explainer

Experts say we need "urgent action" on climate change. Here's how we do that.

This generation is in a unenviable position. We’re the first to fully understand our role in climate change, and also the last to be able to do something about it.

If we don’t, there is overwhelming evidence that we are staring down the barrel of a (not-too-distant) future in which rising sea levels could wipe out entire island nations, in which extreme weather events become more frequent and more devastating, in which food and water security is under threat, and more.

Watch: Greta Thunberg rebukes world leaders for their lack of action on climate change.

Video by Sky

Just this week, the Climate Council issued a report warning that if greenhouse gas emissions (the key driver of climate change) continue to rise, unusually hot weather will become commonplace in Australia, a nation already in the grip of crippling drought and bushfire seasons. According to the report, “Sydney and Melbourne could experience unprecedented 50C summer days by the end of the century.”

Some of the world’s brightest minds are working on solutions. They use words like “climate emergency” and tell us we need “urgent action” to minimise the toll on our planet and human lives.

But what does that look like? And who can make it happen?

First… what’s the goal we need to achieve? And how quickly?

The general consensus among climate scientists is that we must limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. To achieve that, the world has to be at net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

But crucially, it’s cumulative emissions that count. In other words, if countries leave decarbonisation until the last minute, it will be too late.

As Thomas Nicholas of the University of York explained via The Conversation, “Even if we could snap our fingers on December 31, 2049, and replace all fossil fuel plants, the world would have already emitted twice as much carbon as the budget allows. Sound climate policy involves cutting emissions as soon as possible, and any further delay makes the task even harder.”

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So what are some of the solutions to climate change?

The following are some of the most common recommendations made by climate researchers and scientists if we want to achieve the 2050 goal.

End use of fossil fuels.

The burning of fossil fuels for energy and electricity is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal is the biggest villain here. It makes up 42 per cent of global emissions from fossil fuels, according to the Global Carbon Project. Oil (which is primarily used in land and air transport ie. fuel) comes in second, by contributing one third.

The answer, at its most basic: keep all remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

Rapid transformation into renewable energy.

Moving away from fossil fuels requires effective alternative energy sources. Think wind, solar, geothermal.

Investment in and use of these kinds of technologies is higher than ever.

But speaking to Mamamia‘s daily news podcast, The Quicky, Dr Kathy McInnes, group leader of climate change predictions and extremes at the CSIRO, said that transformation isn’t happening nearly quickly enough. Especially in Australia.

“In Australia, there’s a huge opportunity with renewable energies,” she said. “We’ve got the richest solar energy, wind energy and wave energy resource. We’ve got a massive coastline from which tidal energy could be ramped up along the coastline. We could be a world leader in terms of hydrogen production as an alternative fuel source.

“So I think that there’s a lot of hope for rapid transformation. I think we just need to embrace those different alternatives.”

Listen: The Quicky talks to the CSIRO about what our future looks like.

Feed the planet in a more sustainable way.

It’s estimated that agriculture is responsible for one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to several factors, from clearing forests for farmland to raising livestock that produce methane.

Alessandro Demaio, a fellow in global health at the University of Copenhagen, recommends a “planetary health diet” that involves reducing meat intake in Western countries by half. His plan also involves halting the spread of agricultural land use, focusing investment on nutritious, sustainable food (eg. drought-resistant crops) and radically reducing food waste.

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Governments must overhaul their economies.

All of the above requires governments to transform their economies and make significant financial commitments to decarbonisation.

This would mean investment in the renewable energy sector, including jobs and infrastructure, as well as consulting with workers to ensure a “just transition” from existing energy industries, like coal mining. That might involve job guarantees and universal basic services such as free public transport, for example.

Governments would also be expected to cut the billions they spend on subsidising the cost of the fossil fuel industry — that is, injecting cash to keep the price of coal/electricity low. According to the International Monetary Fund, globally, US$5.2 trillion was spent on fossil fuel subsidies in 2017. Our government forked out $29bn, which is equal to $1,198 for every Australian.

The IMF found that because of these subsidies, in 2015, the price paid for coal was typically less than half of its true cost, and that if it had been priced appropriately, global carbon emissions would have been reduced by 28 per cent. 28 per cent!

But what can you do?

Reducing your household energy consumption and waste, purchasing local, sustainably produced products and food, and flying less are all great ways to help reduce your impact on the planet.

But the reality is that change on the scale and at the pace we need will be up to governments and business.

As an individual, you’re not entirely powerless in that.

Engaged communities are a crucial part of “urgent action” on climate change. After all, it’s unlikely governments will make any of the above happen without significant pressure from their citizens.

Educate yourself (The Conversation, for example, has lots of easy-to-read articles by climate researchers and scientists). Speak up, be it in protest, at a constituency meeting in your electorate or simply with your vote. Contact a brand you love via social media and ask about the sustainability of their products. And contact your MP and the Prime Minister.

Right now, the Scott Morrison Government is asking what issues matter to you most as an Australian. If tackling climate change is at the top of your list, go to the survey website and tell them.

Feature image: Getty.

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