Australia has just nine years before exceeding its Paris Accord commitments at current emission rates, a leading climate expert has warned.
Professor Mark Howden, director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, said although thinking on climate change had “turned a corner” in the past decade, time was running out to implement necessary measures.
The Paris Agreement, to which Australia is a signatory, aims to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Professor Howden warns “at current rates of emissions, that only gives us nine years”.
“If we think of this as a budget, instead of greenhouse gases we’re omitting, you can spend fast and die young, or you can take a more responsible approach,” he said.
“The difference between where we’re going in terms of emissions and where we need to go is absolutely huge.”
Speaking to the Butters Leadership Oration, an annual gathering of engineers in Canberra, Professor Howden warned of the consequences of spending the remaining emissions too quickly.
Australia would “essentially have to go cold turkey and crash land our economy with huge impacts on lives and livelihoods”.
“Or we can take a longer, slower glide path and land relatively safely at net zero by around 2050. That’s what’s needed,” he said.
Part of the problem, Professor Howden said, was a “gross under-representation” of people with technical expertise in parliament. This means “most of the dialogue in Australia has been treating this as a negative” and fails to emphasise the upshot of new technologies.
Although hitting net zero would “involve every aspect of our society”, Professor Howden claimed “the difference between this being a threat and an opportunity” sits in the mind.
“It’s how we see this as an issue … that we need to turn around,” he said.
“The cost of not acting on climate change is far, far greater than acting. If this is an economic argument, we win every time.”
He concedes a solution is not ready for rollout but would require a range of technologies, including more effective carbon capture, tree planting and a carbon price. These should be explored alongside emerging technologies, Professor Howden said.