The report reviewed climate change data, including from the UN climate panel, highlighting Australia’s risk from more extreme droughts, floods and deadly bush fires.
“The impacts of climate change are already being felt in Australia and around the world, with less than 1 degree of warming globally,” the scientists said. “The risks of future climate change — to our economy, society and environment — are serious, and grow rapidly with each degree of further temperature rise.”