Choosing bold climate action

06 Sep 2021

If countries - including Australia – choose bold climate action, a new wave of prosperity, jobs, fairness and sustained economic growth is there for the taking

Address by Mr Selwin Hart,  United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Climate Action, to the 2021 ANU Crawford Leadership Forum. 

My thanks to The Australian National University for hosting this important event. 

There is no greater threat to people and prosperity than the climate crisis. But the good news is that we know what must be done, and we have the financial and technological tools to do it.

Decarbonisation of the global economy is quickly gathering pace. And there are huge opportunities to create more jobs, better health, a stronger and fairer economy for those countries and companies that move first and fastest.

However, the world is way off track from meeting the 1.5 degree celsius goal of the Paris Agreement - a critical threshold for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a code red for humanity, as the Secretary-General has stated.  It shows Australia is among the places already being hardest hit.

Land areas in Australia are already 1.4C hotter than a century ago.

Sea levels are rising faster than the global average and this will result in more flooding, placing the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities at greater risk. In addition, fire seasons are getting longer and more intense.

If the world does not boost climate action urgently, Australia can expect climate disasters - such as droughts, heatwaves, fires and floods - to get more frequent and severe.

The outlook is even bleaker for many of your regional neighbours.

If climate change continues at its current rate, many small island nations in the Pacific face being literally wiped from the map.   Mass relocations of entire national populations would be among the catastrophic results. Last year there were three times as many people newly internally displaced as a result of climate [change] than of conflict and violence.

In a fast-changing region, many look to Australia for leadership, refuge and support, and I applaud the Australian Government for providing scarce vaccines to its most vulnerable neighbours in the Pacific.

This is the spirit of solidarity that will be utterly critical in the fight against climate change.  But what specifically does solidarity mean from a climate perspective?

It means that all G20 nations, who account for 80% of global emissions, must significantly reduce their emissions in line with the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris Agreement.

It means that developed nations must finally honor [their] decade-old pledge of $100 billion annually to help developing countries take climate action. 

It means at least half of all public climate finance must go to building climate-resilience and helping the most vulnerable adapt.

We welcome the commitment of nearly every advanced G20 economy, including all G7 nations and the EU, to reach net-zero by 2050.  Completing this picture - and the signal of leadership it sends - is an essential element of success at COP26 in Glasgow, and far beyond.

National governments responsible for 73% of global emissions have now committed to net-zero by mid-century, and we urge Australia to join them as a matter of urgency. All Pacific small island nations have made this commitment.

We welcome the 2050 net-zero commitments of all states and territories of Australia.  We also welcome the explicit support for 2050 net-zero targets from peak business bodies such as the National Farmers Federation, the Business Council of Australia, and the Australian Industry Group, along with many of the country's largest businesses. 

While crucial, these long-term national net-zero commitments are only part of what is needed.  It is essential they are backed by ambitious 2030 targets and clear plans to achieve them, otherwise we will not see the changes in the real economy we urgently need.

This is why all countries need to submit genuinely enhanced nationally determined contributions - or NDCs -  before COP26 in Glasgow in November this year. 

Collectively these commitments must cut carbon pollution by 45% this decade if we are to keep our 1.5C goal within reach.  We have seen strong new commitments from many key economies, including the US, Japan and the European Union, who are increasingly looking to their trading partners to follow suit.

But we need more ambitious NDCs from all G20 countries, and so we urge Australia to seize this moment.

A prequisite of keeping the 1.5C goal within reach is the urgent global phase-out of coal.

Market forces alone show coal's days are numbered, as many investors increasingly abandon it in favor of renewables, which are now cheaper in most places.  The growing expectation of stranded coal assets is hastening coal's decline.

However, this shift is still not happening fast enough to avert a global climate catastrophe.

We fully understand the role that coal and other fossil fuels have played in Australia's economy, even if mining accounts for a small fraction - around 2% - of overall jobs. 

But it's essential to have a broader, more honest and rational conversation about what is in Australia's interests, because the bottom line is clear. 

If the world does not rapidly phase out coal, climate change will wreak havoc right across the Australian economy: from agriculture to tourism, and right across the services sector.  Similarly, construction, housing and the property sector, in a country where the vast majority live on or near a coastline.  It will be even more catastrophic in your neighborhood.

This is why the Secretary-General has said that phasing out coal is the single most important step the world must take in the global climate fight.

He is not saying, however, that any country can or should shut its existing coal industry down overnight.

He has called for coal-phase out by 2030 for OECD countries and 2040 for all others, and has said it's essential that no worker and no community is left behind in the transition.

If adopted, this timetable would leave nearly a decade for Australia to ensure a just transition for its coal workers and others affected. 

Already we are seeing examples of policy-making in the European Union to deliver this transition in a way which is inclusive and just.

More broadly, this shift from grey to green economies presents vast opportunities: to drive prosperity, productivity, more and better jobs, and inclusive economic growth.

Globally, investments in renewables generate three times more jobs than investments in fossil fuels.

Already the private sector and private capital are moving towards net-zero emissions at scale.

Financial firms responsible for assets in excess of US$70 trillion have joined the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.

Like governments, it's essential that all firms present concrete and credible plans to deliver on their 2050 promises.

Many businesses are taking climate action to protect their supply chains, their people and economies that they depend on.

For others, climate action is more than just necessity, it is a moment of unprecedented potential.

It is increasingly clear that decarbonization is inevitable, and it is the greatest commercial opportunity of our age. 

This is why the global chorus of corporate leaders grows louder every day; without ambitious national policy frameworks and investment certainty, it is much harder to reap the huge opportunities that lie ahead.

For a country like Australia, with a growing knowledge economy, an impressive education and training system, on the doorstop of the growing markets of Asia, embracing decarbonization represents a once- in-a-generation opportunity for this great nation.

Ambitious climate policy frameworks can also be a huge driver of innovation and productivity growth, amidst an aging population.  They could underpin a resurgent, high value-added manufacturing sector, and boost competitiveness, in a region of generally lower business taxes and costs.

Australia has a proud record of far-sighted economic reforms that have delivered living standards among the highest in the world.  Both major political parties, the trade union movement, the business community, and civil society have all played key roles.

In all countries, such ambition will again be essential, because we are at a critical juncture in the climate crisis.  If G20 countries - including Australia - choose business-as-usual, climate change will soon send Australia's high living standards up in flames.

By contrast, if countries - including Australia - choose bold climate action, a new wave of prosperity, jobs, fairness and sustained economic growth is there for the taking. 

So, I therefore urge Australia to choose this brighter path, for this generation and all that follow.

I thank you.