Australia should aim for net zero by 2040, new Climate Change Authority member says

Exclusive: Prof Lesley Hughes, a climate specialist appointed this week, says current target is not good enough

A new scientific member of the government’s revamped Climate Change Authority has said Australia should be aiming to reach net zero at least a decade earlier than 2050.

Prof Lesley Hughes, a biologist and climate change specialist, said Australia’s current climate target for 2030 was “not good enough” but said the new government was showing a willingness to listen to the science.

Hughes is one of three new female appointments announced by climate change minister Chris Bowen earlier this week to address concerns the authority’s board was weighed too heavily towards business and fossil fuels.

The Albanese government has legislated a target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 43% by 2030, based on 2005 levels – an increase on the Morrison government’s 26% cut.

Under that legislation, the authority will produce an annual parliamentary statement and advise on future emissions reduction targets. That advice will have to be made public and, if it is rejected, the minister must say why.

Hughes, who is in the process of retiring from her full-time academic role at Macquarie University, said the government’s current 2030 target was “not good enough” and said through her work at the Climate Council, she had called for a 75% cut within a decade.

She told the Guardian: “But you do have to get to 43% first and that is a significant improvement on the previous government’s commitment. I will be working hard to get to that 43% and beyond as quickly as possible.”

She said the Climate Council’s Aim High, Go Fast report, released last year, had indicated Australia should be looking towards net zero by 2035 or 2040 “to do our fair share of staying well below 2C”.

“That would be a great target [for Australia],” she said.

“The science is indicating that net zero by 2050 is too late to stay well below 2C [the target agreed in Paris]. But it’s a process and I hope it’s an accelerating process.”

She said Australia’s continued approval of coal and gas projects, many geared for export with the fuels burned overseas, was “a real cognitive dissonance”.

“Emissions don’t know country jurisdictions and it’s global emissions that count. I think it’s reasonable that countries look at domestic emissions first.

“But certainly, globally, we won’t stay below 2C while there’s huge amounts of fossil fuels being burned.”

Having already submitted the new target to the UN’s climate convention earlier this year, the government will need to set a target for 2035 by 2025. The Climate Change Authority will make a recommendation on what that target should be.

New authority

In 2014, the authority recommended Australia cut emissions by 45% to 65% by 2030, based on 2005 levels. The Abbott government ignored that advice, adopting a 26% to 28% cut in 2015 – a target that went unchanged until Labor won this year’s federal election.

The Abbott government tried to abolish the authority but failed after the then senator Clive Palmer said in a press conference with former US vice-president Al Gore that he would block that attempt.

Abbott did successfully abolish the advisory body the Climate Commission, leading its members – which included Hughes – to go it alone and create a new independent organisation, the Climate Council.

In early 2017, three members of the authority’s board – economist Danny Price, economics professor John Quiggin and public ethics professor Clive Hamilton – quit in frustration.

The last climate scientist to hold a spot on the authority was Prof David Karoly, who saw out his five-year term in 2017.

After spending years in a comparative wilderness, the authority has new members and new responsibilities under the Albanese government.

Hughes joins two other new members Dr Virginia Marshall, a legal researcher and expert on Indigenous water rights, and Sam Mostyn, a businesswoman and sustainability adviser.

The nine-member board is chaired by former Business Council of Australia and Origin head Grant King, and includes the government’s chief scientist, Dr Cathy Foley.

Hughes said she was called personally by energy minister Chris Bowen to ask if she would take on the role at the authority.

“I wouldn’t have said yes without thinking that there is a change of atmosphere and a willingness to listen to the science.

“The next few years are crucial and an opportunity like this to step up my involvement beyond the Climate Council – which I’ll still be involved with – was something I could not say no to.”

She said as the only climate specialist scientist on the authority “I felt the pressure a little bit, but I will absolutely do what I can. It’s a significant responsibility.”

The first meeting of the authority with its new members is set for mid-October.

Hughes took her academic retirement decision before she took the phone call from the energy minister.

“So much for the quiet retirement,” she added.


Graham Readfearn

The GuardianTramp

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