“Failure on climate change is not an option”

In May 2011, almost precisely a decade ago, the government-appointed Climate Commission released its inaugural report. Titled The Critical Decade, the report’s final section warned that to keep global temperature rises to 2℃ this century, “the decade between now and 2020 is critical”.

By Will Steffen

As the report noted, if greenhouse gas emissions peaked around 2011, the world’s emissions-reduction trajectory would have been easily manageable: net-zero by around 2060, and a maximum emissions reduction rate of 3.7% each year. Delaying the emissions peak by only a decade would require a trebling of this task – a maximum 9% reduction each year.

But, of course, the decade to 2020 did not mark the beginning of the world’s emissions-reduction journey. Global emissions accelerated before dropping marginally under COVID-19 restrictions, then quickly rebounding.

Our new report, released today, shows the immense cost of this inaction. It is now virtually certain Earth will pass the critical 1.5℃ temperature rise this century – most likely in the 2030s. Now, without delay, humanity must focus on holding warming to well below 2℃. For Australia, that means tripling its emissions reduction goal this decade to 75%.

Young girl holds sign at climate protest
The 2020s offer a last chance to keep warming within 2℃ this century, and leave a habitable planet for future generations. Shutterstock

Aim high, go fast

The Climate Council report is titled Aim High: Go Fast: Why Emissions Need To Plummet This Decade. It acknowledges the multiple lines of evidence showing it will be virtually impossible to keep average global temperature rise to 1.5℃ or below this century, without a period of significant overshoot and “drawdown”. (This refers to a hypothetical period in which warming exceeds 1.5℃ then cools back down due to the removal of carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere.)

The increasing rate of climate change, insights from past climates, and a vanishing carbon budget all suggest the 1.5℃ threshold will in fact be crossed very soon, in the 2030s.

There is no safe level of global warming. Already, at a global average temperature rise of 1.1℃, we’re experiencing more powerful storms, destructive marine and land heatwaves, and a new age of megafires.


Read more: Cyclone Seroja just demolished parts of WA – and our warming world will bring more of the same


As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned, the consequences of breaching 1.5℃ warming will be stark. Heatwaves, droughts, bushfires and intense rain events will become even more severe. Sea levels will rise, species will become extinct and crop yields will fall. Coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, will decline by up to 90%.

And perhaps most frighteningly, overshooting 1.5℃ runs a greater risk of crossing “tipping points”, such as the collapse of ice sheets and the release of natural carbon stores in forests and permafrost. Crossing those thresholds may set off irreversible changes to the global climate system, and destroy critical ecosystems on which life on Earth depends.

An ice sheet in Greenland
Climate tipping points, such as melting ice sheets, may set off irreversible changes in natural systems. John McConnico/AP

Every fraction of a degree matters

The outlook may be dire, but every fraction of a degree of avoided warming matters. Its value will be measured in terms of human lives, species and ecosystems saved. We can, and must, limit warming to well below 2℃. The goal is very challenging, but still achievable.

The strategies, technologies and pathways needed to tackle the climate challenge are now emerging as fast as the risks are escalating. And in the lead-up to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow later this year, there’s widespread momentum for international cooperation and action.


Read more: Seriously ugly: here’s how Australia will look if the world heats by 3°C this century


Many of Australia’s strategic allies and major trading partners – including the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom and China – are starting to move on climate change. But Australia is standing still. This is despite our nation being one of the most vulnerable to climate change – and despite us having some of the world’s best renewable energy resources.

We must urgently grab these opportunities. We propose Australia radically scale up its emissions-reduction targets – to a 75% cut by 2030 from 2005 levels (up from the current 26-28% target). Australia should also aim to reach net-zero emissions by 2035. Doing so by 2050 – a goal Prime Minister Scott Morrison says is his preference – is too late.

A coal plant
Polluting industries such as coal will have to give way to cleaner industries. Shutterstock

A huge but achievable task

Such dramatic action is clearly daunting. There are political, technical and other challenges ahead because action has been delayed. But a 75% emissions-reduction target is a fair and achievable contribution to the global effort.

Australia’s unrivalled potential for renewable energy means it can transform the electricity sector and beyond. Electric vehicles can lead to carbon-free transport and renewably generated electricity and green hydrogen can decarbonise industry.

The emerging new economy is bringing jobs to regional Australia and building cleaner cities by reducing fossil fuel pollution. There is staggering potential for a massive new industry built on the export to Asia of clean energy and products made from clean hydrogen.


Read more: Scott Morrison has embraced net-zero emissions – now it’s time to walk the talk


State, territory and local governments are leading the way in this transformation. The federal government must now join the effort.

The transition will no doubt be disruptive at times, and involve hard decisions. Industries such as coal will disappear and others will emerge. This will bring economic and social change which must be managed sensitively and carefully.

But the long-term benefits of achieving a stable climate far outweigh the short-term disruptions. As our report concludes:

The pathway we choose now will either put us on track for a much brighter future for our children, or lock in escalating risks of dangerous climate change. The decision is ours to make. Failure is not an option.


Climate Council researcher Dr Simon Bradshaw contributed to this article.

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Will Steffen is the Emeritus Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society at the Australian National University

First published at The Conversation on Thursday 15 April 2021. See; https://theconversation.com/failure-is-not-an-option-after-a-lost-decade-on-climate-action-the-2020s-offer-one-last-chance-158913

Published under a Creative Commons licence.

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For more recent related articles on climate change/global initiatives see these from Bloomberg and The Guardian Australia;

See; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-04-19/blinken-says-u-s-falls-behind-china-in-shaping-climate-future

and; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/20/no-action-on-anything-australia-increasingly-isolated-as-us-and-others-ramp-up-climate-ambition

and lastly; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/20/secretary-of-state-antony-blinken-countries-investing-new-coal-will-hear-from-us-climate-action

2 thoughts on ““Failure on climate change is not an option”

  1. Captain Clothears aka Scomo has recognised hydrogen power!! It is like pulling teeth with this govt, the slowest learners in the world. We will be completely left behind the world in EV cars/renewable energy and we have become the laughing stock of the the world.
    At least Scomo can still tow his boat trailer and go fishing. Renewable energy is important now with the world conference.
    Look what is going on in the Liverpool plains/coal mine and Australian taxpayers are compensating a Chinese company,another stuff from Glads after light rail, stadium etc and the compensation is secret!This is beyond a joke taxpayers money to pay a Chinese mining company and we are not told the figure?
    I have never seen a more mismanaged gov state and federal and Labor are poor managers of finances? Please reveal the payout$ to the Chinese coal company now.

    Editor: The details of the Shenhua Liverpool Plains pay out etc can be found here JC; NSW government pays Shenhua $100m to cancel coalmine project

    1. Thanks Editor, they realised they must release details! Barilaro was grinning like a Cheshire Cat at the result like winning Lotto, $100 million taxpayers for nothing. I suppose at least it didn’t go. to a gun club or yacht club or dare I say polo club 😂. It never should have never been approved in the first place on prime agricultural land.
      On a federal level are we all ready for China’s response the Govt tearing up Victoria’s Belt and Road agreement .Our primary producers brace yourselves for more tariffs, don’t worry politicians still get full pay .I agree with tearing up the agreement but question the timing. I suppose what do you expect from this Govt.
      The PM has nearly 70 advisors, the average age 23, you only have to look at the bizarre milkshake consent video that was pulled after a two days. Don’t worry it only cost taxpayers $3.8 million for nothing again, not even Cartier watches.
      Is anybody overseeing Govt departments?

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