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Australia needs more renewable energy to cut carbon emissions, two scientists argue in criticizing an advisory body report.

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Sharp dissent over Australian carbon emissions strategy

Two Australian academics serving on a government climate panel have publicly criticized their own committee's latest report as "untrue and dangerous," stoking a long-running debate over the country's carbon emissions reduction strategies.   

Australia's Climate Change Authority is a panel created in 2012 to provide expert advice on mitigation initiatives. On 31 August, the authority, chaired by Wendy Craik, a deputy chancellor at the University of South Australia, Adelaide, released a review of what actions Australia should take “to deliver on its international commitments" under the Paris Agreement of December 2015, according to the authority’s website.

The two dissenting members yesterday released their own minority report after highlighting their objections in an op-ed that appeared online Sunday at The Sydney Morning Herald.

The dispute centers on Australia's carbon emissions reduction target. At the Paris summit, Australia's government pledged to reduce the country's 2005 carbon emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030. The Climate Change Authority's recommendations are based on this target. But David Karoly and Clive Hamilton note that the Australian government also agreed to do its fair share to keep global temperature rise below 2°C, which is a key objective of the Paris accord. The 26% to 28% target "is wholly inconsistent with Australia’s international obligations," they argue in their report.

The authority’s report favors political feasibility over environmental effectiveness "and makes recommendations that are not soundly based on climate science," Hamilton, an economist at Charles Sturt University near Canberra and climate scientist Karoly of the University of Melbourne in Australia, charge in their dissent. We felt that what the parliament and public needs to know is how much Australia needs to do to meet its international obligations," Hamilton told ScienceInsider. 

For example, Karoly and Hamilton note in their op-ed that under the authority's recommendations, there would be no incentive for utilities and other major energy users to reduce emissions below baselines based on recent emission levels that decline over time. The authority’s strategy also relies heavily on purchasable emissions credits and a government scheme that pays polluters to cut carbon output. Karoly and Hamilton claim this would seriously delay the transition of energy-intensive industries to a low-carbon future.   

Instead, they argue that Australia should base its climate policy on a carbon budget that sets an upper limit on the country's total emissions between now and 2050, institute a cap-and-trade scheme, consider closing selected coal-fired power plants, and ramp up renewable energy.

The dissenting report "was not released or endorsed by the Authority, and has no status as an Authority report," Craik wrote in a statement on the authority's website.

Karoly is the only member of the authority who is a climate scientist. Other members are former politicians, bureaucrats, industry representatives, and academics. Neuroscientist and engineer Alan Finkel, Australia's chief scientist, is an ex-officio member. "The vast majority of those board members have signed on to the report," energy minister Josh Frydenberg told Australia's ABC News. He also defended the government’s "very ambitious targets" for emissions reductions.

But the contrarian view is garnering praise in the scientific community. "I cannot help but fully support Karoly and Hamilton," Paul Read, a sustainability expert at Monash University, Clayton, in Australia said in a statement distributed by the Australian Science Media Center. "Their dissenting argument has been supported by the majority of scientists for years," he wrote, adding that the authority’s report "shunts the entire problem, with far greater pain, into the future."

Hamilton says that what happens next is up to the government, the parliament, and the public, which "have two reports before them recommending very different paths for Australia." He and Karoly intend to continue serving on the authority until their terms expire in June 2017. "We think we have a valuable contribution to make to the authority," he says.