The latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explores the actions needed to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to mitigate climate change. The report makes clear that countries must take immediate and drastic action across all sectors of the economy to drive down emissions.

The question is: will change come quickly enough, and how can a just transition ensure no one is left behind?

Our current targets don’t cut it

To keep warming at around 1.5 degrees and avoid catastrophic and irreversible effects on people and planet, Australia should do its fair share: immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reach a reduction of 75% of 2005 levels by the end of this decade, and hit net zero by 2035, according to the Australian Climate Council. The IPCC report states global emissions should be at least halved by 2030.

Jim Skea, co-chair of the working group behind the IPCC report says, “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

The Government’s current target of net zero by 2050 comes too late and bets heavily on technologies that may not yet exist, without a commitment to immediately drive down emissions.

In the wake of the devastating floods in New South Wales and Queensland, the 2022-2023 Federal Budget announced last week included virtually no new funding for initiatives that reduce emissions. The government is forging ahead with its plan for a ‘gas-fired recovery’, last month announcing $19 million dollars in support to frack for gas in the Beetaloo Basin, which would drive up Australia’s emissions by 13%. Australian Federal and State Governments spent more than $11.6 billion dollars of public funds supporting polluting fossil fuel industries through subsidies in 2021-2022.

The IPCC report found that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025, coal must be severely scaled back, global consumption must go down, and that growing forests and other land use measures, while necessary, will not be enough alone to slow warming without drastic cuts to global use of fossil fuels.

Climate change risks entrenching inequity

We know social and ecological justice are inseparable. Jesuit Social Services’ 2021 Dropping Off the Edge research into locational disadvantage across the country shows that already disadvantaged communities were often disproportionately affected by poor air quality and extreme heat.

Julie Edwards, Jesuit Social Services’ CEO, says changes to Australia’s climate and economy will disproportionately affect already disadvantaged and marginalised people. “People already experiencing disadvantage are first and often worst hit by climate change, with fewer resources to cope and adapt. For example, people on lower incomes are more likely to live in uninsulated housing without adequate heating and cooling and, without support to adapt to the changing climate, there are fears more First Nations people in remote communities will be forced to leave their traditional country.”

We know that those people most affected by environmental crises are often least responsible for them. The IPCC report findings echo this, stating that the 10% of households with the highest per capita emissions are responsible for up to 45% of consumption-based household greenhouse gas emissions.

We need a plan that puts affected communities front and centre

It’s time for a coordinated and just transition plan to reach net zero by 2035. That means ensuring that people already experiencing disadvantage and those hardest hit by the changes benefit from the new economy and are supported to adapt to the ongoing impacts we are already facing from climate change.

We need a practical plan to shift away from a fossil fuel based economy, reskill workers and invest in affected regions. Australian Council of Social Services’ CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie says Australia could give fossil fuel workers certainty, “if we establish an Energy Transition Authority, a dedicated agency with quarantined funding to support worker retraining, redeployment and to work with local government and communities on plans to transform and diversify their economies and support their transition”.

Developing a transition plan also means adapting and improving how we live now to reduce our emissions and impacts. Susie Moloney, Executive Director of Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places, says there are exciting opportunities for Government to invest in energy efficiency and solar in low-income homes, which would “significantly reduce energy bills, create thousands of jobs, cut emissions, and provide access to cleaner and more affordable power for those most in need”.

In its Prisons, climate and a just transition discussion paper published earlier this year, Jesuit Social Services argued that a just transition calls on us to actively support opportunities for marginalised people and communities, who are typically excluded from decision-making, to identify and lead solutions to the challenges they face.

Susie Moloney says Australia should learn from and invest in community-led First Nations initiatives to tackle climate change, “such as community-owned renewable energy projects which deliver access to affordable clean energy and job opportunities that support First Nations people to continue to live on country, if they want to”.

The IPCC report shows that severe cuts to emissions are possible but we need an urgent, coordinated and just national plan, and governments at all levels must take action that puts hardest hit communities first.