05 August 2021

Net zero target for 2050 is too slow, and a strategy for climate failure

by Michael Mazengarb & Giles Parkinson, first published by RenewEconomy

A major new research paper argues that setting “net zero by 2050” targets will fail to prompt urgent action on climate change, and won’t achieve the speed of emission reductions needed to avoid the worsening impacts of global warming.

The paper, released by the Australian-based Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, says shorter-term emission reduction targets are needed to compel action to cut fossil fuel use, including setting a more ambitious target to reach zero emissions as early as 2030.

“[Net zero by 2050] scenarios are based on models and carbon budgets generally associated with a 50 or 66 per cent chance of staying below the target, that is, a one-in-two, or one-in-three, chance of failure,” the paper says. “We would never accept those risks of failures in our own lives. Why accept them for impacts which may destroy civilisation as we know it?”

The paper is significant because Australia’s mainstream political debate is currently dominated by Labor’s demand for a net zero target by 2050, and the federal Coalition’s commitment that net zero is nice, but it will only get there as soon as it can, or some time this century.

The Breakthrough paper is by no means the first that highlights that the Paris climate goals require much more urgent action, and that decisive action in the next 10 years is required to avoid depleting the “carbon budget.”

Last week, the Australian Energy Market Operator released a set of scenarios that observed that the only one that met the Paris stretch goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C was to reach net zero emissions, at least in the electricity supply, by 2035.

The Coalition government insists that coal generation will continue for decades, and wants to invest billions in infrastructure to support an expansion of the gas industry.

The Breakthrough Centre’s research briefing published on Wednesday points to a number of scientific papers that suggest average global warming is now on track to exceed 1.5°C, even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to net zero as early as 2030.

“At the present level of warming of 1.2°C, climate change is already dangerous, with some system-level tipping points already crossed and others dangerously close,” the research briefing says.

“A return to the safe climate conditions of the Holocene requires rapid decarbonisation and drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide to more stable levels. The policy aim must be “a big minus” in emissions, not “net zero” emissions.”

It says precautionary action must be taken to ensure that tipping points with catastrophic outcomes are not triggered.

“In short, emission reduction efforts must be reframed as emergency action to reach net zero emissions by 2030, plus drawdown to reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations from the current unstable 420ppm CO2 (in excess of 500ppm CO2 e if all greenhouse gases are included) to well below 350ppm CO2,” the paper adds.

A growing number of national governments are making formal commitments to zero emissions targets by 2050, but many have been reluctant to commit to the goal – including Australia.
The Morrison government has continued to express a “preference” for Australia to reach zero net emissions as soon as possible, and has set no interim targets beyond the original 26-28 per cent reduction by 2030 target it adopted in 2015, which is now widely regarded as completely inadequate.

DOWNLOAD Briefing Paper: Net zero 2050 is a dangerous illusion

The federal government has also committed significant amounts of public funds towards expanding Australia’s fossil fuel industries, including the drilling of new gas wells in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin.

The Breakthrough Centre says the focus on net zero targets is distracting from the crucial need for short and medium term targets – targets which are more likely to solicit a more immediate policy response from both governments and investors.

“Long-term targets are an excuse for procrastination,” co-author of the paper and former fossil fuel executive, Ian Dunlop, said.

“The short-term matters most. Emergency action to cool and protect the most vulnerable climate and ecosystems is vital. Failure to do so right now may make long-term targets irrelevant if cascades of system-level biophysical changes are triggered.”

“Saying [net zero by 2050] is “the best we can do” is caving into an unsustainable and dangerous future, and giving up on protecting major Earth systems and ecologies.”

“The [net zero by 2050] scenarios will not save the world’s coral reefs, nor stop rapid and devastating Arctic change nor prevent the inundation of low-lying small island states, or the triggering of societal collapse in parts of the world.”

The report argues that governments should instead be looking to set ‘a big minus’ target for global emissions, to not only stop increases in the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases, but also to actively reduce these concentrations by drawing down carbon dioxide to stable levels.

Observations from scientific bodies like the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show average global temperatures are regularly recording increases of more than one degree attributed global warming, and increased temperatures are already contributing to climate change fuelled disasters of worsening intensity and increased frequency.

National governments are set to meet before the end of the year, for the next round if international climate change negotiation in Glasgow, where it is expected that renewed pressure will be placed on countries lagging on their climate change commitments – such as Australia – to increase their level of action.