In Australia we’ve been talking about climate change for over a century …
As decades go by and emissions rise, the politics has stayed the same.
Each time it bubbles up we’re told taking action will result in job losses and disruption to the Australian way of life, and we’re better off waiting.
But strip away all the politics, and the maths tells a different story: reducing emissions now will buy us more time to get to zero, but inaction dramatically cuts the time we have to act.
This is why the next five years are so important.
To understand how this works let’s start with the basics.
Every time we burn coal or gas or petrol, we release CO2, which is a molecule that keeps our atmosphere warm.
Roughly half is absorbed by what are called carbon sinks.
These are things like oceans and forests.
But here’s the important bit: the other half doesn’t disappear — it stays in the atmosphere.
If we want to stop temperatures rising, we have to stop emitting CO2. No amount of political slogans or spin can change that.
The Paris Agreement, which Australia and the world has signed up to, aims to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius and as close to 1.5 degrees as possible to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system“.
The Paris Agreement is often talked about alongside “net zero by 2050”, but this is the tricky bit about understanding climate change. While we have a set amount of CO2 we can emit before the rise in temperatures gets dangerous, how long we have to act isn’t set in stone.
It’s like having a set amount of money in the bank; how quickly you spend it determines how long it will last. The more CO2 we emit each year, the closer the date we have to stop gets.
So how much have we got to spend?
To give ourselves a fighting chance at doing this, the world can only emit 2,160 gigatonnes of CO2*.
This is called a carbon budget. It’s been calculated by leading scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who were commissioned by the UN to look at what it would take to keep warming to 1.5 degrees or below.
That figure sounds like a lot, so let’s put it in context.
This circle represents that budget.
The blob represents the world’s emissions since the start of the industrial revolution.
As each year passes, more emissions are added to that blob; currently it shows the total emissions up until 1940. Essentially we need to stop emitting CO2 before the blob goes beyond the circle.
Here are those emissions plotted on a chart. Each line on the chart is the amount of CO2 the world put out into the atmosphere in one year through burning fossil fuels. If you add all of them together you get the total emissions humanity has burnt up until 1940, or how much of our carbon budget we had used by then.
Let’s jump forward 10 years to 1950 — as you can see, both the chart and blob grow.
Now if we’d kept burning fossil fuels at the same rate we did in 1950, we would have plenty of time before temperatures reached that dangerous point.
The orange lines you see in the chart project the equivalent of 1950s emissions each year into the future. To use the budget analogy, if we spent the same amount each year from 1950 we’d have more than 150 years before we exhausted our carbon budget.
That didn’t happen, which is no surprise. At this point, while the scientific understanding that underpins climate change was decades old, scientists were still grappling with how to measure its effect.
But we did know it was an issue worth being concerned about, as reporting from the time shows.
The earth is getting warmer, the weathermen now agree. If the world’s temperature keeps rising at its present, or a faster rate, many things will happen, mostly bad.
Cairns Post, June 10, 1950
Let’s step forward again.
Between 1950 and 1980 was a period of huge economic growth in the world, which saw it transform into the modern, fossil fuel-powered world we know today.
You can also see that we didn’t just keep burning fossil fuels. We massively increased the amount we were burning.
And this is where the argument about not acting too fast on climate change starts to come undone. As we keep increasing our emissions, the amount of time we have left before we reach this limit gets smaller.
That’s because our higher annual emissions use up the carbon budget at a faster rate. Initially, the release of emissions was like a dripping tap; now we’ve turned the tap on.
By the 1980s, scientists (including those who worked for fossil fuel companies) had a pretty clear idea what was going on in the climate, and could start to measure increases in CO2 and increases in global temperatures. So we knew even then that one day we’d have to stop using fossil fuels.
If we wanted to keep burning fossil fuels at 1980 rates then we’d have just under 80 years before we’d have to stop.
But importantly, if in 1980 we’d decided to start using less, we’d have even more time before we used up our carbon budget — beyond what we can show you on this chart.
That’s because every bit of CO2 we don’t emit each year means more space left in the budget for future years. We’d only have to reduce our emissions by a tiny amount each year.
And while technologies like solar and wind power weren’t mature yet, we could have stabilised or reduced our emissions by being more efficient with how we used fossil fuels.
It’s not glamorous, but efficiency can have a huge impact on our emissions.
An in-depth report commissioned by the Commonwealth now brings Australia up to date: it outlines quite simple efficiency measures that will not affect economic development but will realise dramatic cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions and save consumers lots of money on fuel bills into the bargain.
Canberra Times, June 23, 1990
So did we do that? You probably know the answer. We didn’t just keep going, we ramped it up again — big time.
In 1992 Australia signed the world’s first climate treaty, and criticism of action on global warming started to gather pace.
Coal industry representatives have fought back strongly against any plans to cut greenhouse emissions from burning coal, saying it would be an expensive move which would undercut one of Australia’s strongest export industries.
Canberra Times, February 5, 1993
This opposition was accompanied by familiar framing: “Advocating a moderate and pragmatic response on global warming.”
Those reasonable sounding words, repeated by politicians and fossil fuel companies year after year, make it sound like we’re gradually solving the problem. But again, strip away the politics, and see what is happening to emissions globally.
Each decade of growth is shaving more and more time off how long we have to solve climate change.
What this chart also shows is that in the pursuit of profits, the fossil fuel industry is shortening its life.
That might be good for profits, but it’s not good for the future of jobs in the industry. Each decade that the politics of going slow wins out, the amount of time we have to transition slowly is reduced.
In 2012 Australia actually implemented a price on carbon, which drove down emissions for a period, while the economy continued to grow.
But again the politics of climate change intervened.
Tony Abbott hails demise of ‘useless, destructive’ carbon tax
The Guardian, July 17, 2014
Malcolm Turnbull: Under-pressure Australia PM drops climate policy
BBC, August 20, 2018
So this is where we are now.
We’re at a point where the effects of climate change — such as the 2020 Black Summer bushfires — can no longer be ignored, and globally the emissions tap has gone from dripping, to flowing, to full bore. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the political message.
That century the world had to get on top of this problem has been squandered in a few short decades.
The same calculus applies just as brutally now. We can’t just keep emitting until 2050 and be fine; that date only works if we all start reducing emissions now.
If we spend the next five years not reducing emissions, that gives us just 15 years to make that transition.
So is there any good news? Yes.
While this chart shows how we squandered the world’s chance for a century-long transition away from fossil fuels, it also shows that any action to reduce emissions buys more time — and demonstrates just how crucial the next five years are.
It’s easy to feel powerless, but everything we do now has an outsized impact on how long we have to get to zero. The challenge isn’t turning everything off tomorrow; it’s doing whatever we can now so we don’t have to.
And in a stroke of luck we have arrived at a junction in history where, driven by economics, the transition away from fossil fuels is gathering pace just as the world starts to feel the impacts of climate change.
For Australia, speeding up action on climate change doesn’t have to be a cost, it could be an economic opportunity.
Renewable energy is the cheapest way to power the world, and while our emissions have bounced back since COVID, they are likely to peak at 2019 levels. So the question now is how quickly they can come down.
A recent report from Access Economics laid out the choice facing Australia, and crushed the myth of action on climate change versus jobs.
“While inaction will have the effect of curtailing Australia’s economic growth to the tune of $3.4 trillion and 880,000 fewer jobs in just 50 years, there is an upside — a new choice that Australia can make to create a new climate for growth. And the payoff? A bigger economy –$680 billion bigger – with 250,000 more jobs in just 50 years,” the report says.
“The policy choices over the next 2-3 years are the choices that will shape the next 10-20 — this is the narrow window we have to choose the change that will prevent the worst consequences of a warming world.”
There’s no doubt this is a big job, but big jobs mean lots of work, especially in areas of the country reliant on fossil fuel jobs.
If we start now we will have 25 years instead of 15 to pull this off, and Australia won’t be going alone.
US President Joe Biden has put action on climate change at the centre of his plans, and the European Union is ramping up the speed of its transition.The UK has shown that action on climate change is not a left-wing issue; Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to a 78 per cent reduction in emissions by 2035.
Biden plans to cut emissions at least in half by 2030
Washington Post, April 21, 2021
The G7, which Prime Minister Scott Morrison was invited to, has committed to ending government support for coal-fired power stations by the end of 2021, and to “accelerate the international transition away from coal”.
Closer to home, in the past year major emitters Japan, Korea, and China have all committed to net zero targets — 2060 for China, and 2050 for Japan and Korea. Those three countries are also Australia’s three largest export markets for coal and gas, and to reach those goals they have to start transitioning away from fossil fuels straight away.
S.Korea’s Moon vows to end new funding for overseas coal projects
Reuters, April 23, 2021
China to curb coal demand growth in economic plans as part of climate targets
S&P Global, April 23, 2021
Japan cancels its last coal power plan project
Bloomberg, April 27, 2021
So the transition is coming, but if Australia sits on its hands for five years it will waste the best chance it has to create the industries that could turn it into an energy superpower.
If you live in a part of Australia that’s reliant on fossil fuel jobs, it is easy to see the appeal of the message “we can’t turn things off tomorrow”. But if we keep following that thinking, tomorrow won’t be in 2050 — it will be just around the corner.
This article is the first in a series of three stories from ABC News Story Lab exploring why action on climate change is now picking up urgency, and the opportunities we have to solve this global problem. If you’d like to be notified about this and other interactives, visualisations and good reads from Story Lab, subscribe for occasional updates.
- Reporter/Producer: Tim Leslie
- Design: Georgina Piper
- Development: Simon Elvery
- Editor: Cristen Tilley
The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees calculated that if the world is to have a 50 per cent chance of keeping temperatures at or below 1.5 degrees above historical averages, emissions from 2018 onwards need to be 580 gigatonnes of CO2. The carbon budget used in this story adds this figure to cumulative historic emissions up until 2018. Emissions data is taken from the 2020 Data supplement to the Global Carbon Budget.
Zebedee Nicholls, a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Climate & Energy College, provided expert advice on use of the carbon budget.
- Coal Consumption affecting climate — The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal, June 17, 1912
- Carbon Dioxide. Could change world — Townsville Daily Bulletin, July 25, 1933
- Whole Earth seems to be warming up — The Courier Mail, June 6, 1947
- Weather men agree: The Earth is getting warmer — Cairns Post, June 10, 1950
- Time for parsimony in Australia’s use of power — The Canberra Times, June 23, 1990
- Govt’s gas-reduction plans ‘too powerful’ — The Canberra Times, February 5, 1993
- Tony Abbott hails demise of ‘useless, destructive’ carbon tax — The Guardian, July 17, 2014
- Malcolm Turnbull: Under-pressure Australia PM drops climate policy — BBC, August 20, 2018
- Climate crisis will be like a permanent pandemic: Deloitte — Australian Financial Review, November 2, 2020
- Biden plans to cut emissions at least in half by 2030 — The Washington Post, April 21, 2021
- S.Korea’s Moon vows to end new funding for overseas coal projects — Reuters, April 23, 2021
- China to curb coal demand growth in economic plans as part of climate targets — S&P Global, 23 April, 2021
- Japan cancels its last coal power plan project — Bloomberg, April 27, 2021
- Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Greens Leader Bob Brown at a press conference — AAP Image, Alan Porritt
- Then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott speaking at the anti-carbon tax rally in Canberra — AAP Image, Alan Porritt
- Prime Minister Scott Morrison holding a piece of coal in Federal Parliament, AAP Image, Mick Tsikas