Australia is belatedly waking up to the implications of the carbon budget, although the concept has been around for years. It simply says that if the increase in global temperature resulting from human carbon emissions is to be contained to a level which will prevent dangerous climate change, the world, henceforth, can only afford to emit a limited amount of greenhouse gases.

According to the latest science, that limit will be exceeded if we burn more than 20 per cent of the world’s proven coal, oil and gas reserves. This is confirmed in recent reports from the International Energy Agency and Australia’s Climate Commission.

At current emission rates, the world budget runs out in 20 years, and the Australian budget, as one of the highest per capita carbon emitters, runs out in five years. Major coal companies, as members the IEA’s Energy Business Council , are well aware of these implications.

The carbon budget is the basis for current campaigns, led by organisations such as Greenpeace and Bill McKibben’s 350.org, to ensure that budget is not exceeded, in part by stopping the expansion of Australian coal exports,

Recently, the CEO of the Australian Coal Association, Dr Nikki Willliams, hit out at such “eco-activists” who are “ideologically driven to destroy Australia’s coal industry but have no technically and commercially reliable and affordable solution to global climate change,” going on to justify the continued expansion of the industry.

Subsequently, commenting on the Climate Commission’s latest report, Minerals Council CEO, Mitch Hooke, opined that the report, in “calling for an end to the Australian coal industry crosses the line from scientific analysis into environmental campaigning.”

Activists play a vital role in alerting society to critical issues which the establishment may wish to deliberately avoid. But in addition to activists, many more Australians are concerned about the need for serious action to address climate change. Thus the mining industry’s arguments warrant a wide response.

Any balanced risk assessment of the latest climate science and the evidence of warming around the world, would accept that events are accelerating far faster than anticipated. There is now a high risk that our inaction today is locking in catastrophic outcomes; the challenge is far greater and more urgent than is acknowledged officially.

Evidence of climate change and accelerating extreme weather suggests that the world is close to passing climatic tipping points in the Arctic, the Antarctic and elsewhere. Dr Williams facetiously dismissed such concerns: “--- the last time I (looked), the Arctic was still there --- “.  She might have added that the Arctic is warming 3-4 times faster than the global average and that 80 per cent of the Arctic sea ice volume in summer has been lost since 1979, half of it in the last seven years. 

On current trends, the Arctic will probably be sea ice-free in summer by 2015 and in winter by 2030. The Greenland ice sheet melt appears to be accelerating exponentially, which if confirmed, may lead to a five metre sea level increase this century.  

The West Antarctic ice sheet is warming faster than anywhere else on earth. None of this was supposed to happen until post-2100.

These changes may seem remote from Australia, but they have enormous impact on the global climate system, on sea level rise, and thus impact directly upon us.

Science has clearly established human carbon emissions as a prime cause. Despite years of negotiations, nothing has been done to reduce emissions, which are accelerating in line with worst-case scenarios. Despite Mitch Hooke’s boosterism, ‘official’ solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, and clean coal technology, are not working and even if they did, it would require decades for them to take effect, time we no longer have.

Current climate policies, including our own Clean Energy Future package, if fully implemented, will result in 4-6 degrees Celsius mean warming relative to pre-industrial conditions, with the Arctic experiencing 9-12 degrees Celsius regional warming – way beyond the official target of 2 degrees Celsius – worsening an already very dangerous situation.

This would result in a world of one billion people, not the present seven billion, as death and destruction ensue from a combination of heat stress, escalating extreme weather disasters, sea level rise, disease, food and water scarcity with consequent social disorder and conflict. Australia will be severely affected, probably with major population decline, unless emission reductions are accelerated.

Yet notwithstanding the 20 per cent limit on burning the world’s proven fossil-fuel reserves if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided, by 2025, the Australian coal industry is planning to more than double coal exports, and the gas industry to quadruple gas exports, which will make us one of the top five global emitters, exports included.

The Chinese, Indians and other trade partners are in the process of rapidly abandoning a high carbon future.  If our current expansion policies are implemented, it will leave Australia with a stack of stranded assets in mines, ports and railways within a decade, wasting funds which should be spent developing zero-carbon solutions.   

This is part one of a two-part analysis. Part two will be published on Monday morning.

Ian Dunlop is a former an international oil, gas and coal industry executive.  He chaired the Australian Coal Association in 1987-88, chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000 and was CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors from 1997-2001.