Your questions about Australia’s climate policy answered

17.01.20 By
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This piece was written by Jo Lauder for Triple J Hack, read the original here.

This summer’s unprecedented bushfire season has kickstarted the conversation about whether Australia needs to do more to cut its emissions to address climate change.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a recent interview the Government will continue to “evolve” its climate policy, though he added this would not involve increasing emissions reductions targets.

So what does that mean? Any discussion about the politics of climate change can get confusing and there are lots of complicated stats and policies to get your head around.

If you don’t know your 1.5 degrees from your Kyoto carryovers, we’ve broken it down for you.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a global climate treaty signed in 2016.

Under the Agreement, each country has adopted a target for how much it will cut its national emissions by, and outlined how it will do it.

Importantly, the Paris Agreement also allows countries to change their targets in the coming decade to cut emissions even further.

Two degrees

The end goal of the Paris Agreement is to stop the world’s temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees celsius on average from pre-industrial levels – that is, before humans started sending massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

An average rise in temperature of two degrees is regarded by climate scientists as a dangerous threshold, according to Martin Rice from the Climate Council. If the world heats by more than two degrees, things like extreme weather events, natural disasters and ecosystem collapse will also increase exponentially.

“The line in the sand is 2 degrees, but ideally we want to get down to no more than 1.5 degrees.”

Hundreds of people flooded Melbourne’s CBD for a rally on climate change on May 24, 2019.
ABC News: Danielle Bonica

Low-lying Pacific countries have been pushing for a goal of 1.5 degrees because they fear their homes will be uninhabitable in a world that’s two degrees warmer.

A UN climate report authored by more than 90 scientists found coral reefs will decline by 70-90 per cent with warming of 1.5 degrees. If global warming reaches 2 degrees, more than 99 per cent of coral reefs are predicted to go.

Australia’s target

Under former PM Tony Abbott, Australia committed in the Paris Agreement to cutting emissions by 26 – 28 per cent from 2005 levels by the year 2030.

In comparison, the United States promised a cut of 41 per cent by 2030 (although Trump intends to formally withdraw from it this year); the European Union countries 34 per cent; and the UK equivalent to 48 per cent.

Graph: Australia’s January mean temperature variation from average 1910–2019
(Source: Bureau of Meteorology)


Director of the Centre for Climate and Energy Policy at the Australian National University Professor Frank Jotzo believes Australia should have a higher target.

“Australia’s Paris target of 26-28 per cent is relatively weak,” he said.

Professor Jotzo says the targets are not legally binding but there will be international scrutiny on any country that falls short.

“If a country looks like it’s not going to meet them, there will be questions asked internationally. The first serious round of questions will be asked at the end of this year,” Professor Jotzo said.

Are we on track to meet our targets?

In a weekend interview with the ABC, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison repeated his claim that Australia will “meet and beat” its target.

“There is a requirement on the Government to meet our 26 per cent emissions reduction target. I’m telling you we’re going to meet it and we’re going to beat it and that’s what we’re going to achieve,” he said.

However, both Professor Jotzo and Martin Rice disagree.

“We’re not on track – even the Government’s own projections show we’re not on track,” Martin said.

According to the Department of Environment’s report from December 2019, Australia’s emissions are projected to drop by 16 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels – 10 per cent short of the target.

So let’s look at why the Government says it’s meeting the target.

The Kyoto carryover credits

The Federal Government has been accused of planning to meet its 2030 target by using a “loophole” referred to as carryover credits.

The way it goes is this: Australia did better than expected with its emissions targets under the previous international climate agreement – the Kyoto Protocol – so it wants to use that as a “credit” for the next round of targets.

But that’s not quite fair, according to Professor Jotzo.

“They’re using some dodgy accounting tricks to try and reach that target.”

He says it’s like a student getting a bad mark in their Year 12 maths exam and asking to use their great marks from Year 7 to boost their final results.

“Australia is the only country that is planning to use that carryover… it’s seen as a bit of a cop out,” Professor Jotzo said.

The architect of the Paris Agreement, French diplomat Laurence Tubiana, recently said using carryover credits was “cheating”. Professor Jotzo says it also undermines the purpose of climate change action: to get our emissions down to zero.

“When we talk about ‘is Australia likely to meet or not meet our target’, that’s only half the story because we should be doing a lot more than just meeting it.”

In December, Energy Minister Angus Taylor defended Australia’s choice to use the credits, but also said they might not be needed.

“Our track record for finding additional abatement year-on-year has been extraordinary,” he said to the Australian Financial Review.

“There is a broad recognition that Australia has over-delivered. There are few countries with our track records.”

What are we doing to reduce emissions?

At a national level, the centrepiece of Australia’s climate policy is the Climate Solutions Fund.

It’s a $2 billion scheme where the government pays businesses and landholders for actions they take to stop emissions.

“[It’s] for projects mostly in forestry and agriculture sector, where landholders promise for example not to deforest certain pieces of land and in return they get credit for the presumed emissions that don’t occur,” Professor Jotzo said.

However, Professor Jotzo says Australia is lacking a comprehensive policy.

“There’s whole sectors of the economy that go without any incentive or proactive government policy at the Federal level,” he said.

Luckily Australia’s renewables sector is booming, and therefore bringing emissions down.

“Wind and solar power are now commercially competitive – in fact it’s the cheapest energy source for any kind of new project,” Professor Jotzo said.

“We have the highest level of renewable investment in Australia…we have one in five homes with solar panels on their roofs. Few countries can boast that,” PM Scott Morrison said in a recent interview.

How our emissions stack up globally

As Scott Morrison pointed out, Australia is only responsible for around 1.3 per cent of global emissions.

In comparison, China pumps out 27 per cent of global emissions, and the United States produces around 15 per cent.

“We could close down every single power generation facility in the country and those emissions would be taken up by China in about nine days,” Morrison said.

But Martin Rice from the Climate Council says that’s misleading for a few reasons.

“When we look at the individual level – per capita emissions – we’re the highest in the developed world,” he told Hack.

And that doesn’t take into account Australia’s hefty fossil fuel exports that are extracted here and emitted elsewhere.

“So when we add in these fossil fuel exports, Australia is a massive contributor to climate change and to say otherwise is really irresponsible,” Martin said.

The impact of bushfires on our emissions

A common question this summer has been how the massive bushfires will affect our overall carbon emissions.

Professor Jotzo says it won’t count towards our targets.

“The bushfires have released tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – it could increase to one year of total national emissions.”

“However, this is not accounted for in national emissions data.”

But it doesn’t work that way in the real world.

“The atmosphere still sees a massive spike in emissions from Australia which will of course increase the rate of global warming in years to come.”