5 What can we expect?

A global average temperature increase from pre-industrial levels of 4 °C is well outside the relatively stable temperature regimes that have allowed the development of modern civilisation, and that have probably prevailed for our species at all times in our history. Potential impacts of climate change range from highly disruptive to catastrophic. There is a risk that the climate system may reach a ‘tipping point’ at which a small additional change may trigger a large, abrupt response. These responses can be irreversible in a timeframe that is relevant to humans (Garnaut 2011, New et al. 2011).

In Australia, the effects of a 4 °C global average temperature rise would include:

  • temperature increases of 3–5 °C in coastal areas and 4–6 °C inland
  • increases in the occurrence of extremely high temperatures
  • likely significant declines in annual rainfall in southern Australia
  • increases in evaporation and drought
  • an increase in extreme rainfall events, increasing the risk of flooding
  • an increase in extreme fire weather
  • sea level rise of up to 1.1 metres by 2100, increasing to more than 7 metres over subsequent centuries, even with no further warming
  • substantial loss of marine and terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity, with the resilience of many or most ecosystems being exceeded (Whetton et al. 2011).

The magnitude of future climate impacts will depend on what global effort is made this decade to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the impact of inevitable change will depend on the preparations made now.

5.1 Reducing emissions

Effective global emissions reductions will require action on many fronts, including international agreements, economic reform, government regulation, investment in technological innovation and societal change. It will require the united efforts of government, industry and the public at large (Ackerman and Stanton 2011, CSIRO 2011).

Achieving deep cuts in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions will require a major alteration to public attitudes and understanding of climate change, to provide the incentive for cuts in personal energy demand and acceptance of low-emissions technologies, so that governments are empowered to rapidly transition Australia to a low-carbon economy (CSIRO 2011). Recent research indicates that, since the 1990s, there have been increases in public levels of uncertainty and diversity of opinion about the causes of climate change and the extent of the problem. There is also a perception of disagreement among scientists and a lack of confidence in the ability of science to predict the nature and effects of climate change (Ashworth et al. 2011, Washington and Cook 2011). Attitudes have also been affected by the bitterly partisan public policy debates associated with the carbon tax (Climate Institute 2012).

Although the Australian Government is now leading the domestic mitigation agenda, it recognises the important role of the states and territories in the national initiative, particularly in the promotion of renewable energy and energy efficiency, land-use planning and public transport (State of the Environment 2011 Committee 2011). Many emissions sources will not be impacted sufficiently or at all by a carbon price, and this is where state governments have a clear leadership role.

If South Australia is to play its part in the timely reduction of global emissions, only a government-wide, coordinated and concerted approach to mitigation will be successful in rapidly moving the state to a low-carbon economy. Some of the current abatement initiatives focus on improved efficiencies against a backdrop of population and economic growth endeavours, while other projects are of a demonstrative nature with potential abatement benefits to be realised well into the future.

With a natural endowment of renewable resources, South Australia is well placed to build on its success in attracting renewable energy investment, and delivering significant and timely greenhouse gas abatement. A low-carbon economy also provides hedging against carbon prices and a competitive advantage in a global carbon-sensitive market (Government of South Australia 2011a).

An extensive opportunity for wind generation has been identified in the Eyre Peninsula. With new transmission investment, this region is capable of meeting the state’s entire average electricity needs in times of high wind (Baker and McKenzie et al. 2010). South Australia also has significant potential for geothermal energy, world-class solar electricity levels in the north of the state and wave energy resources (Figure 8). However, achievement of the 33% renewable energy target will require continued deliberate state government policy support in addition to the national effort, as competition for renewable energy investment intensifies (Government of South Australia 2011a).

A future pressure on the state’s emissions is the expansion of mining activity, particularly at Olympic Dam. The proposed open-pit mine will increase production of copper, uranium oxide, gold and silver, with an associated estimated additional 4.7 Mt of CO2-e per year emitted from electricity and diesel use at full production by around 2020. This equates to around 15% of the state’s current emissions. In gaining approval for the project, BHP Billiton has committed to deep cuts in emissions by 2050, sourcing renewable energy for the desalination plant and constructing an onsite cogeneration plant.

5.2 Adapting to unavoidable climate change

Future climate change impacts are unavoidable given existing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and future emissions resulting from the world’s slow mitigation response (CSIRO 2011). The latest scientific agreement is that we are heading for global warming of at least 2 °C—possibly 4 °C by 2070 (CSIRO 2011).

Adaptation policy needs to incorporate a wide range of possible futures. The extent and cost of the adaptation requirement will depend on how successful the world is in mitigating climate change (Garnaut 2011). Climate changes may move from incremental to transformative, requiring a complete transformation in many aspects of society in the more vulnerable regions of the world (New et al. 2011). The impacts on society associated with a 4 °C warming present great challenges for adaptation.

South Australia is highly vulnerable to projected climate change, and adaptation planning is important to reduce exposure and vulnerability, and increase resilience to potential adverse impacts. South Australia’s key vulnerable areas are water supply, the natural environment, cities and infrastructure, the coastal zone, agriculture and human health. Climate impacts on other countries will affect South Australia’s import and export markets. Adaptation planning will also enable the state to position itself to take advantage of potential opportunities in new markets (DCCEE 2012a, IPCC 2012).

The South Australian Government outlined the need to undertake adaptation planning in 2009 and has since developed Prospering in a changing climate: a climate change adaptation framework for South Australia (Government of South Australia 2010). The adaptation and preparation processes already started (see Section 4.3) are essential to ensure that we minimise the impacts of climate change on essential services, such as our primary industries and water supply. Adaptation considerations will need to be incorporated into all government policy and planning processes.

Map of locations with potential for renewable energy development in South Australia distinguishing between landfill methane, wind, biomass, wave, geothermal and solar.

Source: Government of South Australia (2011a)

Figure 8 Potential zones for renewable energy, South Australia

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