Australia is on track … sort of: official expert advice urges a ‘big upward shift’ on emissions cuts

Climate change minister tells parliament official projection of 40% cut does not factor in all Labor’s policy commitments
2022-12-01 08:27

Australia’s climate change minister, Chris Bowen, has declared the country on track to reach a 40% cut in climate pollution by 2030 – just short of the national target of 43% – but the government has been told a “big upward shift in momentum” is needed to tackle the problem.

Giving the country’s first climate statement to parliament, which is now required annually under legislation passed earlier this year, Bowen said the official projection of a 40% cut did not factor in all Labor’s policy commitments, and that those measures would “lift our result to at least 43%”.

The statement did not shed light on what the government would do to make deeper cuts in line with its goal of limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, an expectation raised by a UN-backed report if the Great Barrier Reef is to avoid being nominated as a world heritage site “in danger”. It also did not mention the country’s vast coal and gas export industries.

But the Albanese government did release three reports on Australia’s performance in dealing with the climate crisis, and what is expected over the next decade. They suggest the government can meet its climate targets if it implements its policies as promised, but also that there is not much time and action needs to accelerate.

One of the reports – setting out future emissions projections – assumes proposed gas developments will go ahead at Narrabri in New South Wales, in the Northern Territory’s Beetaloo Basin and at sites in Queensland and off the north coast of Western Australia. The Greens said these developments would “put a safer climate further out of reach”.

Here are some other key points.

Australia is on track, sort of

While Bowen can reasonably claim the latest emissions projections suggest the government’s policies put it within striking distance of hitting its 2030 target, it’s not the main number emphasised. The baseline scenario – based on existing federal, state and territory policies and measures – gets Australia to a 32% cut by 2030 (compared with 2005 levels).

The 40% conclusion comes from a “with additional measures scenario” that adds in Labor’s two main climate policies measures, which are still in development. They are changes to the safeguard mechanism – the Coalition scheme that was supposed to put a limit on industrial emissions, but hasn’t – and the “rewiring the nation” policy that is promised to hurry up the electricity transmission connections needed to reach 82% renewable energy on the east coast by 2030.

Other promised policies – a national electric vehicle strategy and a national reconstruction fund that will include investment in climate-friendly projects – are at an earlier stage and were not included in either scenario. A more meaningful analysis that incorporates all policies should be possible next year.

But a couple of points can be made now. Nearly all the cuts by 2030 are still coming from the massive change in the electricity system as cheap solar, wind and backup replaces ageing coal plants. Just on announcements to date, including a new connection between NSW and Victoria and the Marinus link across Bass Strait, renewable energy is projected to provide 76% of generation.

Elsewhere, there is little action yet. Emissions from transport, leaky mines and agriculture are expected to keep increasing. And the cut in pollution assumed from big industrial sites covered by the safeguard mechanism is modest.

The government has said it expects industrial sites covered by the safeguard mechanism to cut emissions by between 3.5% and 6% a year. The chief executive of the Carbon Market Institute, John Connor, points out that the projections assume the cut will be at the bottom end of this range. He is among those who say the changes to the safeguard, which sets emissions limits for 215 big polluting facilities, need to go much further.

Looking ahead, the report projects the country is on track for just a 48% cut by 2035, suggesting a slow down after 2030 and far below what will be necessary. It is a rough estimate, but tells us again that significant new policies will be needed before the next election if the Albanese government is going to live up to its rhetoric on aiming for 1.5C.

What the official advice says

The first annual progress report by the Climate Change Authority makes clear what we know: the impact of the crisis is intensifying, with communities experiencing “more frequent, intense and prolonged extreme weather events”. It says deeper cuts are needed to avoid even worse events, and more needs to be done on adaptation and resilience.

The authority stresses the country needs a big shift in momentum on emissions cuts to meet the government’s “ambitious new targets”. On average, the country needs to cut emissions by 17m tonnes a year – more than 40% faster than what has happened since 2009.

The main recommendation is that the government should start work on a long-term strategy for emissions reductions that sets expectations for “when, how, and by how much emissions should be reduced across different sectors of the economy”. The message is that everyone has to act, though not necessarily at the same pace, and that the climate crisis needs to be “at the forefront of all government decision-making”.

Another key point: while the technologies to meet the 2030 target exist, supply chain disruption, labour skills shortages and slow planning processes are potential roadblocks and all need to be improved.

Bowen said the government accepted all of the authority’s recommendations.

What Bowen said

Speaking before a large number of invited foreign diplomats, including many from the Pacific, Bowen stressed the government’s early successes, including passing the climate legislation that set the emissions reduction targets in law. He said the projection of a 40% cut by 2030 was a one third improvement from a year ago, when it was 30% under the Coalition.

He emphasised that the climate crisis has moved from a theory, to a prediction, to a lived reality that spares no one and described not acting as “an unforgivable act of intergenerational negligence”. He quoted the International Energy Agency, saying: “The world is struggling with too little clean energy, not too much. Faster clean energy transitions would have helped to moderate the impact of this crisis, and they represent the best way out of it.”

Pointing ahead to an expected battle over the safeguard mechanism, the minister noted that about 70% of facilities covered by the scheme had net zero commitments – an implicit warning that resistance to change would be at odds with their own promises.

“Business as usual can’t be the usual business any more,” he said. “Businesses must step up and deliver on their commitments during this critical decade for climate action.”

Meanwhile, pollution continues

Finally, the government released the latest quarterly emissions data, showing climate pollution was basically flat – up 0.1% – over the year to June.

Electricity emissions were down 3.7%. Transport emissions fell 1%, but only because of Covid-19 lockdowns in late 2021. Pollution from manufacturing, agriculture and the liquified natural gas industry were all up – and it is expected to increase from pollution in the next report.

National emissions were 21.6% below 2005 levels – nearly exactly halfway to the 2030 goal. But the scale of the task at hand is better illustrated when emissions from land and forestry are removed.

The rest of the economy, including all industries that rely on fossil fuels, are down only 2.8% over the past 17 years.