Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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We can do without the gold standard rules, thank you

Greg Hunt’s optimism is misplaced. It’s past time our government dropped the deception over emissions. [1 December 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Last week we got an idea of how Australia might put its case in the Paris climate meeting when environment minister Greg Hunt outlined his government’s climate credentials at the National Press Club.

Thousands rallied on Hobart’s Parliament Lawns in support of strong climate decisions in Paris. PHOTO Rob Blakers

Thousands rallied on Hobart’s Parliament Lawns to support strong climate measures on the eve of the Paris meeting. PHOTO Rob Blakers

Fossil fuels and the global carbon budget, presently dominating the global climate debate, were entirely absent from his speech. He mentioned coal once, in a criticism of Labor’s carbon tax rebate for brown coal generators, but he was silent on its emissions.

He did talk about the mysterious disappearance of Australia’s official 2020 abatement task, calculated in 2013 to be 755 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. “We have closed the emissions gap and go to Paris officially sub-zero and on track to beat our 2020 target,” he said.

But carbon analysts Reputex and Pitt & Sherry say that our emissions are rising. According to Reputex they will actually be 6 per cent higher in 2020. So how can Hunt say this?

The answer is the gift that keeps on giving, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Embedded in that agreement was what’s known in global climate circles as the “Australia clause”. Under this special deal we could count avoided land clearing as an emissions cut, enabling us to increase emissions by as much as eight per cent while claiming we were lowering them.

At the end of the Kyoto period in 2012 our emissions were well below that limit, so we were entitled under what Hunt called “global gold standard” accounting rules to carry that abatement forward. So even when our emissions are rising, we can say we’ve cut them.

Hunt said last week that both major parties have used these rules, and he’s right. Under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, Labor used the Kyoto escape clause to make Australian emissions look good. That’s politics at work, you might say, but by any measure it’s also deception.

Hunt said he’s confident that Paris will be the start of “a process that will keep the world below a two degree change”. He envisaged five-yearly reviews of targets, starting in 2020, which presumably would toughen up our present commitments.

In times when international diplomacy took place behind closed doors and we had to accept blindly the wisdom of our masters, Hunt’s breezy optimism might have induced the same in others. But now we know about those gold standard rules.

A five-yearly review is always a good lurk for a government. In this case it takes us beyond two Australian elections, out of sight and out of mind, and lets governments off the hook in Paris. But decades of this sort of procrastination have already brought the world to Code Red territory.

In July, the Climate Change Authority used scientific evidence to determine that a 2030 Australian target consistent with a reasonable chance of avoiding 2C of warming would be at least 45 per cent below 2005 levels – 17C above the upper limit of the government’s target.

Labor under Bill Shorten has now committed itself to that minimum CCA target and set a further aim of zero net emissions, or carbon neutrality, by 2050, which both scientific and economic institutions have identified as an appropriate target for all developed economies.

To anyone who’s followed the science of climate, there’s nothing untoward about this ambition. In fact it’s conservative, given continuing upward trends in emissions since 2000, multiple heatwaves and exceptional weather events, and the warmest five years ever from 2010.

Malcolm Turnbull, however, chose to characterise it as “heroic”. That’s a badge Shorten should wear with pride. Bold action in Paris will be supported by most Australians, justifiably anxious about climate change and fed up with smoke-and-mirrors politics.

The prime minister could have dragged out “Electricity Bill” furphies, as some ministers did last week, but limited his attack on Shorten to criticising the policy’s “considerable” expense. He knows it would be unwise to allow his opponent’s policy to dictate his government’s options in Paris.

Turnbull should empower his Paris team, including Hunt and foreign minister Julie Bishop, to listen to what’s being said around them in Paris and commit their country to strong, verifiable measures of substance. And to put away the Kyoto gold standard rules, for good.

Leaders will feel the heat in Paris

With global temperatures soaring, the pressure for a successful outcome in Paris will be huge [24 November 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Sea surface temperatures in October (top) and temperature comparisons (bottom). IMAGES courtesy NOAA

Sea surface temperatures in October (top) and temperature comparisons (bottom). IMAGES courtesy NOAA

It’s happening. Heat energy stored by the global ocean is now being released to the air around us, and the big burst of global warming anticipated for years by climate scientists is upon us.

For 15 years the world’s ocean has been taking up greenhouse energy from the atmosphere and storing it in its depths. Now some of that heat is escaping, courtesy of a big El Nino event in the equatorial Pacific.

Since 1998 there’s been a succession of moderate and short-lived El Ninos, but this year’s looks as if it may rival the 1997-98 event, the most powerful on record.

There was no El Nino in 2014, but even so the mean global surface temperature in that year was the warmest ever recorded. Scientists then said it looked as if it could be the start of something bigger again. They also reminded us that nothing is certain in global climate.

But by mid-2015, warm waters of the eastern tropical Pacific had finally begun to push westward – the mark of a developing El Nino.

Last week Japanese and US government agencies released data for the year to the end of October, with the message that 2015 is more than 95 per cent certain to be the warmest year ever recorded.

October was a killer month. Its global mean, NASA says, was 1.04C above the October average since records began in the 19th century – the biggest-ever departure from monthly averages and the first time NASA has recorded a monthly anomaly exceeding 1C.

There are a couple of startling images in information released last week by America’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

One is a current sea surface temperature map. Most colours vary from patches of pale blue, showing cooling waters, to bigger areas of pink-shaded places (warming waters). But the eye is drawn to the eastern and northern Pacific, where large splashes of deep red depict extreme warming.

The other is a graph comparing month by month temperatures through the warmest years on record, with the six warmest years all clustered within a range of 0.2C. But the progression for January to October this year is way out on its own, clear of the next highest by an exceptional margin.

It’s impossible to view these images without a sense of foreboding, especially in Australia at this time of year when the twin scourges of drought and fire are always in the back of our minds.

Australia has just had its warmest October on record, and searing heat across the continent last week suggests November may be not far behind. Heat and drought have brought a high risk of wildfire to all southern states and left us with depressingly low hydro storages.

The current El Nino is expected to start decaying over summer, but underlying warming is expected to continue thanks to a positive, or warming, phase in long-term Pacific surface temperature cycles.

We know that if we don’t radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions the task gets tougher as each year passes. Yet the Global Carbon Project calculates that recent emissions have been higher than ever, around 10 billion tonnes of carbon a year and rising.

It gets worse. A veteran UK carbon scientist calculates that keeping a temperature rise below 2C would leave us with half the fossil fuel that we thought we’d have available to burn up to 2100.

In a paper published last week in Nature Geoscience, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall climate centre notes that the scenarios on which current targets are based are implausible or impossible, and assume we’ve already passed peak emissions when we haven’t.

What should we be saying to the world leaders soon to gather in the beleaguered city of Paris to chart a way out of these dire straits?

If they want history to remember them well, they will need courage and a long view. Decisions of any value will inevitably bring prolonged economic disruption. Though some people will find the challenge exhilarating, there will also be anger and distress.

This is a task for a lifetime and beyond, a long, hard slog for governments, business and the rest of us. But leaders should be aware that an informed public, knowing the awful consequences of failure, will support decisive action.

For people who won’t be in Paris but feel they have a stake in the outcome (and who doesn’t?), rallies next weekend will fill public spaces in cities around the world, including all Australian capitals and many regional centres. Tasmania’s share of this massive global mobilisation will be a rally on Parliament Lawns, Hobart, from 1 pm on Sunday, and an event at Burnie Park from 2 pm on the same day. Click here for information.

Coal: the black cloud on Turnbull’s horizon

We can end the climate threat posed by coal by removing the public subsidies that underpin its profits. [Peter Boyer | 17 November 2015]

There’s a hint of a breeze blowing through Australia’s climate policy space in the wake of Malcolm Turnbull’s rise to the prime ministership.

Abbot Point coal terminal would be greatly enlarged if the Carmichael mine goes ahead. PHOTO ABC

Abbot Point coal terminal, inside the Great Barrier Reef, would be greatly enlarged if the Carmichael mine goes ahead. PHOTO ABC

Five new five-year appointments to the board of the Climate Change Authority suggest that embattled agency has a long-term future after all, along with the previously-threatened Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. So far so good.

Environment minister Greg Hunt sees another positive development in the “stunning” (his word) success of the second round of Emissions Reduction Fund carbon abatement purchases last week, with 45 million tonnes of abatement bought at a cost of $12.25 a tonne.

But the good news would seem to stop there. With nearly half its $2.55 billion kitty spent, the ERF will manage at most two more auctions for emissions up to 2020. If it survives beyond that, its spending capacity will be much more limited, about $200 million annually.

Market analyst Reputex has concluded that the ERF is at best a peripheral influence on emissions. Despite the abatement already bought, Reputex director Hugh Grossman points to a continuing rise in net emissions, citing projections that put them 15 per cent higher by 2030.

The main reason for rising greenhouse emissions is coal-fired electricity. According to Pitt & Sherry’s CEDEX analysis, emissions from Australia’s coal power stations have risen steadily since the end of the carbon tax in June 2014 and are now at their highest level since early 2013.

Around the world, the biggest, blackest cloud on the climate policy horizon is coal. Yet last month Turnbull said it was “the largest single part of the global energy mix and likely to remain that way for a very long time”.

The prime minister knows this is in conflict with his expressed support for limiting warming to less than 2C. Both he and Greg Hunt know that if we are to avoid dangerous warming, at least two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.

Yet last month Hunt approved Australia’s biggest coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, which its Indian-based operator Adani says will on average produce 40 million tonnes of coal a year.

Adani reports that when burned in Indian power stations, greenhouse emissions from Carmichael coal will each year equate to 79 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. The Australia Institute pointed out last week that this will easily surpass annual average emissions for the city of New York.

If Carmichael is still viable, it’s only because of public subsidies supporting the mining, use and export of coal. This labyrinthine array of agreements – formal, informal and never uttered – has evolved since federation. Ending them would be to change the course of history.

Public subsidies for all Australian coal, oil and gas amount to multiple billions of dollars annually. Australian thermal coal exports, a relatively small subset of that total, are subsidised to the tune of $1.8 billion annually, a major international study published in September has found.

Subsidies identified in the study include tax breaks, underpayment for mining rights, collusive tendering practices, government-funded “clean coal” research, support for rail and port infrastructure, and miners’ repeated failure to fund mine site rehabilitation.

Not included is the public cost of air pollution and global warming resulting from burning the coal, which the International Monetary Fund has said more than doubles the cost to the public purse of fossil fuel production and use.

A successful climate policy demands that we break the government-coal nexus. An opening for this might come from an idea that originated in the G20: that public subsidies for exported coal be prohibited if power plants in recipient countries don’t meet the most stringent emissions standards.

The government has so far supported industry in opposing the idea, which is being promoted by the US, Japan, France and Germany. But allowing prohibition to go ahead is a ripe opportunity for Turnbull to begin the long task of breaking this unholy, outmoded alliance.

ELECTRIC CARS and renewable energy will feature in a double bill of public presentations, organised by the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Electric Vehicle Association and the Tasmanian Renewable Energy Alliance, this week: in Launceston (5pm tomorrow, Flight Deck, 107-119 Paterson Street) and Hobart (5pm Thursday, Hotel Soho, 124 Davey Street). Entry by gold coin donation.