Australia’s leading scientists and engineers have told the Morrison government the technologies needed to make significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions already exist – and the Coalition should immediately implement a national net zero policy.
In an explicit response to the government’s “technology, not taxes” approach to reducing emissions, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering has released a position statement calling on the government to “prioritise the immediate deployment of existing mature, low-carbon technologies which can make deep cuts to high-emitting sectors before 2030”.
The academy has also urged the government to set a more ambitious emissions target for 2030 ahead of the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, following calls by diplomats, scientists, business leaders, and backbench Coalition MPs Warren Entsch and Jason Falinski.
The academy’s president, Prof Hugh Bradlow, said “the technologies we can use to actually make significant progress are here today”.
“We don’t have to take risks and their economics are proven,” he said. “It’s not a case of … waiting for some miracle to happen. It’s a case of getting on with it now.”
Bradlow said setting a target of net zero emissions by 2050 – as most business and industry groups, all the states and more than 100 national governments have – was an “unequivocal requirement” that countries should meet.
“Most countries are stepping up to recognise that requirement, and without that sort of commitment you don’t take the actions that you need in order to get there,” he said.
Prof Renate Egan of the University of New South Wales, a member of the academy’s energy forum working group, said existing technologies – including solar and wind power, energy storage, electric vehicles and energy efficiency for buildings – could rapidly reduce emissions in the electricity, stationary energy and transport sectors.
Egan said electricity, which accounts for about a third of Australia’s emissions, was already on track to be 80% renewably generated by 2030. But she said while large emissions reductions could be achieved using existing technology, reaching net zero would require investment in new technologies such as “clean” hydrogen and greener processes for manufacturing aluminium and steel.
Morrison under pressure
The Morrison government has emphasised the latter, promising to support five priority areas – also including carbon capture and storage, and soil carbon – under a low-emissions technology statement released last year.
It is under rising pressure to do more to reduce emissions in the short term. An Australian Conservation Foundation survey of 15,000 people released this week found a majority of people in every federal electorate believed the Morrison government should be doing more to tackle the climate crisis.
Entsch and Falinski both called for the 2030 emissions target to be increased beyond the government’s six-year-old commitment of a 26-28% cut compared with 2005 levels. On Wednesday, Falinski tweeted that the government should commit to reaching net zero by 2050 and set a new “stretch target” for 2030. Entsch said he had been lobbying his senior colleagues to commit to “stronger interim emissions reduction commitments”.
But some Nationals MPs remain strongly opposed to greater climate action, and Morrison has resisted calls to join the US, European Union, UK, Japan and Canada in significantly increasing 2030 goals, and the more than 100 countries that have set a mid-century net zero target. He has promised a long-term emissions strategy before the Glasgow summit in November.
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, last week told Guardian Australia “progress is being made behind closed doors” within the government on climate change, but said he was “very comfortable” with the 2030 target.
Dr John Söderbaum, chair of the technology and engineering academy’s energy forum, said Australia needed a net zero policy and clear framework if the country was “to have any sort of realistic hope of reaching net zero by 2050”.
“This is not anything controversial: state and territory governments, businesses, industry associations have already adopted such targets and are calling for them,” he said. “We have lost a lot of time. We could have been much further down the path if we had had a more planned and structured approach to reducing our emissions.”
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, on Wednesday painted the climate crisis as one of the most significant security challenges of the 21st century, and accused the Morrison government of failing to rise to that reality.
Retired defence figures join call for action
A group of retired defence force personnel stressed this point in a report to be released on Thursday, saying government inaction on climate change meant it was failing in its duty to protect Australians.
The Australian Security Leaders Climate Group, which includes retired defence figures such as Admiral Chris Barrie, Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn and Colonel Neil Greet, called on the government to change its approach to climate change “as a matter of urgency”.
Its report said the politicisation of climate change had “paralysed” government departments, and called on the public service to “reestablish a ‘frank and fearless’ voice on climate policy choices”.
“The capacity of the Australian Public Service (APS) to provide advice on climate issues has been diminished,” it said.
“Former APS personnel report experiences in which initiating new work on climate change could not be overtly identified as climate focused because that may lead to the project being closed down.”
The group pointed to Australia’s catastrophic 2019-20 bushfires, when soldiers were mobilised to fire-ravaged regional areas. It called for the development of holistic policies to prepare for and prevent climate-related security risks, including protecting the country’s “precarious” global supply chains.
“In an emergency [in which] supply chains are disrupted, domestic oil and petrol supplies would last only weeks and military capacity to move and fly would be compromised,” it warned.
The latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published earlier this month, found emissions were already affecting weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe, contributing to an increase in heatwaves, heavier rainfall events and more intense droughts and tropical cyclones. In Australia, average temperatures above land have increased by about 1.4C since 1910.