A landmark assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the world’s leading authority on climate science – has found that human activities are unequivocally heating the planet and causing changes not seen for centuries and in some cases thousands of years.
In Australia, it found average temperatures above land had already increased by about 1.4C since 1910. Annual changes in temperature were now above what could be expected from natural variation in all regions across the continent.
A regional fact sheet released alongside the report said heatwaves and dangerous fire weather had increased, the bushfire season had become longer, and marine heatwaves were more common. Sea levels were rising faster in Australia than the global average and sandy shorelines were already retreating in many areas.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, is attempting to shift the Coalition’s climate policy ahead of the Cop26 in Glasgow in November, but some members of the National party are signalling outright opposition to him adopting a commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
On Wednesday morning, the Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, was interviewed by the ABC about the IPCC report and the government’s plans. He made a number of claims. What are the facts?
Joyce: “Nobody is telling us exactly what’s involved in the [emissions reduction] plan. If you are just going to make an arbitrary claim, oh well we’ll get to 2050, that’s fine I understand the emotion, I understand almost the moral perspective of it, but you must lay down the plan.”
Joyce is currently the deputy prime minister of Australia. In a representative democracy, voters elect parliamentarians to make plans and legislate them. That’s their job. Signatories to the Paris agreement (and that’s Australia) have already signed on to achieving carbon neutrality by mid-century, or not long after. Paris is a beautiful, romantic city that famously stirs human emotions, but no government (certainly not the one led by Tony Abbott) signed the Paris agreement because of “emotion” or because of “the moral perspective of it”. That agreement was signed because political leaders accepted the science that was set out again by the IPCC this week – the science that shows humans need to move quickly to head off runaway global heating.
Joyce: “We don’t actually come up with the plan. The CSIRO, other competent people, come up with the plan.”
As mentioned above, this Coalition government, the one Joyce is a senior member of, came up with the plan to sign and ratify the Paris agreement, which sets the world on a trajectory of reaching net zero emissions. The plan that Joyce claims doesn’t exist is already in motion, and the government says it will provide an update on its actions before the Cop26 in Glasgow. To recap: governments formulate plans, and if they require legislation, proceed to legislate them. Governments seeking to formulate and implement their plans are often advised by experts, like the CSIRO, and by their departments.
Joyce: “As you go down this process, exactly, exactly, what is the cost and who is paying it?”
This is the National party’s holding line. Morrison wants to try and secure internal agreement to reach net zero by 2050 before Australia attends the Cop26 in November. While those deliberations play out, the Nationals are saying they won’t sign on to any agreement without knowing the cost. Obviously, it is optimal to perform a cost/benefit analysis before formulating significant policy (and the Coalition got the ANU’s Warwick McKibbin to model the economic impacts for Australia of a range of post-2020 emissions reductions targets before it signed the Paris agreement). But in this debate, the Nationals tend to dwell more on costs than benefits. Almost like they are trying to resist climate action. Or something.
Joyce: “If the Labor party believe in this so fervently, they can legislate it … I’m telling you right now we don’t believe in legislating until we have a clear understanding of exactly where the costs are.”
No. The Labor party cannot legislate a 2050 target from opposition. That’s not how it works.
During this morning’s interview, the ABC’s Fran Kelly compared Joyce’s various contentions to a false claim he made during the carbon “tax” debate that a carbon price would increase the price of a lamb roast to $100. Kelly: “We are in the land of $200 lamb roasts now, or $400, I can’t quite remember what it was.”
Joyce: “Which people said would never happen when I suggested it some years ago, but anyway go on.” Kelly: “It didn’t happen. I don’t pay $200 for a lamb roast. I don’t know where you get yours”. Joyce: “I said $100, and in some areas it is approaching that, but go on.”
According to the website of Coles Supermarkets, a lamb roast is currently retailing at $12 a kilo. The displayed item in the online store is a roast of approximately 2.43kg costing $29.
Joyce: “One of the things [the IPCC has] shown is dramatic growth, exponential growth, in coal emissions, right? Which is a presumption that coal-fired power plants are going to grow. Now I don’t agree with that. They talk about 15% coming from agriculture. Now I understand that, but where is the reductions going to happen in agriculture?”
Coal first. In the main IPCC document of around 4,000 pages, the word coal appears fewer than 50 times. Perhaps the argument Joyce references is in there, or in material I haven’t seen, but I couldn’t find it. There was one reference suggesting the opposite: that slower growth in fossil CO2 emissions in the last decade was “due to a slowdown in growth from coal use”. Joyce’s agriculture reference is broadly correct. “More globally, land-use change is currently responsible for about 15% of the emissions of carbon dioxide from human activities, leading to global warming, which in turn affects precipitation, evaporation, and plant transpiration,” the report states. Land use is actually a larger category than agriculture. I’ll deal with Joyce’s “where” question in the next section.
Joyce: “We need a clear idea of exactly what their [IPCC’s] intentions are. The UN IPCC report obviously has people vastly more competent than me, I understand their concerns, but they’ve got to come up with clear suggestions of the reductions. I don’t want to denigrate [the report] but yes, I have been going through it, and there are issues that I have concerns with, and the biggest one, of course, is on the adoption of it, there has to be in Australia a clear understanding by competent authorities, which are not politicians Fran. OK, if you are going to do this, this is how you to do it.”
You might need a couple of ibuprofen washed down with a swig of whiskey before unpacking this word salad. The IPCC’s intentions are simple: put climate science before legislators and their constituents. That’s it. The IPCC doesn’t supplant the role of governments. Sovereign governments are the people who come up with concrete plans for emissions reductions, hopefully informed by science. Joyce may not think politicians are competent, and sadly there is a trove of evidence we could tender to support his thesis, including a transcript of his interview, but that’s how the system works. Joyce has cast himself as a person waiting on a corner to hail a taxi, not realising that he has a taxi licence. Which would be funny – if the science was a laugh track.
Kelly asked Joyce whether he’d looked at the cost of not taking action. Kelly didn’t cite this particular reference, but just one example: a recent analysis by Deloitte found Australia’s economy would be 6% smaller, there would be 880,000 fewer jobs and $3.4tn in economic opportunities lost if the climate crisis goes unchecked for the next 50 years.
Joyce: “Well who is taking the action?”
Never a truer word.