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Australia warned climate crisis will ‘wreak havoc’ on economy if coal isn’t phased out

A senior UN official has warned the climate crisis will “wreak havoc” across the Australian economy if coal is not rapidly phased out, and joined those explicitly calling for the Morrison government to adopt more ambitious emissions reduction goals.

In a pre-recorded speech to an Australian National University forum to be held on Monday, Selwin Hart, the UN’s assistant secretary general for climate action and special advisor to the secretary general, reiterated calls for OECD countries such as Australia to stop using coal by 2030.

Hart, a former top diplomat and climate official for Barbados, highlighted the extent to which the Morrison government has become isolated by resisting calls to set a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2050, but said greater action this decade was just as important.

He cited scientific advice that global emissions needed to be cut by 45% this decade to keep limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within reach, and called for an increased commitment before the Cop26 summit in Glasgow in November.

“National governments responsible for 73% of global emissions have now committed to net zero by mid-century. We urge Australia to join them as a matter of urgency. All Pacific small island nations have made this commitment,” he said in an address recorded for the ANU Crawford Leadership Forum.

“We welcome the 2050 net zero commitments of all states and territories of Australia. We also welcome the explicit support for 2050 net zero targets from peak business bodies such as the National Farmers Federation, the Business Council of Australia, and the Australian Industry Group, along with many of the country’s largest businesses.

“While crucial, these long-term national net zero commitments are only part of what is needed. It is essential they are backed by ambitious 2030 targets and clear plans to achieve them, otherwise we will not see the changes in the real economy we urgently need.”

The Morrison government has a 2030 target of a 26-28% cut in emissions compared with 2005 levels. The Coalition rejected advice from the Climate Change Authority that suggested it set a 45-65% target over that timeframe.

On coal, Hart said market forces showed its days were numbered. He said investors were increasingly abandoning it in favour of renewables, which were now cheaper in most places” and the expectation coal assets would be stranded was hastening the decline. But the shift was not happening fast enough to avert a global climate catastrophe, he said.

“We fully understand the role that coal and other fossil fuels have played in Australia’s economy, even if mining accounts for a small fraction – around 2% – of overall jobs. But it’s essential to have a broader, more honest and rational conversation about what is in Australia’s interests, because the bottom line is clear,” he said.

“If the world does not rapidly phase out coal, climate change will wreak havoc right across the Australian economy – from agriculture to tourism, and right across the services sector. Similarly, [it will affect] construction, housing and the property sector in a country where the vast majority live on or near a coastline.”

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Hart’s intervention follows similar recent calls from leading climate officials from the US, UK and Europe. Dr Jonathan Pershing, the deputy to US presidential climate envoy John Kerry, told Guardian Australia last month that Australia’s targets were “not sufficient” and the country should be considering a 50% cut in emissions by 2030.

An Australian Conservation Foundation survey of 15,000 people released last week found a majority of people in every federal electorate believed the Morrison government should be doing more to tackle the climate crisis, and some Liberal MPs – notably Warren Entsch and Jason Falinski – have called for the 2030 emissions target to be increased.

But some Nationals MPs remain strongly opposed to greater climate action. The deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, said on Friday we would not yield to what he called “straight-out bullying” on the issue.

Morrison has promised a long-term emissions strategy before the Glasgow summit in November, but not committed to lifting targets or new policies. The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, recently told Guardian Australia “progress is being made behind closed doors” within the government on climate change, but said he was “very comfortable” with the 2030 target.

Last week, the environment minister, Sussan Ley, greenlit the expansion of an underground coal mine north of Wollongong. It was the government’s first approval for additional coal mining since the federal court found she has a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis.

Hart quoted a previous call by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, for wealthy countries to phase out coal by 2030 and other countries, which have had less opportunity to develop using fossil fuels, to stop using it by 2040.

“If adopted, this timetable would leave nearly a decade for Australia to ensure a just transition for its coal workers and others affected,” he said.

“We are at a critical juncture in the climate crisis. If G20 countries including Australia choose business-as-usual, climate change will soon send Australia’s high living standards up in flames. By contrast, if countries including Australia choose bold climate action, a new wave of prosperity, jobs, fairness and sustained economic growth is there for the taking.”

The latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found emissions were already affecting weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe, contributing to an increase in heatwaves, heavier rainfall events and more intense droughts and tropical cyclones. In Australia, average temperatures above land have increased by about 1.4C since 1910.

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