The climate crisis looms as the Coalition fiddles with fossil fuels

Greg Jericho
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

We may be dealing with a health crisis, but the climate change crisis has not gone away, nor become any less urgent. In fact, the opposite.

A few conservative commentators have suggested Covid-19 shows what a real crisis looks like compared with, in their opinion, the hyperventilating over climate change.

What bollocks.

Nasa estimates that last month was the hottest April on record and the first four months of this year are the second hottest start to a year.

The past seven months have all been 1C or higher than the 1951-1980 average (roughly around 1.3C above the pre-industrial average) – tied with the longest streak set from October 2015 to April 2016. But unlike in 2015 and 2016 the Bureau of Meteorology records we are currently not in El Niño.

That very much suggests the pace of warming is speeding up.

The linear trend of temperatures over the past 60 years suggests we will hit 2C above pre-industrial levels in 50 years; the trend of the past 20 years has it happening in around 30 years, but the trend of the past decade would see us hit that level in 2038 –just 18 years’ time.

Related: Business, unions and green groups call for sustainable Covid-19 recovery with clean energy transition

In 2018, the IPCC warned we had little time to keep temperatures below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. If the trend of the past decade continues, we’ll hit that temperature in 2025.

And no, the virus has not bought us more time.

A study published this week in Nature Climate Change estimates the annual global drop in emissions due to virus shutdowns will be “comparable to the rates of decrease needed year-on-year over the next decades to limit climate change to a 1.5°C warming”.

That it took forcing people to stop their lives to achieve such cuts highlights just how big the job ahead of us is and how it cannot be done through individual action alone.

Cutting emissions without crippling the economy requires not everyone self-isolating, but changing industries and the very foundations of our economy.

We need to move away from oil, coal and gas to renewable energy.

And so it should be of great concern that the government is using the coronavirus as cover to push fossil fuels.

This week Adam Morton revealed that a manufacturing taskforce, headed by Dow Chemical executive and Saudi Aramco board member Andrew Liveris, is recommending to the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (itself headed by the current deputy chairman of Strike Energy, Neville Power) that “the Morrison government make sweeping changes to ‘create the market’ for gas and build fossil fuel infrastructure that would operate for decades”.

It comes off the back of Angus Taylor suggesting it is not government policy to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and the government giving in-principle support to recommendations made by a panel headed by a former CEO of Origin Energy, Grant King, to allow the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation fund projects involving carbon capture and storage.

Related: A First Dog on the Moon live action cartoon! Will the coronavirus save us from climate change? | First Dog on the Moon

Taylor also this week released a discussion paper for a “framework to accelerate low emissions technologies”. While suggesting renewables are vital, it essentially pushes for the same energy mixes that were being advocated a decade ago – more gas, the discredited carbon capture, as well as nuclear power.

The government is like a smoker who still thinks switching to low-tar cigarettes is a healthy approach.

It’s the wrong policy at precisely the wrong time.

As Morton has reported, organisations and governments around the world are advocating using economic stimulus measures to push towards a greener economy.

A report released this week by the Australian Conservation Foundation echoed the Grattan Institute’s recent “Start with steel: A practical plan to support carbon workers and cut emissions” report, arguing that we should see the virus as an opportunity to transform our economy and invest in renewable energy.

But no. It is clear the government remains wedded to a fossil-fuel based economy in which its climate change policy is merely a sop rather being designed to deal with a major crisis that is only becoming more urgent.

  • Greg Jericho writes on economics for Guardian Australia