Emissions targets still falling short

by Tony Wood

Published by the Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 30 September

The world has committed to limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius. When the next round of international negotiations begins in Paris in December, Australia will be there with an emissions reduction target of 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Is our pledge fair and ambitious and will it contribute towards the overarching goal of avoiding dangerous climate change?

Through the United Nations Framework Convention, countries have agreed to make equitable contributions to avoiding dangerous climate change, and in doing so to take account of climate change science, the efforts of other countries and differences in national capacity and responsibility. This is where the debate begins.

This year, two separate reviews have made recommendations on Australia’s emissions reduction target. A Climate Change Authority report, requested by Environment Minister Greg Hunt, recommended that Australia should set a 2030 target of between 45 and 65 per cent below 2005 levels.

The authority believes its recommended target is comparable with those announced by other countries. It places particular weight on Australia’s relative economic capacity and responsibility to reduce emissions. It acknowledges that, given its economic structure, energy intensity and starting levels, Australia will have to make greater efforts than many other countries to meet its target.

The second review of Australia’s post-2020 emissions reduction target was co-ordinated by a taskforce in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It recommends a 2030 target of 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels.
The taskforce argues that its target delivers one of the largest reductions in emissions per capita and emissions per unit of GDP of all developed countries. It notes that the target is in the range of efforts of other key developed countries, including the US, Canada, the EU and Japan. The government has adopted this view.

To support this view, the taskforce argues that Australia’s challenge is harder than that of many other developed countries:

  • Our population is growing faster
  • We rely more heavily on cheap, abundant coal for electricity, creating real difficulties in reducing emissions without hurting the economy
  • Emissions from our exports are helping emerging economies grow and lower global emissions by displacing lower quality energy sources
  • The government’s adopted target has been endorsed by industry organisations such as the Minerals Council. They are concerned primarily about the cost of the transition to a low-emissions future. In their framework, there is a key role for technologies that can significantly reduce the emissions from coal-fired power generation plants, the potential for carbon capture and storage and growth opportunities for our uranium resource.

    Environmental NGOs such as the Climate Institute put great weight on projections that global warming will be 3 to 4 degrees if other countries only matched Australia’s target. This target will also leave Australia as the most emissive intensive developed economy.

    From either perspective, the need to develop technical expertise and commercial opportunities across the full range of low-emissions technologies and practices is urgent. Effective domestic policies are needed to drive these developments and ensure we meet our emissions reduction target at lowest cost.

    It is already clear that the sum of all national commitments will not achieve the agreed global climate change objective. Australia is not alone in proposing a target that falls short of what is required.

    As with all countries, Australia’s target was required to be a step beyond its existing unconditional 2020 target of 5 per cent below 2000 levels, and it is. It is also at the back of the pack of developed countries. The political negotiations have already begun; China has announced a commitment to a national emissions trading scheme by 2017. National circumstances and vigorous debate will determine the final targets.

    Greg Hunt has already cautiously acknowledged that all targets, including Australia’s, will have to be revised. Agreement on a process to achieve this revision will be a critical factor in determining the success or failure of the Paris Conference.

    Australia’s proposed target is less than it will need to be and more than it could have been. At least the first step has been taken. No journey could be more important than the one ahead.