The risks to Australia of a 3°C warmer world – new report launched

Researchers at the University of Adelaide have joined a group from the National Academy of Sciences to show the importance of Australia revisiting climate change targets to stay well below a 2°C increase.

This Warmer World Report synthesises the observed impacts of climate change on Australia and the risk to our future of the current global trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. It focuses on the consequences of 3°C of global warming in the absence of greater mitigation strategies for four areas of importance to Australia’s future: our ecosystems, food production, cities and towns, and health and wellbeing. The impacts of those changes on the lives and wellbeing of Australians are discussed in detail.

The planet is well on the path to devastating climate change. In 2019, Australia’s warmest year on record, average surface temperatures were 1.1°C above the pre-industrial period. Australia has warmed on average by 1.4°C since national records began in 1910. Current global and Australian policies to reverse this trend are inadequate. We must plan to do better and prepare for the worst.

Professor Melissa Nursey-Bray says:

‘The report explores the risks to Australia’s future based on the current global trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, states that the world reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is an absolute minimum, if Australia is to avoid potentially insurmountable challenges to its cities, ecosystems, industries and food and health systems.’

Australia is well positioned to play its part in meeting this challenge, with a skilled workforce, strong industrial base and plentiful renewable energy resources facilitating easier emission reductions compared to many other countries. Acting early to transition to net zero emissions would reduce the scale of climate change impacts and have significant potential benefits for human health and regional development, as well as creating new industrial opportunities.

Report recommendations

Current international commitments to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction, if unchanged, would result in average global surface temperatures that are 3°C or more above the pre-industrial period. The evidence presented in this report indicates that this would have serious consequences for Australia and the world.

To rectify this situation, we recommend the following 10 actions for Australia:

  1. Join global leaders in increasing actions for tackling and solving climate change as a matter of urgency. Australia lags far behind the best practice demonstrated by many countries. Given how much Australia stands to lose if GHG emissions are not reduced, we also recommend that Australia accelerates its transition to net zero GHG emissions over the next 10 to 20 years.
  2. Develop strategies to meet the challenges of extreme events that are increasing in intensity, frequency and scale. Extreme events at 1.1°C of global warming are placing Australian lives and livelihoods at increasing risk, with concern that 3°C of global warming would not be sustainable. We also recommend a broad-ranging investigation of Australia’s readiness for meeting the growing number of climate-related disasters, such as droughts, fires, floods, storm surges, heat stress and ecological damage, that would occur with global temperature increases of 3°C or more.
  3. Improve our understanding of climate impacts, including tipping points, as well as the compounding effects of multiple stressors at global warming of 2°C or more. The current understanding of abrupt and compounding changes and their consequences for Australian human and natural systems is at an early stage. We also recommend further investigation into effective adaptive responses in preparation for rapid and complex changes.
  4. Systematically explore how our food production and supply systems should prepare for the challenges of climate change. Australian agriculture and food security are exposed to increasing risk from droughts, extreme high temperatures, coastal inundation, floods, invasive species and fires. We also recommend that Australia prepares for potential interruptions to its food import and export systems driven by global environmental, social and economic changes.
  5. Expand our understanding of the impacts and risks of climate change for the health of Australians. Climate change already seriously affects the health of Australians and improved strategies need to be developed to reduce these growing risks. We also recommend an in-depth study on the potential impacts of 3°C global warming on health and wellbeing, particularly how impacts can be reduced.
  6. Introduce a suite of policies that would deliver deep and rapid cuts in emissions across the economy. In the current absence of an economy-wide carbon price, there will need to be comprehensive sector-by-sector approaches. We also recommend that policies are developed to support the economic and social transition to a low GHG emission outcome, especially in regions where fossil fuel-based industries are currently prominent. This includes the development of strategies to halt further deforestation and land degradation while facilitating carbon storage.
  7. Scale up the development and implementation of next-generation low to zero greenhouse gas technologies. If Australia is to argue for increasing international action, greater commitment is required to implement zero to low emissions technologies and the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels by mid-century. We also recommend the development of a strategic plan that maps out the markets and investment opportunities for Australian industries in areas such as offshore renewable energy, green hydrogen fuels, minerals for low GHG emission technologies, mass-scale storage, embedded renewable energy, and more efficient and low GHG emission transport systems for aviation, shipping, road and rail transport.
  8. Review Australia’s capacity and flexibility to take up innovations and technology breakthroughs for transitioning to a low GHG emission future. We also recommend greater support for innovation and technology breakthroughs by way of a dedicated facility for supporting broad-based applied research on the removal of GHG emissions from the economy, which is consistent with meeting and exceeding current commitments to emission reduction under international agreements.
  9. Develop a better understanding of climate solutions through dialogue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, particularly strategies that have helped people manage Australian ecosystems for tens of thousands of years. We also recommend a meaningful dialogue between all Australians regarding the steps needed to avoid global warming of 3°C by 2100.
  10. Continue to build adaptation strategies and greater commitment for meeting the challenges of change already in the climate system. While the major theme of this report is about the urgency of action needed to mitigate GHG emissions, we also recommend increasing efforts to build and implement adaptation strategies and actions to meet the challenges of climate that will continue to change until mid-century and beyond.

Watch the video about the report and read the executive summary by the Academy of Science.

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