Caution required with media interpretations of IPCC report
The media has latched onto the International Panel on Climate Change's latest report as another baseball bat to beat the prime minister about the head with. In doing so they have played fast and loose with what the report has actually said.
The report is a measured document that represents a composite of the climate modelling that has been done internationally. As such there are wide variations in the possible outcomes that are presented.
Significantly, the report makes a distinction between warming that is due to human-generated carbon dioxide and warming that is due to natural phenomena. The calculation is that 0.8 degrees of current warming is due to human activity and 0.5 degrees is due to natural causes.
The ABC commented on the report in the following terms:
“The latest IPCC report says that within a decade, global warming could push temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and calls on policymakers to take urgent action on climate change."
The report is making headlines around the world, and the United Nations has referred to the situation as a "code red for humanity".
Associate professor Shayne McGregor of Monash University, who was one of the lead authors of the report, has a different take on its meaning.
He says the report warns that without sustained, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.
However, strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases over the next 20-30 years could limit climate change and see global temperatures stabilise, according to the report.
Associate Professor McGregor, from the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, says our biggest fear should be from inaction when it comes to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
He makes the point that there is not a single point in time when the world will hit the 1.5 degrees limit and fall off a cliff. The temperature represents an average over a period of time and the fact that 1.5 might be exceeded around 2040 should be counterposed against the prospect that warming could fall in subsequent years.
On Tuesday, the prime minister held a press conference with the minister for energy and emission reductions, Angus Taylor. The media pressed for a commitment by the government to a ‘zero emissions by 2050’ target.
Scott Morrison responded by re-emphasising that the policy of the government was to achieve zero emissions as soon as possible and preferably by 2050.
This position reflects the fact that many experts have doubts that the target can be achieved with the current technology. One current issue is that battery technology is unreliable because lithium is highly flammable. This was demonstrated when the giant battery in Victoria burnt out.
Added to this, is the conclusion of the International Energy Agency that the target cannot be reached without the use of carbon capture and storage and nuclear technology, neither of which is supported by Labor and the Greens in Australia.
There has been much handwringing in the media about the need for Australia to commit to a target by the climate meeting in Glasgow. But to avoid the climate predictions set out in the IPCC report the whole world has to be committed, and China has indicated it may not even turn up in Glasgow.
So far this has barely been mentioned in the Australian media.