PARK WATCH Article December 2021 |
Nature Conservation Officer Elizabeth Morison explains how the latest IPCC report applies to Victoria.
As we emerge from the months of lockdown and start to again explore and enjoy all the beautiful nature that Victoria has to offer, there’s one big question on my mind: what will this summer look like?
Two years ago, a hot, dry winter and spring dried the bush to tinder, and lightning storms brought on by climate change sparked fires that burned one and a half million hectares of land in Victoria and killed three billion animals. Then last year, the La Nina Southern Oscillation mixed with climate change to warm the tropical oceans, evaporate vast volumes moisture and drive it across the continent, and Australia received 29 per cent more rain than usual.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in August that has been dubbed the ‘Code Red for Humanity’. It revealed that since the Industrial Revolution, Australia has already warmed 1.4°C on land – and that now is our last chance to correct our course and stay on target for less than 2°C as per the 2015 Paris Agreement.
To get there, most signatory nations are pledging to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero means an overall balance between the volume of greenhouse gases emitted into and drawn down from the atmosphere. In most cases, a net zero target involves commitments to reduce fossil fuel consumption and expand carbon offsetting measures.
But here in Australia, the Prime Minister’s net zero by 2050 ‘plan’ is smoke and mirrors for fossil fuel project approvals in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
The reality is, Australia is ranked last among the UN member countries on climate action.
Among the more specific predictions of climate impacts in Victoria are sea level rise, more intense and frequent fire seasons, less rainfall overall, worsening droughts, but when the rain does fall, it will be intense with a higher risk of flooding. Our nature and communities have already felt the consequences of climate change, sooner and worse than we thought.
As we head into this uncertain summer after yet another year of weak federal leadership, let’s look a little closer at Victoria’s climate policies.
How does Victoria’s position on climate fit in with the IPCC’s Code Red report? And are we on track?
Victoria prides itself on being a national leader in progressive climate policy. The Victorian Government’s Climate Change Act 2017 aimed to set policy objectives and guiding principles in alignment with the 2015 Paris Agreement. Part of the Act was the requirement of interim climate change targets, to be checked at 2021, 2025 and 2030 in the lead up to the net zero by 2050 (Victoria was ahead of the curve and committed to this back in 2016). The first target was to reduce emissions by 15-20 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (2005 was chosen as the reference year for the Act because Australia’s emissions peaked at their highest ever). The second was to reduce emissions by 28-33 per cent below 2005 by 2025. By 2030, the target is an emissions reduction of 45-60 per cent below 2005 levels. In contrast, at a national level, the target for 2030 is 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels.
In 2019, an Independent Expert Panel analysed the interim climate change targets and Victoria’s trajectory towards them, making recommendations for actions that could keep the Victorian Government on track. It revealed that right now, we’re at 18 per cent. The Victorian Government claims the 2019 number was closer to 25 per cent. Either way, there’s a long way to go if we’re to hit the top end of the range of emissions reductions by 2025.
Closing Hazelwood Power Station was the major factor that helped Victoria hit the 2020 target. But the retirements of Yallourn and the Loy Yang power stations are already scheduled for 2028 and 2047 respectively, and won’t be enough to help us hit the 2025 or 2030 interim climate change targets. While the Victorian Government boasts that we’re on track, we are wary that they may be extrapolating from a pattern of coal closure that can’t be replicated in time to meet the 2025 target, or the upper range of the 2030 target.
The Australian Government has come under fire for “clever accounting” tricks that use land sector emissions (including the negative emissions that occur when forests draw carbon dioxide down from the atmosphere) to make their weak climate efforts appear strong. Carbon offset schemes and incentives have also been criticised for lacking accountability and integrity, leaving them open to exploitation. As the Independent Expert Panel reported, carbon offsetting won’t “compensate for weak mitigation efforts in other sectors”. But after decarbonising electricity, the land sector is the largest opportunity in Victoria for climate action, and if used correctly, Victoria’s forests could play a crucial role in a suite of ambitious and science-backed approaches to achieve the interim targets.
Most of Victoria’s carbon sequestration in the past (85 per cent) has come from public forests. They store almost 30 times the volume of Victoria’s annual emissions. The land use, land use change, and forestry industry showed a trend of increased carbon sequestration in the years 2012–2017, removing 11.2 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. However, without improved land and forest management, this trend of increased sequestration is unlikely to continue.
It’s important to note that 45 per cent below 2005 emissions is the Victorian climate target, but anything less than 45 per cent below pre-industrial emissions is the warning issued in the IPCC’s Code Red report. They may look the same, but they’re based on different baselines: 45 per cent below 2005 emissions is much higher than 45 per cent below pre-industrial emissions. Victoria must strive for the top of the range – and ideally, beyond – their interim climate change targets.
Improving native forest management practices and avoiding deforestation were some of the standout recommendations made by the Independent Expert Panel. They highlighted that “developing policies to support increased emissions sequestration through reforestation and forest management” also presented an opportunity to improve outcomes for biodiversity protection. Mountain Ash forests have the highest known carbon density of any forest in the world – but are particularly vulnerable to heating and drying predicted as impacts of climate change (they thrive in cool, wet habitat). The ash forests of the central highlands are critically endangered, threatened by the additional cumulative impacts of logging and climate exacerbated fire seasons. If they succumb to those impacts, not only will they be prevented from sequestering carbon dioxide into the future, they will also release the carbon that they once stored.
If forests are a key to achieving our interim climate targets, what do we do next?
The next state election is scheduled for November next year, early in the next five-year period for the interim climate change targets. This is a golden opportunity to set the agenda for land management.
Victoria’s existing plans to phase out logging by 2030 align with the UN signatory countries’ recent pledge at the Glasgow Conference of Parties (COP26) to end deforestation by 2030. But there is widespread concern from environmentalists, including VNPA, that this is essentially a green light for another decade of logging. Between the massive volume of forests lost in the 2019–20 fire season and future large-scale fires, and mass deforestation across the state, the climate benefits from Victoria’s forests are at risk.
The recent commitment to create the Wombat-Lerderderg, Mount Buangor and Pyrenees national parks is a step in the right direction, but ahead of their official legislation, logging is planned for significant areas of land in the new national park boundaries up until 2030. Bringing forward the phase out of logging to the next few years could be the critical step that helps us hit our 2025 interim climate target.
We will continue our work to advocate for Victoria’s spectacular – and critically important – forests. We believe that Victoria can be a national leader in climate policy, and that better protection of forests is a safe bet to help us get there.
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