A team of Australia's top scientists warned on Monday of dire climate change in calling for the nation's carbon-dominated energy sector to turn green, as the government struggles to win support for a carbon price to cut pollution.
In a report by a government-appointed Climate Commission, the scientists said many of Australia's major cities faced a serious threat from rising sea-levels, particularly Sydney.
The Great Barrier Reef won't be spared either, its coral a victim of rising ocean acidity from higher carbon dioxide levels from burning fossil fuels and felling forests.
The report, titled "The Critical Decade," aims to shift Australia's current political debate over the government's climate policy, which has polarized voters and been used by opposition parties to attack its parliamentary rivals.
"This is the critical decade. Decisions we make from now to 2020 will determine the severity of climate change," said the scientists, whose report was handed to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
"To minimize this risk, we must decarbonize our economy and move to clean energy sources by 2050. Carbon emissions must peak within the next few years and then strongly decline."
Achieving that won't be easy.
Australia's 22 million people are responsible for about 1.5 percent of mankind's greenhouse gas pollution, making it the developed world's top per-capita carbon polluter.
Australia is also the world's top coal exporter and relies on coal to produce about 80 percent of its electricity.
The booming mining, oil and gas sectors are also big carbon polluters, with billions of dollars pledged for the liquefied natural gas sector set to push emissions up further.
To try to reign in growing emissions, the government has staked its reputation on passing laws that impose a price on every ton of carbon emissions from major polluters from 2012. Full market trading of those emissions, in the form of permits, could start as early as 2015.
Climate Commissioner Will Steffen said whatever policy the government chose, it needed to be strong enough to drive investment out of carbon and into greener energy.
Gillard's planned carbon price, between A$20 and A$30 a ton, is meant to drive the power sector towards cleaner energy. Australia needs A$100 billion in fresh investment over the next decade to replace its old coal-fired power stations.
The report reviewed climate change data, including from the U.N. climate panel, highlighting Australia's risk from more extreme droughts, floods and deadly bush fires.
"The impacts of climate change are already being felt in Australia and around the world with less than 1 degree of warming globally," concluded the scientists.
"The risks of future climate change — to our economy, society and environment — are serious, and grow rapidly with each degree of further temperature rise."
They said to limit temperature rises at 2 degrees Celsius, carbon emissions must peak by 2020 and then fall, otherwise the world faced a near impossible task of avoiding dangerous climate change.
Call to End Facile Climate Debate
Australia's conservative opposition opposes a carbon tax, warning of job losses and soaring power bills, and proposes a carbon offset policy instead. Opinion polls say some 60 percent of voters oppose a carbon tax, with only 30 percent in favor.
Liberal party powerbroker Nick Minchin attacked the report and called its authors "global warming alarmists."
Gillard responded: "We don't have time ... for false claims in this debate. The science is clear, man-made carbon pollution is making a difference to our planet and our climate."
"We've got to get on with the job of cutting carbon pollution and having a rational debate about it," she said.
Greens Senator Christine Milne said the report was a call for Australians to get beyond the "facile discussion" on whether climate change existed.
Uncertainty over climate policy has starved Australia's power sector of investment in the past three to five years, said TRUenergy CEO Richard McIndoe, adding shortages in baseload power are predicted for 2013-16.
Australia's reliance on coal-fired power could not be changed by 2020, as it had taken 50 to 60 years to build the energy network, said McIndoe.
"As investors in the industry we're at an impasse and as a result capital is not being invested, so we haven't seen new power stations built," he said.
"At the moment we have a carbon tax proposed that really isn't going to change much. At A$20 a tonne we don't see any change really between coal and gas-fired generation."
(Editing by David Fogarty and Robert Birsel)