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Did you miss the ANU’s Climate Update 2023? It was – as usual – a grim picture.

Professor Mark Howden summed up the state of the climate crisis: “it keeps on getting worse than we thought”. After a brief hiatus during the Covid pandemic, global greenhouse gas emissions have bounced back to record high levels, taking us further from the zero emissions needed to keep the average global temperature rise below 1.5°C. We have a remaining CO2 budget of only 380Gt and just 17 years to get to zero, requiring both a massive reduction of direct emissions and deployment of negative emissions technologies and sequestration. But of course the hotter the climate, the harder it is to sequester carbon through nature-based solutions.

Although 2022 was only the 22nd hottest year on record for Australia because of the cooling effect of the La Niña system in the Pacific Ocean, it was the hottest La Niña year on record. Around the world, 28 countries experienced the hottest year on record with severe heat waves across Europe, China and oceans, affecting agricultural production, wild fires, snow seasons, river flows and human health. Sea levels continue to rise, ocean stratification and surface currents are accelerating, sea ice extent is shrinking.

Howden explained that “process-based” climate models and “conservative” IPCC reports have systemically underestimated the realities of climate change that are now being experienced. Antarctic and Greenland ice masses are depleting faster than expected, the water cycle is accelerating twice as fast as modeled, and new lidar models of sea-level rise find 2.4 times the previously expected land area will be impacted. Indexes for fire weather and season length in Southeast Australian forests for 2020 were what was expected for 2070 or 2080. Natural sources of methane (such as biological activity in wetlands) are accelerating due to feedback mechanisms. Howden also noted that hydrogen has twice the global warming potential as previously thought, meaning it is not a viable replacement for “natural” gas (fossil methane) in energy systems.

There are examples of good adaptation but the gap between action taken and what’s needed is wide and will become more challenging as the climate warms. 18 countries have achieved steady emissions decreases and the costs of mitigation are falling, but action must ramp up – “a zero emissions target is not a leadership position… Action is a leadership position”.

Professor Deanna D’Alessandro presented the negative emissions agenda and technologies for carbon removal. “Net zero is not enough … we have to actively remove emissions from the atmosphere.” Natural and technological approaches include terrestrial (land-based) and ocean-based approaches, and biochemical, geochemical and chemical approaches respectively. These technologies present significant challenges but also genuine opportunities for Australian industries. For example, carbon dioxide captured at sustainable solar-powered carbon hubs could be repurposed as aviation fuel or feed algae for food production or be mineralised into building materials. D’Alessandro stressed that these technologies are not associated with fossil fuel extraction (ie carbon capture and storage).

Professor Andrew Macintosh discussed the benefits and risks of carbon offset schemes. Offset markets ideally reduce the cost of emissions reductions and have the potential to improve biodiversity outcomes. But they must have integrity and “achieve real and additional abatement”, and third parties should be allowed to provide verification. Offset payments to not cut down existing trees are particularly problematic without robust proof that the trees were actually going to be cleared – direct conservation of those trees, or direct emissions reductions, or donating to a tree-planting project might be better options.

Dr Sarah Milne asked the question “how can efforts to sequester carbon in Australian landscapes also help us to secure societal wellbeing and healthy, biodiverse ecosystems?”. Co-benefits of carbon offset projects should include environmental, cultural, economic and social benefits, such as providing opportunities for First Nations people to work on Country whilst caring for native habitats. International carbon schemes such as VERRA, CCBA, RedPlus and EcoAustralia Credits are bundling these outcomes, but over-simplified commodification of co-benefits can conceal negative impacts. Current Australian Carbon Credit Units create a “race to the bottom for the lowest-cost abatement” where high-quality projects cannot compete. An alternative is direct investment in or Government subsidisation of high-quality landscape restoration projects that factor in social-justice, where carbon sequestration is the co-benefit.

Significant investment and transparent governance are needed to reduce the costs and increase the scale of negative-emissions technologies, provide the social licence and open the opportunities for regional and rural Australian communities.

Watch the videos of the 2023 ANU Climate Update here.

There is still a window for a safe climate, so what can we do?

After all that doom and gloom, take heart – and action!

People power (eventually) gets results, such as the successful, multi-faceted campaign to prevent Clive Palmer’s Central Queensland Coal Project because it risked environmental damage to the Great Barrier Reef. Innovators everywhere are researching, investing and deploying solutions for a sustainable, habitable future: check out the Australian Circular Economy Hub for some good news stories. Many of our Member Groups are active on climate action. These groups demonstrate that people power brings hope, impact and results. You can get involved with Climate Action Canberra or Canberra to name a few. See the full list of our Member Groups active in Canberra here.

Individually: Electrify your home and transport – see Make the Switch and Make the Move. Reduce consumption by joining libraries of things (eg Community Toolbox) and the sharing economy (eg Buy Nothing Facebook groups). Divest your money (bank accounts, superannuation, shares etc) out of fossil fuels and polluting industries.

Collectively: Push upwards to Governments, politicians and businesses (including your own workplace) for ambitious action both for deep and sustained emissions reductions and adaptation. Participate in Government consultations. Move shareholder resolutions. Join or donate regularly to action and advocacy groups (such as the Conservation Council!).

Every half degree matters, every year matters, every action matters.