The net zero debate in Australia is intensifying as calls for more action on climate change mount. Here is the background



An internal debate within the Federal Climate Change Coalition is intensifying, and the Prime Minister faces calls to participate in the COP26 world climate conference next month.

At the heart of the problem is growing pressure on the federal government to introduce a target of net zero emissions by 2050, following countries like the UK, Canada, the US and Japan.

We’re going to be hearing a lot more of it on net zero over the coming month, so here’s a basic reminder on exactly what that means and where everyone is at.

What is net zero?

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines net zero as “when anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are offset by anthropogenic removals over a specified period” .

So that doesn’t mean completely eliminating emissions-producing technologies from our society, but it does mean drastically reducing our dependence on them and investing in ways to ensure that what is emitted can be neutralized.

As an example, let’s look at the greenhouse gas of most concern: carbon dioxide, or CO2.

Burning fossil fuels for energy emits CO2, which in turn contributes to climate change.

But there are natural ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere: Trees absorb it and release oxygen, while soil and ocean ecosystems can act as carbon sinks, removing it from the earth. air.

Trees take up carbon through photosynthesis, reducing CO2 in the air.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

Currently, human activity is producing CO2 at a faster rate than it is naturally absorbed, resulting in an accumulation in the atmosphere which scientists say contributes to climate change.

In a net zero situation, a country (or a state, or a company, or the world) would reduce its emissions and invest in carbon reduction to a point where the balance balances, and each new tonne of CO2 emitted would be canceled, ending the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere.

The IPCC has recommended drastically reducing emissions in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

How to reach net zero?

Greenhouse gas emissions come from a variety of sectors, including industry, power generation, transportation and agriculture.

According to the IPCC, the path to net zero is “primarily” through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than removing them from the air.

A view of Liddell's coal-fired power station across a lake, with swans in the foreground
Coal-fired power plants contribute to CO2 emissions.(ABC News: John Gunn)

This means a growing dependence on producing greener energy like wind, solar and pumped hydropower, and moving away from coal or gas power plants.

The IPCC says removing carbon dioxide enters the equation to a “lesser extent,” meaning it sees no viable way for the world to achieve a net zero goal simply by increasing carbon neutralization. carbon.

Removing CO2 can include planting more trees, promoting other ecosystems that function as carbon sinks, or the emerging and controversial area of ​​carbon capture and storage underground.

These measures can be financed by carbon offsets, which the Grattan Institute says will likely play a role in the campaign for net zero emissions in Australia.

Offsetting works by allowing individuals and businesses to offset their emissions by investing in green projects or renewable energy in Australia or around the world.

However, compensation programs are controversial among some environmentalists, who say they can easily fall victim to poor accounting, for example when offsets are sold for projects with limited environmental impact. Greenpeace has called for an end to carbon offsets, saying they move too slowly and are too difficult to track.

Angus taylor
Energy Minister Angus Taylor said a net zero plan does not necessarily mean the end of the fossil fuel industries.

The federal government has championed carbon capture and storage in the past, but has experienced reliability issues.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the federal government hoped to put in place a plan that would include continued dependence on “traditional industries”.

Does Australia have a net zero target?

Not formally at the national level.

Every state and territory government has set a goal of net zero by 2050, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously said the federal government’s goal is to reach net zero “as soon as possible, and to preferably by 2050 “.

But that could be about to change.

The federal government is in the final stages of developing a climate policy that should commit Australia to net zero emissions by 2050.

However, some in the ranks of the coalition, especially among nationals, have raised concerns about a net zero commitment, saying it could harm regional communities dependent on resources and energy sectors for the job.

The government has also previously raised questions about the reliability of renewables during times of peak demand or low generation.

But international pressure to adopt net zero targets is increasing, especially ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow next month.

Mr. Morrison did not commit to attending the conference, but is considering it.

Countries that have already committed to a goal of net zero by 2050 include:

  • The United Kingdom
  • New Zealand
  • United States
  • Spain
  • Canada
  • South Korea
  • Japan
  • Germany
  • South Africa

The European Union as a whole has also committed to a 2050 target.


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