A senior US climate official has warned Australia’s targets are “not sufficient” and the country should be considering a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, given the urgency of the threat outlined this week in a landmark report.
Dr Jonathan Pershing, the deputy to US presidential climate envoy John Kerry, said the major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had “set the stage” for the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November and would place “a lot more pressure” on the world’s biggest 20 emitting countries to act.
He said that would particularly apply to those nations such as Australia that had not increased their climate commitments since the Paris agreement, or had a target that was “less significant than the science would dictate”.
“I think you can say, observing from the outside, that – as a G20 member, as a leading developed country – the commitments they made in Paris are not sufficient,” he said of Australia.
Pershing, a trained scientist and ex-chief US climate negotiator under Barack Obama, spoke with Guardian Australia ahead of a keynote address at a Better Futures Australia forum next week. He said the scientific evidence made clear that sharp reductions in global emissions were needed in the next decade on the way to net zero by mid-century.
He said the Morrison government’s policy of supporting low-emissions technology would likely be critical in the long-term and Australia was a world-leader in rooftop solar uptake, but the country had not done enough to introduce policies to drive “nearer term outcomes”.
“Looking at the emissions trajectory, that seems inconsistent with what the science is suggesting,” he said.
He said with the science suggesting a global 40% to 50% emissions cut was required by 2030, and an expectation advanced economies would move more rapidly, “50% seems like a pretty reasonable scientific estimate” for Australia’s target.
While the country’s fossil fuel exports meant “it’s probably going to be somewhat harder” than for some others, it did not alter the fact “the current set of policies ought to be strengthened”, he said.
US president, Joe Biden, earlier this year set a national goal of cutting emissions by at least 50% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, and this week Congress passed a US$1tn infrastructure bill that included measures supporting electric vehicles, clean public transport and updating the power grid. The European and British targets equate to 51% and 63% respectively, when calculated over the same timeframe.
The Australian government’s 2030 goal of a 26-28% cut is unchanged since 2015, when it just copied the then-US target for 2025 but gave itself five extra years to meet it. It has resisted joining the more than 100 countries to set a net zero goal for mid-century.
Pershing said the IPCC report on the physical science basis of climate change would influence climate talks in the three months before Cop26 in a “much more explicit manner than you might have anticipated”.
While the projections of future change were familiar, he said the new report was more specific about the climate damage already happening, underlining to leaders “you don’t have as much time”. The extreme weather events being experienced across the globe, including wildfires in Greece, Turkey, California and Russia, would also “change the political calculus”, he said.
“Those actually change people’s minds,” he said. “I think the report is really going to elevate attention and focus, and that in turn is going to put a lot of pressure on those that have not moved far enough.”
He said Australia should be planning for an inevitable shift away from coal. As an example, he pointed to an early stage South African plan for the electricity utility Eskom to retire coal plants early and build solar, wind, gas power, batteries, micro-grids and pumped hydro storage, while supporting coal communities. The utility has suggested the rollout could create 300,000 jobs.
South Africa has similar annual emissions to Australia. “Essentially what they’re saying is ‘this has to be managed in a way that can keep communities sustained’,” Pershing said.
“It’s not that change won’t happen, it will happen. If it is orderly you might be able to plan for it and create corporate off-ramps and structures that can manage communities in a different way. If you don’t, it will happen anyway and be much more abrupt.”
Pershing’s comments follow Kerry saying in February the US and Australia governments had “some differences” on how to tackle the climate crisis, and an anonymous Biden administration official stressing in April it would not be enough for the Morrison government to stay on its current path.
With calls for greater action in the wake of the IPCC report mounting, Scott Morrison defended his position on climate in an address an Australian-American Leadership Dialogue on Wednesday, saying national emissions had fallen 20% since 2005, and suggesting the government’s focus on technology would help developing countries act.
Official Australian government data shows national emissions from burning fossil fuels increased more than 6% between 2005 and 2019. The decline in the national accounts is largely due to a historic reduction in forest clearing due to state government regulations unrelated to climate policy.
On China, the world’s biggest emitter, Pershing said he saw reason for optimism in public data suggesting it had not made investments in coal as part of its global belt and road initiative in 2021. “It does suggest the overseas coal agenda may be somewhat more movable. You might not have thought so six months ago but perhaps if this big player really is already largely out that does open a window,” he said.
China joined Russia, India and Saudi Arabia at a recent G20 environment ministers meeting in opposing a statement that unbated coal should be phased out by 2025. This had been interpreted by some as a sign momentum for greater action ahead of Cop26 may have waned since the G7 leading developed nations announced more ambitious emissions targets earlier this year.
Pershing said he believed G20 environment ministers had “actually got pretty far” with the exception of an agreement on coal, and he expected leaders to return to the issue of a coal phase-out “in a different way” when they met in Rome in late October.
He said the big question for China, which last year pledged to be carbon neutral before 2060, was its domestic transition away from coal. “Unless they can get a better handle on that we’re going to have a huge problem,” he said.
“Will we get there? I don’t know, I think that’s an open question. We’re certainly pushing. We believe they should get there. We believe the world can’t succeed if they don’t get there, but that’s a Chinese choice which the rest of us are going to kind of push on.”
* Pershing is a speaker at the Better Futures Forum, which runs from 17-19 August. Other speakers include the Cop26 president Alok Sharma, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and 200 Australian community leaders. Guardian Australia is a media partner.