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Following a series of workshops in the first half of 2020, the Australian Climate Roundtable (ACR) has released a statement saying that the far-reaching climate change risks to Australia must be reduced and managed.

The ACR is a forum that brings together leading organisations from the business, farming, investment, union, social welfare and environmental sectors. The ACR seeks to find ground on responding to the challenge of climate change.

The ACR said the public debate over the costs of increased ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has too often been disconnected from consideration of the costs of climate change to Australia’s economy, environment and society. 

The workshops brought the ACR’s organisations and members together with invited experts to better understand the emerging damage of climate change, including: recent and projected changes in climate; impacts on land, water and nature; infrastructure and insurance; human health, disasters and communities; and jobs, macroeconomic and financial stability impacts.

Presentations were provided by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, the Australian Energy Market Operator, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Baringa Partners, the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, Insurance Australia Group, Macquarie University, the Red Cross, the Reserve Bank of Australia, the University of Melbourne, the University of NSW and the Queensland Investment Corporation.

What the experts say

Climate change is already having a real and significant impact on the economy and community. Australian temperatures are increasing, extreme climate-related events such as heatwaves and bushfires are becoming more intense and frequent, natural systems are suffering irreversible damage, some communities are in a constant state of recovery from successive natural disasters, and the economic and financial impacts of these changes continue to grow.

Even with ambitious global action in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement, Australia will experience escalating costs from the climate change associated with historical emissions. 

These costs will be significant and will require a concerted national response to manage these now unavoidable climate-related damages.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advises that global emissions will need to reach net zero by around 2050 to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

If the world fails to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement, and instead continues its current emissions pathway, climate change would have far-reaching economic, environmental and social effects on Australia. It is unlikely that Australia and the world can remain prosperous in this scenario.

These effects include but are not limited to:

  • Unprecedented economic damage to Australia and regional trading partners from acute (e.g. extreme events) and chronic (e.g. sea level rise) changes in climate. Significant impacts on coastal regions, agriculture, human productivity and infrastructure. The economy-wide costs of not achieving the Paris Agreement objectives far outweigh the costs of a smooth transition to net-zero emissions
  • Risks to financial stability and particularly the insurance industry. The ability of the insurance and reinsurance markets to support Australian investments and communities would be compromised
  • Major acute and long-lived human and community social and health impacts. This includes both loss of life and livelihood from extreme events through to long-term medical conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder. Many communities and regions will suffer a constant cycle of natural disaster and rebuilding or face relocation
  • Irreversible damage to Australian unique natural heritage, including Australia’s iconic and internationally significant ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu National Park
  • Significant threats to agriculture, forestry, nature-based tourism and fisheries. Unconstrained climate change is a risk to Australia’s domestic food security

The impacts of climate change will also put many governments under fiscal stress. Tax revenues will fall dramatically and increases in the frequency and severity of weather events and other natural disasters, which invoke significant emergency management responses and recovery expenditures, indicate that pressure on government budgets will be especially severe.

Even in the best case scenario, adaptation to growing climate change risks is unlikely to be possible for many communities and industries for a range of reasons, including the prohibitive costs and climate damage exceeding the limits of economic, human and natural systems to respond.

Finally, everyone will be affected by climate change but some communities, regions and industries, and people on low incomes or experiencing disadvantage, are especially vulnerable.

The Australian Climate Roundtable response

The scale of costs and breadth of the impact of climate change for people in Australia is deeply concerning and will escalate over time. 

It is in Australia’s national interest to do all it can to contribute to successful global action to minimise further temperature rises and take action to manage the changes we can’t avoid.

Australia is currently woefully unprepared for the scale of climate change threats that will emerge over the coming decades. 

There is no systemic government response (federal, state and local) to build resilience to climate risks.

Action is piecemeal; uncoordinated; does not engage business, private sector investment, unions, workers in affected industries, community sector and communities; and does not match the scale of the threat climate change represents to the Australian economy, environment and society.

There are signs of hope, according to the ACR. Many existing government and regulatory programs, businesses, investors, community organisations, unions and environmental organisations are implementing actions that could be built on to develop greater resilience. 

Australia is an educated society, with a strong democratic foundation and robust public institutions such as its healthcare system and public service. 

The ACR said Australia’s financial sector and private enterprises increasingly recognise their important stewardship role in society, including helping deliver more equitable and environmentally sustainable outcomes. 

Australia also enjoys significant natural advantages adapting and reducing emissions. For example, Australia’s expertise in agricultural production systems means that it can easily deploy certain nature-based solutions, such as carbon sequestration in biomass and soils, which not only contribute to agricultural resilience but also help mitigate climate change.

Recommendations arising from expert engagement to contribute to building national resilience:

  • Governance: Coordination of Australia’s response to climate change (both mitigation and resilience) should be a standing item for the National Cabinet. Different jurisdictions have different responsibilities and levers to build resilience to the effects of climate change. Coordinated action across these jurisdictions will be needed to ensure the most effective action and efficient allocation of resources
  • Systematic Risk Assessment: Australia has no up-to-date assessment of the impact of climate change on the country overall, or on people, jobs, specific communities, critical infrastructure and specific economic sectors. Like in other jurisdictions such as the US and New Zealand, the government should instigate a biannual national climate change vulnerability assessment. This assessment should focus on the threat to particular sectors or industries (including the insurance industry and its customers) and examine the synergies between systems. In addition, climate risk assessment should be overlayed with social vulnerability data, to ensure adaptation and resilience plans better address the needs of people and communities more vulnerable to climate change. Without this information, it is difficult to direct efforts to protect the most vulnerable communities and systems from climate change threats
  • Provision of consistent data and information sharing: There is currently a proliferation of data, portals and proprietary tools to assess climate change risk and build resilience. Governments should serve a role in the provision of this core information and provide greater funding to the science that underpins it (such as by refinancing the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility). In addition, the Commonwealth should establish a body to coordinate between the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, academia and private, non-government and public sector users for the provision of climate data and authoritative knowledge sharing
  • Build on the work of the Council of Financial Regulators: To ensure macroeconomic and financial stability risks are minimised, climate change must remain a core priority for the Council of Financial Regulators. They should develop rules and guidance for the disclosure of climate-related physical risks to support financial stability and enhance the pricing of physical climate impacts in investment decisions (large and small)
  • Support vulnerable communities and the organisations which support them: Based on the national vulnerability assessment, prioritise support and investment for people and communities most vulnerable to the impacts of, and responses to, climate change, and the organisations that support them
  • Ensure policies unlock private sector investment in resilience: Government budgets will be insufficient to build resilience to the impacts of climate change across the economy. Unlocking private sector capital will be crucial. In addition to the above, governments should work with the private sector to facilitate investment in resilience measures through supporting the development of innovative resilience financing options and, where appropriate, the application of national standards to build resilience (e.g. the construction code)
  • Integrate building resilience to the impacts of climate change with COVID-19 recovery efforts: Mitigating the risks of climate change and making our economy, labour market, infrastructure, workplaces, supply chains, communities and homes more resilient will require substantial, sustained and astute investment across Australia. Accelerating that investment can also have significant near-term benefits in speeding Australia’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic

Working together for a prosperous Australia

The ACR has previously recognised Australia’s national interest in holding the increase in the global average temperature to 1.5°C, or at most to well below 2°C, above pre-industrial levels. 

The ACR said Australia must play its fair part in international efforts to achieve this and can do so while maintaining and increasing its prosperity.

To this end, and in addition to the resilience measures outlined above, the ACR said it encourages the Federal Government to guide its policies by adopting a long-term objective of net-zero emissions by 2050 for the Australian economy as a whole, and of increased social equity and global competitive advantage for Australia in a net-zero world.

The COP26 Glasgow climate conference has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government has pushed back its forthcoming long-term strategy for emissions reduction into 2021 as a result. 

The ACR said that provides enough time for deep consultation with the Australian community on a comprehensive approach to the climate mitigation and adaptation challenges.

Emissions reductions on a necessary scale will require substantial change and present significant challenges for Australia as well as other countries. 

Policy must be well designed to achieve the goal while avoiding these risks. 

ACR has set out principles that should guide the development and implementation of these policies.

Without a coherent national response to climate change the future prosperity of the nation will be at risk. The ACR said Australians run the risk that investment will flow to other economies with clearer targets and transition roadmaps. 

Australia needs both a transition to net-zero emissions and to build resilience to those impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided, according to the ACR.

The ACR will hold a second series of workshops exploring the pathways for a successful transition to a net-zero emissions Australian economy. 

The ACR said it is prepared to work with all stakeholders to help Australia rise above decades of delay and come together to address one of the greatest challenges the nation has ever faced.

A summary of key information presented at the workshops is available here.

The presentations from the workshops are available here.

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