As world leaders begin to head to Paris for the COP 21 Paris conference, Environment Minister Greg Hunt this week delivered an address to the National Press Club on the Australian Government's commitments on climate change.
During the address, he said the government wanted a new global agreement that acknowledged the goal of keeping global temperature rise to less than 2°C.
This is good news. A 2°C rise in temperature has long been considered a threshold that should not be crossed given the potential for catastrophic consequences.
For instance, the threshold to trigger the melting of the Greenland ice sheet – which would eventually raise sea level by about 7 metres, inundating major cities worldwide – lies between a 1°C and 4°C rise, with the risk increasing through that temperature range. Moreover, as scientific knowledge has improved, it is clear that other risks previously anticipated to lie only above 2°C may well occur at lower temperatures.
As one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change, it's important that the government reaffirms Australia’s commitment to limit warming to less than 2°C.
But no government can claim to support this goal while at the same time approving new fossil fuel projects.
Any new coal mine is fundamentally at odds with protecting Australia from the impacts of climate change. More than 90% of known, extractable coal in Australia’s existing coal reserves must stay in the ground if we are to effectively tackle climate change.
Therefore, there is no justification for opening new coal mines – the most pressing challenge Australia faces is how to phase out existing coal mines well before their reserves are exhausted.
Look at the Galilee Basin – if all of the Galilee Basin coal was burned, it is estimated that 705 million tonnes of CO2 would be released each year – more than 1.3 times Australia's current annual emissions. If all of Australia's coal resources were developed and burnt, it would take the world two-thirds of the way towards a two-degree rise in global temperature.
If the government is serious about reaching the 2°C target then it's time to stop talking up coal expansion as if it has nothing to do with climate change. It does.
Image Credits: 'National Press Club Address The Hon Greg Hunt MP' via ABC iView; 'Open cut coal mine Hunter Valley' via Flickr user Beyond Coal and Gas licensed under CC by 2.0.