By Kalinga Seneviratne
The most comprehensive report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a dire warning to countries in the Pacific region where rising sea levels and increasing temperatures could wipe out island nations and make dry habitats uninhabitable. But the two major powers in the region—Australia and New Zealand—have reacted to the report with defensive rhetoric rather than moving to implement immediate action to save the region.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison under pressure from the growing environmental movement to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions responded by saying: “I will not be signing a blank cheque on behalf of Australians to targets (to reduce greenhouse emissions) without a plan”. He indicated that Australia’s response will be with new technology to address the problem. An argument some observers believe is a strategy to buy time until Australia could make a killing on selling new green technology to the world.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, scientists criticized the government’s stated action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a target set “two governments ago”, for which Prime Minister Jacinta Arden reacted by arguing that such criticism is unfair, as her government is in the process of responding to the report’s findings by planning “our emission reductions and our carbon budgets”.
“It would be unfair to judge New Zealand based on what essentially were targets that were set some time ago when we are now undertaking an incredibly heavy piece of work to lift our ambition and lift our emissions reductions,” Arden argued, pointing out that New Zealand has already decided to bring agriculture into the emission trading scheme “which no other country has done”.
Emissions trading is a market-based approach to controlling pollution by providing economic incentives for reducing the emissions of pollutants.
Nick Golledge, a professor of Glaciology at the Victoria University of Wellington, one of the lead writers of the IPCC report’s chapter on oceans, writing in ‘The Conversation’ explained that whether or not the worst-case scenario plays out or not remains uncertain, but what is increasingly beyond doubt is that global mean sea level will continue to rise for centuries to come.
“The magnitude of this depends very much on the extent to which we are able, collectively, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions right now,” he argues.“The underlying message remains the same. The longer we wait, the more devastating the consequences.”
For some time, the small island nations of the South Pacific, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, have been worried about their nation getting submerged with seawater before the end of the century, and have been making plans to relocate their populations.
In October 2017, the new Labour government led by Arden announced that they would issue an experimental humanitarian visa to bring in 100 environmental refugees from Pacific Island countries to New Zealand each year. But, New Zealand dropped the idea when Pacific Islanders didn’t want it, and instead, they asked Wellington to institue approaches to reduce emissions and support adaptation measures, and provide legal migration pathways and not refugee status.
The Secretary-General of the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum Henry Puna warns that the world is on the brink of a climate catastrophe, with just a narrow window for action to reverse global processes predicted to cause devastating effects in the Pacific and worldwide. The Pacific Islanders have been alarmed by the findings in the report that says extreme sea-level events that happened once in 100 years could happen every year before the end of this century.
Puna feels that governments, big businesses, and other major emitters of the world should listen to the voices of those already enduring the unfolding environmental crisis. “They can no longer choose rhetoric over action. There are simply no more excuses to be had. Our actions today will have consequences now and into the future for all of us to bear,” he told Radio New Zealand (RNZ). “The factors affecting climate change could be turned around if people acted now.”
The latest IPCC report has taken into account environmental changes that have taken place around the world in the seven years since the last report and stressed the need for rapid emission reductions in the coming years to avoid the worse climatic disasters that will come with more than 1.5 degrees C warming. Australian emission reduction targets are consistent with warming reductions that will deliver 2-3 degrees C of warming, which would result in cascading natural disasters the IPCC report warns.
Just over a year ago, Australia had the worst forest fires in a century that cost an estimated 34 lives and burnt 18.6 million hectares, and cost billions of dollars in damages to farm property and communities. Earlier this year, after concerted lobbying, Australia succeeded in avoiding the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier reef been designated as “in danger” by UNESCO.
Meanwhile, the Indian-owned Adani company, which operates as Bravus Mining and Resources in Australia, and has faced a fierce community-based opposition across the country to its mining project in Queensland, announced in June that they have started coal mining operations at their Carmichael mine and the first shipments to India will begin later this year. It has already secured markets to export 10 million tonnes of coal a year, which they claim are high-grade coal that gives a “clean energy” mix. “India gets the energy they need and Australia gets the jobs and economic benefits in the process,” says Bravus CEO David Boshoff on its website.
Even before the IPCC report was released, the Morrison government’s stance has been that it will not put an additional burden on Australian taxpayers to save the world, and countries like India and China need to play a greater role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
A commentary published by the Sydney Morning Herald from Andrew McConville, chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, reflected the Morrison government’s standpoint. He argued that his industry could be part of delivering what he calls a “clean energy mix” and you cannot simply ban hydrocarbons and hope for the best.
“For too long, the climatic change conversation has been a simple good-v-evil debate,” he notes. “Either give up your Hilux, stop international travel, change the way you work, cook and heat your home—and put the entire resources industry under a bus—or fail to achieve net-zero emissions.”
McConville says that if the industry folds up the government will lose $66 billion of royalties they pay “that build hospitals, police stations, roads, and schools”, the $450 million of investments they pour into rural communities, and the 80,000 direct and indirect jobs they provide.
Hinting at diversifying their operations to benefit from greenhouse emission reduction technology industry, he says their industry is making billions of investments in emission reduction technologies because “we need to do more, especially in the major emission-intensive economies of China and India if we want to make a dent in reducing emissions”.
University of Canterbury’s Professor Bronwyn Harward who was a member of the IPCC report’s core writing team, says that developed countries are under pressure to act now, and it is not enough just to make a nice speech at the ‘Paris Accord’ conference in Glasgow in November. “If the rest of the world did what we (New Zealand) do we will be 3 degrees warmer,” she argues, adding that what is needed is social action such as providing free public transport in cities and introducing traffic congestion charges and creating new carbon-neutral jobs.
“So bring the thinking together, bring our Ministry of Social Development in with our Ministry for the Environment start thinking what does a new lower carbon economy actually look like that works for the people?” argues Prof Harward.
Coral Pasisi, a senior adviser at the regional science agency, the Pacific Community, told RNZ that the next 10 years were critical for the region. “All of the assessments done to date suggest that anything above 1.5-degree warming is going to be dire. And up until recently, even with the best commitments made by countries, within the next 10 years we’re likely to exceed the 2.5 degrees in warming,” she noted.
“We know that above 2 degrees (we will see) up to 99 percent coral reef death rates which affect the whole ecosystem on which Pacific populations depend for their food security.”