The federal government’s 2030 emissions reduction target is under serious threat. Yet, progress is being made – now is not the time for turning.

Under the international Paris Agreement, Australia has committed to reduce its emissions to 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Australian governments take such commitments and their achievement very seriously.

Domestically, we have legislated a matching 2030 commitment, and a corresponding 4353 million tonne CO2-e multi-year emissions budget for the 2021-30 decade. This framework legislation gives substance to the targets, places obligations on the federal minister, Chris Bowen, and defines responsibilities for agencies such as the Climate Change Authority.

In November 2023, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water published projections for Australia’s emissions to 2030 and 2035. The latter will become important when the federal government updates its international commitment in early 2025.

Based on policies in place at the time, the projections were that Australia’s 2030 emissions would be 386 million tonnes, 37 per cent below the 2005 level of 616 million tonnes. It was assumed that the recently enhanced Safeguard Mechanism would drive heavy industry emissions to a level consistent with the 2030 target.

Two additional measures were assessed – achieving a level of 82 per cent grid-connected renewable electricity by 2030 and introducing a vehicle efficiency standard – to deliver respectively an additional 22 million and 6 million tonne reduction by 2030.

The position is not irredeemable. Three actions could make the difference.

With those measures, now formalised by the capacity investment scheme for electricity and the new vehicle efficiency standard for light vehicles, Australia’s 2030 position is projected to be 42 per cent below 2005 levels.

Most of the assumptions behind the projections are likely to be achieved within the order of accuracy of the data. It is the renewable electricity target that is most at risk and gives rise to the argument that the targets will not be achieved.

In hindsight, the scale and pace of the task were underestimated by federal and state governments. The share of renewables was expected to almost double from 44 per cent in 2025 to 83 per cent by 2030.

Much of the early progress in the 2010s was achieved through a world-leading adoption of roof-top solar, and subsidies that supported wind and solar farms to connect to a transmission network with existing capacity. That capacity has been largely exhausted, leading to the need for an unprecedented investment in transmission infrastructure, mostly in regional and rural Australia.

It became clear last year that the renewables target was in trouble. Even though the government had committed $20 billion to fund transmission, issues of cost overruns, regulatory delays, and failure to adequately address social licence issues meant that renewables investment slowed to between a third and a half of an estimated 6-to-8 gigawatts of new generation capacity per year that would be required to meet the target.

The cost of funding was not the critical element and much of the slowdown was across all three levels of government. Delays and cost overruns have beset interstate transmission links such as EnergyConnect between NSW and South Australia, and intrastate links to connect regional renewable energy zones to the main grid.

In late 2023, the federal government committed to underwrite investment in renewables to meet the 2030 target via auctions. That capacity investment scheme (CIS) is now being implemented. There are also signs that the required transmission build is finally gathering pace.

The task ahead remains daunting, and the Coalition is looking to make political gains by arguing that it’s just too hard and too expensive. Yet, the position is not irredeemable. Three actions could make the difference.

First, the federal government must relentlessly drive the CIS against a tight timetable to secure firm contracts for renewables and storage investments. The government should also use its financial firepower to put pressure on the states to expedite project approval timelines that are just too long.

Second, there must be a co-ordinated ramp-up of transmission investment. This is likely to mean increased funding for affected communities and landowners, with allowance for them to decide the best use of such funding. The level of compulsory acquisitions will need to increase – and decisions to compulsorily acquire land will need to be made quicker.

Third, these outcomes will only be achieved with a greater level of co-ordination across governments.

This is a huge task, and we may still fall short. Yet its achievement will be as important as any transition our economy has seen and will create a platform for driving through even more challenges ahead.

Tony Wood

Energy and Climate Change Program Director
Tony has been Director of the Energy Program since 2011 after 14 years working at Origin Energy in senior executive roles. From 2009 to 2014 he was also Program Director of Clean Energy Projects at the Clinton Foundation, advising governments in the Asia-Pacific region on effective deployment of large-scale, low-emission energy technologies.