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Questions on UN climate submissions, carbon accounting and IPCC


Senator «MILNE» -I have 12 minutes and my time starts now. I understand Australia has to put in its Fifth National Communication on implementation of climate change actions to the UNFCCC. I thought it had to be in by 1 January. I have been to their website and yours and I cannot see that it is in. Can you confirm whether you have submitted that report and when it will be publicly available on one website or the other?

Mr Comley -It has not been submitted yet. The deadline for submissions-

Senator Wong -Sorry-we are having a little trouble hearing at the moment.

CHAIR -I am sorry. There are probably three people trying to chair when, in fact, it is my job.

Senator Wong -That is fine. Mr Comley was answering Senator «Milne»'s question.

Mr Comley -The Fifth National Communication has not been submitted to the UNFCCC yet. The deadline for submission is the end of this week.

Senator «MILNE» -So it was not 1 January?

Mr Comley -No-there is a six-week period after 1 January in which it can be submitted.

Senator «MILNE» -When will it be publicly available? Does it go up straightaway?

Mr Comley -As soon as it is submitted.

Senator «MILNE»-Can you tell me if the UNFCCC has conducted an inventory review report on the national carbon accounting system-not just the overview but the actual review report on the inventory? While Mr Carruthers is coming to the table, I have a couple of questions in a minute for Professor Steffen.

Mr Carruthers-On the UNFCCC inventory review, there was, as is normal, a further review of the inventory conducted last year. That review has now been published. It includes the national carbon accounting system and it includes a range of developments that were undertaken in the last review. It is fair to say that, across the whole of Australia's inventory, including the national carbon accounting system, it is, in UNFCCC terms, a very positive report.

Senator «MILNE» -Is that publicly available?

Mr Carruthers -Yes, that is on the UNFCCC website. I would be very happy to assist the committee in providing it.

Senator «MILNE»-Would you mind just providing a link to the committee. I went to their website and it is not easy to find a lot of things at times. Thank you for that. In terms of the national carbon accounting system, I have been asking for the maps for some six months now and have been promised them by the government and I am still waiting. Can you indicate when I can expect to get the maps of the Kyoto forests for each year since 1990-that is what I have been asking for-in any of the GIS formats that are available?

Senator Wong -Senator, I thought I had indicated in the Senate-

Senator «MILNE» -That you would provide them.

Senator Wong -Yes.

Senator «MILNE» -That is right.

Senator Wong -And I gave you an indication of what needed to be done first. I do not know that I can add to what I said in the Senate.

Senator «MILNE»-I again ask for those maps. If the whole national carbon accounting system is based on being able to find the Kyoto forests then I would like to be able to see where they are and what changes have occurred.

Dr Parkinson-They are very close to completion. We said that we had to undertake some consultation and once we had done the consultation they would be made available. Off the top of my head, we are literally weeks away; I am not sure whether it is days. It is that sort of time frame.

Senator «MILNE»-Thank you. Professor Steffen, recently there has been a lot of criticism of the IPCC report in relation to the Himalayan glacial melt on the basis of an unsubstantiated claim that it does not meet the levels of rigour that would be required by the IPCC. Can you indicate whether that should undermine confidence in the findings of the IPCC? What evidence is there in relation to Himalayan glacial melt?

Prof. Steffen-That should absolutely not undermine confidence in the IPCC. It was a mistake that largely arose from working group 2, and it was a mistake precisely because the careful procedures and processes of the IPCC were not followed. As far as I can see in reading the various criticisms, that is the only one that has any substance. A very important point to make is that it in no way affects working group 1, which is the fundamental climate science. After I saw that report about the Himalayan glaciers, I went back to working group 1 to check in more detail on the section, and that is scientifically accurate. The working group very carefully reports the observations to date, the uncertainties with those observations and so on, and I think that is a carefully balanced report based on the peer reviewed literature. As far as I can see when I review the various things that are flying around the media, most of which are either inaccurate or unsubstantiated, the only one that is a true mistake on the part of the IPCC is the one to do with glaciers, and that arose out of working group 2. The science presented in working group 1, which is really the basis of how climate is changing and why it is changing, is absolutely accurate and is in no way impaired by anything you see in the popular media.

Senator «MILNE»-I have seen a number of conclusions from science being conducted in Australia in relation to ocean acidity, sea level rises, the Indian Ocean dipole and a whole range of issues. Are those scientific findings in Australia consistent with the IPCC overall conclusion in relation to trying to constrain global warming to less than two degrees? Is the Australian science showing that things are happening faster than the IPCC predicted?

Prof. Steffen-The first thing you have to remember is we are sitting now at the beginning of 2010, and there has been a fair bit of science conducted since the cut-off date for the IPCC report. In fact, the science has moved rather quickly. I would say that the assessment that the climate system is moving faster than we thought five years ago is, in the main, accurate. But bear in mind that the IPCC report was already a year or so old by the time the assessment actually came out, because of the review processes and the cut-off dates. Is the new data inconsistent? No, it is going beyond the IPCC Fourth assessment report. In fact, everything that we found was consistent with the science at that time. But, for example, we have much more data on the big polar glaciers that we did not have available in 2006, when the IPCC science was being assessed. That indicates that those glaciers, big polar ice sheets, are moving faster than we thought, but the data simply was not available back then. It is fair to say that the IPCC did a superb job with the data they had to hand, but since that time we have more information and more understanding to hand.

Senator «MILNE»-Have you done an assessment of the pledges that have been made by countries under the Copenhagen accord to date, and what would that translate to in terms of a global temperature rise if that is what is adopted?

Prof. Steffen-No, I have not done that analysis yet, because I understand those pledges only came in at the end of January and it would take some time to unravel exactly what they mean. You are probably aware that those pledges are made on different scales, different baselines and so on, and I think we have to use due care in trying to unravel those. We have not done that yet in our institute so I could not give you an accurate answer on that. I will say, though, that the early indications are it is certainly above two degrees.

Senator «MILNE»-There was an analysis recently that it was equivalent to 3.5, but I accept what you are saying, that that is arguable and it is unknown at this point. But there have also been remarks to say that four degrees would not be catastrophic. What would a four-degree global average temperature rise mean for Australia? Would it mean four degrees uniformly, or not necessarily so?

Prof. Steffen-No, absolutely not. I think that is a mistake that a lot of people make. In fact, if you look at some fairly basic statistics, what that means is that the extreme events at the upper temperature end will become far more frequent than a very modest change in the mean actually means. We see that already in some of the temperature records around Australia in terms of the intense heatwaves that were recorded, I believe, in South Australia in 2004, Queensland 2004, Victoria 2009, the ACT 2009 and so on. You can recite all of that, but in my professional judgment, in reading a vast amount of literature on what happens at various temperature ranges, a four-degree average increase in temperature would be extremely serious. I would say that many aspects of our ecosystems and indeed our human systems would be unable to cope with a temperature range of that amount.

Senator «MILNE» -Would we lose the Great Barrier Reef-

Prof. Steffen -Almost surely.

Senator «MILNE» -from acidity and bleaching?

Prof. Steffen-That is about as close to 100 per cent as you are going to get in this business. With a four-degree temperature rise, absolutely.


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