Australia looks like a climate laggard, as other countries ramp-up efforts


There are calls from all directions for Australia to do more to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

However, with a near-term commitment to cut emissions by just 26 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, Australia’s ambition is considered insufficient by almost any measure.

Labor is calling for stronger 2030 targets, although the opposition won’t say what those targets should be until after the Glasgow conference.

Others have been clearer. The Business Council of Australia has backflipped on earlier calls to go slow on climate action and is now calling for a 46-per-cent cut by 2030.

Some in the government have called for stronger targets too. Liberal MP Dave Sharma, for example, suggested a 2035 target of at least 40 per cent, which pulls off the neat trick of implying that the government needs to exceed its 2030 target without explicitly repudiating it.

However, the government has insisted our target is fair, and that Australia will “meet and beat” it.

The latest projections show the target isn’t even ambitious under its own spotlight: The government projects emissions to be cut by at least 30 per cent by 2030.

So let’s look at the targets. Are they fair? And will we beat them?

Abbott-era targets still at play

Back in 2015, Tony Abbott was still — just — prime minister, Australia announced the 2030 targets it would take to the historic COP21 meeting in Paris that year.

Here’s what our emissions looked like at the time.

Mr Abbott, and then Malcolm Turnbull, committed Australia to cut emissions by between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

At the time, the government’s own Climate Change Authority blasted the targets as too weak, saying they should be between 45 and 65 per cent.

However, the targets were pretty similar to what the United States was offering at the time, only the US was saying it’d reach the same target five years earlier: by 2025.

Comparing the targets to other countries is tricky because they were all expressed with different start and end dates. But Australia’s target, at the time, was a bit weaker than the US, Japan or Canada’s, and a lot weaker than the European Union.

It’s also worth noting what the choice of 2005 as a baseline meant it was roughly when emissions peaked in Australia, making reductions relative to that year fairly easy.

Fast forward six years and the picture changed dramatically.

Australia’s target has remained steadfast, but much of the world has accelerated their ambition, leaving us looking every bit the laggard.

The US is going to reduce emissions by at least 50 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005. The EU is shooting for 55 per cent and Canada is aiming for 40 per cent.

Japan uses a different baseline but has committed to 46 per cent.

And the United Kingdom is the most ambitious of all the developed countries, aiming to cut emissions by more than 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — their target is 68 per cent below 1990 levels.

However, looking further ahead, we have now committed to reducing emissions all the way to zero by 2050.

In light of that, every step we’ve taken towards a stronger 2030 target will make that final drop to zero considerably easier.

Are we actually reducing our emissions?

Looking simply at our total emissions, Australia has made significant reductions since 2005. We’ve cut out about a fifth of our total emissions.

But one single thing has done the vast bulk of that work, and that’s obvious when we look at the emissions from each sector.

For a decade from about 2007, “land use change” is where we cut most of our emissions.

Land use change usually means clearing — or reforesting — land. Most clearing is done for agriculture, where trees are cleared to make pasture for cattle.

At the end of 2006, Queensland reined in clearing, and Australia’s emissions subsequently plummeted.

That helped for a decade, but further gains from the land sector have been hard to achieve.

Since 2015, another change started to dominate: the transition to renewable energy.

Electricity generation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions and, as renewables have been gaining ground, emissions there have been dropping slowly.

But that’s pretty much where the good work ends and the problem for Australia’s future emissions begins.

Emissions from fossil fuel use in other sectors — industry, transport and mining — have all been going up for years, with a temporary drop during the start of the pandemic.

So will we get where we need to?

Predicting the future is fraught.

Until this year, the government’s official projections didn’t suggest we would meet our 2030 targets, let alone get on a trajectory towards net zero emissions by 2050.

But the government pointed out that, each year, the projections improve and the task to reach our targets mysteriously gets smaller.

And they weren’t wrong. This chart shows successive projections. What’s constantly underestimated is how much emissions will drop.

Now the government’s latest projections show us beating the 2030 targets.

But, if that happens, the federal government can’t take much credit for that.

Its central emissions reduction policy — the emissions reduction fund — pays polluters to reduce their emissions. It’s bought about 73 million tonnes of carbon offsets. That’s a tiny proportion of what was needed to get to our targets.

And federal agencies such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation exist despite attempts by this government to shut them.

Regardless of what has got us there — market inevitabilities, state government policies or federal interventions — a lot more is going to be needed to get to net zero by 2050.

For electricity — assuming carbon capture and storage keeps failing at scale — the solutions are clear: Eliminate all fossil fuels and rely entirely on renewable energy and storage.

For transport, it’s similarly clear: Electrify everything.

Gas for industrial heat can mostly be replaced with electric heat pumps and green hydrogen.

However, methane leaks from coal and gas extraction is harder, as is agriculture and waste. There are solutions to stop cows and landfill belching out so much methane, but they only go so far.

That’s where the “net” in “net zero emissions” comes in.

There will always be some things that produce greenhouse gases. For that reason, we’ll need to do things like plant a lot of trees to remove those gases from the atmosphere.

Can we do it? We’ll soon find out., 3 November 2021