Opponents of net zero emissions targets and the policies required to get there like to frame their arguments around the political ideology of climate change. Left versus right, cities versus regions and so on. But the warming of the planet is not some arbitrary political concept one either subscribes to or doesn’t — it is a scientific reality that we have to deal with.
Anyone with even the mildest interest in climate change and emissions policy has no doubt noticed the increasing pace at which the current landscape is shifting. International commitments to net zero emissions by 2050 are coming thick and fast in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow later this year. With this growing pace, Australia is fast becoming isolated as one of the few major advanced economies which has not yet committed to a scientifically compatible mid-century net zero emissions target.
Critics might view these conferences as nothing more than diplomatic talkfests, but we can already see the potential implications materialising from preliminary discussions. This is particularly evident since the election of the Biden administration which has brought a renewed and welcome focus to tackling global greenhouse gas emissions. One of the more serious implications for nations such as Australia is around trade, as a resource-rich nation and an emissions-intensive one at that, our exports carry with them unaccounted embodied emissions.
More and more of our key trading partners, strategic allies and potential export markets are signing up to net zero emissions targets. Without taking comparable and quantifiable actions to reduce and account for our emissions, particularly those related to our exports, we risk other nations accounting for these emissions for us. Carbon border adjustments, as they are known, are increasingly being considered as a mechanism to level the playing field between cheap emissions-intensive imports and local alternatives that are subject to domestic carbon pricing or similar policies.
The European Union’s Environment Committee recently passed a resolution on such a mechanism. The report from the committee insists that the mechanism must be WTO compatible and must come into effect as soon as possible, at the latest by 2023. A full vote of the parliament is expected to be held in the coming week.
I understand that the United Kingdom is also highly likely to pursue policy discussions of such a mechanism at the G7 conference later this year – Japan has also recently indicated it will consider the prospect of a carbon border tax. Add to that, US president Biden’s very evident leadership on climate and his commitment to implementing carbon border adjustments in the US; these measures are fast becoming a very real prospect.
Exempting agriculture (or any of our exports for that matter) from having to account for their embodied emissions is incredibly short-sighted. It will in fact do the exact opposite of what proponents suggest, placing the industry at risk, leaving them uncompetitive and ill-prepared to interface with an increasingly decarbonised global economy. Carving out industry-specific exemptions is a short-term strategy; it also precludes industries from taking advantage of new opportunities and could slow the progress that we’re already making in key areas. Agriculture can lean into these opportunities, with carbon farming through soil sequestration and cool burning providing new potential revenue streams and productivity gains – but not if we cut them out of the deal.
Industry-specific exemptions also place a greater burden on other sectors of our economy who will have to work harder as a result and make deeper cuts likely requiring net negative emissions. This conversation shouldn’t be about who has the best case to dodge the hard work, but how can we enable and make the work of emissions reduction impactful, expedient and with as minimal financial burden as possible.
Australia alone cannot resolve anthropogenic warming, as many opponents love to proclaim, it is indeed true that we are too small to make an appreciable difference to global average temperatures rises. But this argument is so one-dimensional, it ignores the geopolitical nuance that underpins our diplomacy and trade with other nations.
Our Pacific neighbours have described themselves as the canary in the coal mine, their islands slowly succumbing to climate change-driven sea level rises. They have pleaded with us to raise our ambition to add ourselves to the growing list of nations and subsequent emissions reductions efforts required to stem the literal tide. From the Great Barrier Reef’s perspective, significantly greater efforts are required globally to secure the long-term health of the Reef.
It is very hard to mount a compelling case, in defence of the Reef, when we as the custodians aren’t making the same level of effort on emissions that others already are, and that the science necessitates in order to safeguard the Reef’s future. It is my view that we should be driving the dialogue, encouraging and inspiring others to grow their own ambition, it is so clearly in our national interest, not just for the Reef but for a myriad of other very obvious reasons.
Despite what critics might tell you, getting to net zero emissions isn’t all pain and expense, there are significant opportunities for Australia. It is entirely possible that we could become a world-leading exporter of green hydrogen and ammonia, zero-emissions synthetic fuels and a producer of green steel and aluminium. All this enabled through the virtually boundless amounts of renewable energy resources our continent is blessed with.
If ever there was a time for significant reforms and planning for Australia’s future, it is right now — and if Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is that the mainstream scientific advice of experts matters greatly. By taking their advice and acting pragmatically upon it, we have drastically improved health outcomes for Australia, and Australians. We need to apply the same approach to tackling the challenges of climate change and preparing our country for the forthcoming decarbonised global economy.