Senate report on extreme weather and climate warming paves way for rethink on emissions target

Campaigns and Advocacy, Foreign aid, Opinion article written on the 07 Aug 2013

CLIMATE politics may have been back in the headlines recently, but have we forgotten why we cared so much about cutting carbon pollution in the first place?

Today sees the long awaited completion of the Senate’s inquiry into the impact of extreme weather and our preparedness to deal with a warming climate.

Australians are all too familiar with the devastation and heartache that extreme weather events can cause, from properties lost to floods and bushfires, to cyclones damaging crops and driving up food prices.

A hot world is a hungry world, with rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns reducing yields in regions already stricken by food shortages. Extreme weather events can wipe out entire harvests in a stroke.

The picture could not be clearer – without stronger action to reduce emissions and increase the resilience of vulnerable communities around the world, we could lose almost all the recent hard-won gains in the fight against poverty.

Our neighbours in the Pacific remain among the most acutely vulnerable in a changing climate, despite having contributed almost nothing to the world’s carbon emissions.

Every major economy has initiatives to tackle climate change. Thirty-five countries have national emissions trading schemes.

China and the US, who together produce 37 per cent of global emissions, are on track to meet their current targets and have signalled they will be strengthening efforts. In April, they struck an agreement to tackle climate change together.

But it’s a strong global agreement we really need if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As we approach the pointy end of international negotiations, aimed at finalising a fair and ambitious new climate agreement in 2015, Australia will be judged on whether it’s putting in a fair share of the global effort to keep warming to no more than two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.

We have the highest per capita emissions of any advanced economy, yet the current bipartisan emissions target of 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020 is absurdly short of what a country with our historic responsibility and economic capability should be delivering.

Were all developed countries to set their sights so low, we would be condemning the world to greater hunger, poverty and instability.

Climate change is not a future threat. It is a real and present challenge, with profound implications for Australia and the rest of the world.

This is the conversation we need to have – not whether tinkering with current policies may help strengthen support from one sector of the community or another.

Within weeks of taking office, the next Government will be confronted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessment of the scale of the climate challenge.

And next year, whoever is running the country will need to defend Australia’s emissions reduction target at a special summit of world leaders convened by the UN Secretary General, to lift global ambition ahead of the signing of a new agreement in 2015.

As president of the G20 next year, Australia will be in a special position to help drive international progress. But our current target decreases our credibility. It’s time to lift our game.

Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia.

This opinion editorial was first published in The Courier-Mail on 7 August 2013.