An early skirmish in our age’s greatest battle

Chris Bowen must be cursing his luck. As the climate change minister was arguing passionately in parliament last week for his career-defining emissions bill, its inadequacies were thrown into sharp relief by the release of another dire UN climate report.

The main findings of the monumental sixth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – called AR6, a seven-year effort by 700 scientists assessing thousands of research papers – are brought together in last week’s Synthesis Report. 

The report says it is still possible to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels with “limited overshoot”, but only with “rapid and deep and, in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors this decade.”

Warming above 1.5C could gradually be abated by sustained negative emissions globally, but it would require additional carbon dioxide removal at a level not previously achieved. “Overshoot entails adverse impacts, some irreversible, and additional risks for human and natural systems, all growing with the magnitude and duration of overshoot.”

With every tiny increment of warming, every tenth of a degree, the impact of deadly heatwaves, droughts and extreme flooding on communities and ecosystems will intensify. 

If the ten years to 2020 were “the critical decade”, as they were often called, what does that make the one we’re in now? The IPCC says this: “The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years.”

The IPCC reports are science at work. People trained in the scientific method have distilled the findings from countless observations on land and ice, in lakes, rivers and oceans, and up to the edges of outer space. These reports are as near as it’s humanly possible to get to the truth about the real world out there. 

So there’s that – the world that is – and then there’s that other world we have created for our human purposes, the world of us. The world inhabited by all the opinion-moulders and decision-makers in government and business, plus the rest of us, including you and me.

The IPCC reports are among the few modern narratives that are fundamentally, objectively, verifiably true, but in human stories – the main currency of the world of us – the truth comes in various levels and shades. Stories about politics and the economy, for instance.

The Albanese government’s scheme, a revamp of the Coalition’s “safeguard mechanism” seeks to give teeth to something first designed to be toothless. It requires coal, oil, gas, cement and other large polluters to cut emissions by 4.9 per cent each year. Without this, says Chris Bowen, Australia could not reach its 2030 target of 43 per cent lower emissions.

But the proposed scheme grants polluters unlimited access to carbon credits, paying for various methods, mainly trees, to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Bowen sees them as “an important part of the journey”, complementing actual emission reduction. He promises “rigour” in monitoring their effectiveness.

That leaves highly pertinent questions unanswered, such as whether regeneration would have happened anyway without someone paying for it, or what happens when tree-based credits pass their expiry date.

Nearly half of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere today will still be there after 100 years, and over a fifth will remain for over 1000 years. Official Australian carbon credits expire after 25 or 100 years, but global research firm Carbon Analytics calculates that when that point arrives we we are left with more carbon dioxide in the air than if, instead of offsetting, we had cut emissions at source.

The government’s response to the IPCC call for “deep, rapid and sustained mitigation” – and no new coal or gas – is to leave the door open to new projects. Green opposition to this is just noisy activism, mere sloganeering, says Bowen, while his approach is “a sensible transition” to a renewable economy: a steady, mature hand on the tiller.

This what Australia’s response to the climate crisis has come down to. Bowen and the Albanese government are seeking to negotiate the world of us, the human universe with all its flaws and fuzzy truths, which means skirting around the hard truth described in AR6 that we are in a worsening global emergency caused by humanity’s use of fossil fuels. 

Australia and the rest of the developed world are being squeezed between two converging behemoths – old economic paradigms and the brutal reality of climate change. Bowen’s legislation is a play for time, a small step forward, but the fundamental questions remain unaddressed. It is just one more early skirmish in our age’s greatest battle.

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