You don’t have to pay close attention to know that the climate and environmental crises aren’t slowing down.
Floods in Pakistan are estimated to have submerged a third of the country’s habitable land, destroyed more than a million homes, crippled infrastructure, farms and drinking water supplies, and killed at least 1,200 people. Tens of millions of people have seen their lives turned upside down. The fallout will include food and housing shortages and an increase in disease.
There have been extreme floods in Pakistan before – notably in 2010 – but scientists say it is empirically worse. As Andrew King, a climatologist at the University of Melbourne, explained, this follows an observed trend of increased rainfall on extremely wet days and is in line with projections that South Asia will be hit by rain events. more intense in the summer as the planet heats up. We know that for every 1C of heating, the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture, which results in extreme rainfall and flooding.
The disaster in Pakistan follows record heat waves and drought in China, the United States and Western Europe this year that have dried up rivers, fueled wildfires, hit food and energy production and sent temperatures north of 40°C in places where temperatures are not supposed to be 40°C. The view of scientific experts is clear: this is what a climate crisis looks like. That’s how it goes.
The risk of extreme events increases because emissions are not slowing down. A report on the global state of the climate last week found that the atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide rose at the fifth fastest rate on record in 2021 to reach its highest point in 800,000 years.
Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is charging the dice, raising the risk of events on the scale of Australia’s catastrophic 2019-20 bushfires and repeated “once-a-century” floods that submerged Lismore.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s fine. It should be. But it bears repeating in light of three climate and environmental news items that, to varying degrees, went unnoticed in Australia last week.
On Wednesday, the government released the latest national report on greenhouse gas emissions, which shows the country’s contribution to the crisis is rising again.
In the year ending in March, national carbon pollution increased by 1.5%. It was up in most important areas – transportation, fossil fuel production, manufacturing and agriculture. The exception was electricity generation, where it continues to decline due to renewables slowly but surely replacing coal power. But emission reductions from clean energy are being offset by increases elsewhere.
The report is a slightly dated picture given that the national government has since changed, but it highlights a few points. The first is the extent to which the former Morrison government and those who influenced it have rejected calls for a green recovery from the pandemic. The result is that emissions are returned as restrictions are lifted, with further built-in increases likely to occur. Great job, everyone.
The second is the amount of effort it will take to turn the tide. According to the official tally, national emissions are 20.6% lower than they were in 2005. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? That suggests we’re halfway to Labour’s 2030 43% emissions reduction target. But that’s misleading.
Almost all of the reduction in annual emissions since 2005 has been due to the reduction in the rate at which Queensland cattle ranchers clear their land and the timber industry harvests native forests on public land. Both continue to clear forests and other vegetation at a significant rate, but not as fast as before (i.e. if you accept that the clearing rate data is accurate, and some is not ).
Including the decline in emissions due to the way land clearing in the data obscures what is happening in the rest of the economy – primarily, the parts that produce and use fossil fuels, but also agriculture and the management of waste. Pollution in these sectors has barely budged, having fallen by only 1.4% since 2005. This tells us that the hard work to transform the economy has only just begun.
Fossil fuel subsidies are on the rise
A second report released Wednesday by the OECD found that global subsidies to support fossil fuels nearly doubled last year to $700 billion, an unfathomable number.
An accompanying report found subsidies in Australia amounted to A$10.6 billion, three-quarters of which was spent on measures that helped companies emit more. The rest went to help consumers meet the energy costs of fossil fuels.
The message from the OECD is that, ridiculous as it may sound, fossil fuel subsidies have increased while emission reduction commitments have become more ambitious. Shortly before setting a goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, the Coalition ‘provided’ $438.3 million for fossil fuel power infrastructure, gas production and oil storage cash as part of its Covid-19 relaunch.
Even more was given in the form of fuel tax credits which, among other things, reduced the cost of diesel for mining companies. The OECD found that the cost of budget appropriations has increased by nearly $4 billion since 2015, from around $2.8 billion per year to $7.6 billion in 2020.
This seems particularly remarkable today, when fossil fuel exporters are reaping huge profits from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If the Albanian government is serious about restoring the budget while reducing emissions, changing the fuel tax credit rate for profitable fossil fuel industries would be a good place to start.
But will the markets save us?
The third piece of information from Australia had a different purpose, but is worth considering in this context. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek delivered a speech in Bali in which she outlined a rough vision of a “nature marketplace” in which businesses and philanthropists would be encouraged to spend to protect the environment. In return, they would get a biodiversity certificate as proof of their good deeds.
While it might be useful in the long run, there are still few details on how or why it would work. Plibersek told Guardian Australia it would not be a “substitute for government funding, nor a substitute for strict laws protecting nature”. But the initial response from some scientists and conservationists might come down to “…really?”
They were incredulous that after delivering an introductory speech in which she pledged to take up the daunting challenge of fixing Australia’s rapidly deteriorating environment, the minister’s first major announcement was that the government wanted private capital to voluntarily invest .
Some have argued that this kind of thinking was hardly a great success in the face of the climate crisis. And that, on all fronts, we are going to have to do much, much more.