by Professor Roger Kitching,Chair of Ecology, Griffith School of Environment.

With the agreement-in-principle announced last week by the USA and China to set much higher emissions-reductions targets, the global debate on carbon management has moved to a new level.

The follow-up discussions with other G20 nations during Brisbane’s summit, drawing in, among others, the already complicit European nations, led to the explicit inclusion of a focus on climate change and carbon-emission reduction responses in the final communiqué from that meeting — one of only four focal points highlighted in that document.

So where does this leave Australia?

As recently as six months ago we could have taken the moral high ground with an, albeit weak, carbon pricing scheme in place — one of only a handful of visionary schemes at the time. Yes, the carbon emission targets espoused then and now by our government, as has now been confirmed by the US/China statements, were far too low but at least we had taken a leadership role globally in showing a way forward.

Instead we had to bear the implicit opprobrium of being the only nation to have consciously taken a backward step in the fight to keep the planet habitable. Not only that, we had achieved this at almost exactly the same time as the series of IPCC 5th Reports demonstrated unequivocally the threats, impacts and necessary responses to our warming planet.

All this leaves Prime Minister Abbott and his cabinet in a tricky position. Mr Hockey has denied any essential connection between economic growth and responses to climate change. While an argument could certainly be mounted that this does not need to be the case, although levels of innovation and outside-the-box initiatives would be required to make it so, the statement seems strangely out-of-whack when we consider coal.

Coal exports

Coal exports account for about 13% of Australia’s total export of goods and services worth. In 2012-13 that was about A$22.5 billion, down from A$36 billion in 2008-2009. In terms of tonnage, actual volumes have been more or less steady at between 140 and 160 million tonnes each year since 2009-2010, even though the dollar value of these tonnages has dropped. One interpretation of these figures (the industry’s own, by the way) is that demand has peaked. Alternative explanations are possible of course and whether this peaking is a temporary phenomenon or not remains to be seen.

Geoscience Australia, the government’s own department, estimates that, in 2013, Australia had about 166,000 million tonnes (combining figures for black and brown coal) in ‘proven’ coal reserves. In order to meet targets for limiting future emissions, almost all known fossil fuel reserves would need to be left in the ground. This will not happen. And it certainly will not happen in Queensland, where recent announcements of new developments in the Galilee Basin, estimated to hold 1.619 billion tonnes of thermal coal, have been supported strongly by the State Government.

One website statement claims ‘In recent years, international demand for thermal coal has been growing steadily’. If this is indeed the case, it has not yet shown up in the Geoscience Australia statistics.

All that notwithstanding, if even half of the emissions targets are adopted globally then demand for coal will inevitably drop. I hasten to add this will not happen tomorrow, perhaps not even over the next decade but, inexorably and inevitably, it will drop within the projected life of many of the mining developments currently being approved. Of course, these developments will, in the short term, create local prosperity and jobs, but at what cost, and for how long?

Investment in alternatives

The other side of the coin in recent times has been the removal of subsidies and high-level support for investment in so-called ‘alternative’ energy sources. These are undoubtedly the industries of the future and, given the same levels of implicit and explicit subsidy given currently to the fossil fuel industries, would rapidly blossom to create at least as many jobs and as much prosperity as the up-coming coal mining projects — without their dark side.

Globally the mechanisms for generating energy without coincident greenhouse gases will vary from location to location. In Australia some combination of solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and even new forms of non-uranium nuclear energy generation all have potential. Innovations in all of these areas (and no doubt others), together with implementation at scale, will readily meet the ambitious targets currently being talked about by China and the USA. These new developments and their implementation will be worth big bucks and the opportunity for Australia to profit in exporting them.

And what is the alternative? The earlier target of restricting global warming to 2°C over pre-industrial levels seems a distant dream. We now hear the 3°C figure as aspirational. A global rise of 3°C will change many things — the distribution of agricultural capabilities, the reliance on myriad ecosystem services, human health, urban living, water resources, biodiversity, decomposition processes and so on. Coupled with locked-in population growth such a rise in temperature will challenge human ingenuity to its very limits. Yet without action on the management of global carbon emissions, even 3° will rapidly become a major challenge.

Beyond that we don’t want to imagine the consequences.