Slowing Down as we go over the Cliff: analysing Australia’s emission reduction targets

1. Australia – the climate laggard                           bus going over cliff

The Australian government submitted Australia’s emissions reduction target (known as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution – INDC) to the UN in preparation for the Paris meetings in December.

What target did we submit? A very modest 26-28% reduction. The government and supporters of the target (or an even weaker one) have put forward several arguments to claim that it is ‘ambitious, fair and responsible’. This post describes those assertions in some detail and examines the basis for each one. Even this rudimentary examination shows, I believe, that despite prime minister Abbot’s assurances, this target is woefully inadequate and continues to leave Australia as one of the highest emitters per capita in the world. If emulated by other countries, such an inadequate target would put the planet firmly on track for temperature increases of 4 degrees or more – catastrophic climate change. It is hoped that as we understand this target for what it really is, the Australian public will call on the government to revise the target such that Australia can become a responsible participant or even a leader in emissions reduction to combat climate change rather than the irresponsible laggard it is currently.

Given Australia’s vulnerability to climate change due to our dry climate,  our predominantly coastal population, and the frequency and severity of natural disasters we already experience – it is in our national interest to do more to mitigate it. Beyond our self-interest however, it is our moral responsibility towards present and future generations, both in Australia and in the world, to adopt much more stringent emission reduction targets.

2. Examining Australia’s spin

a) ‘A 26% reduction’ The first piece of statistical trickery to be exposed is the base year on which the target is set. Most other countries have expressed reduction targets compared to 2000 levels or even 1990 levels, whereas the Australian government has chosen to express the reduction target compared to 2005. They have chosen to do so because in that year – 2005 – Australian emissions were at their highest. Such a comparison year makes our reduction target appear greater than it really is. When the target is converted to 2000 levels, it is equivalent to a 19% reduction.

b) ‘Australia has consistently met environmental targets’ The government celebrates its achievement of meeting its Kyoto protocol target: “Australia has a proud history of meeting and beating our international commitments on climate change.” However, the fact that we met our weak Kyoto Protocol target – keeping emissions to an 8% increase relative to 1990 baseline over the period 2008-12 – is hardly worth celebrating. It’s a little like a chain smoker celebrating the fact that he has only increased his smoking over the past several years from 2 packs a day to 2.1 packs  day. The EU and Japan, conversely met their targets involving a reduction in emissions.

c) Big per-capita and per-GDP emission reductions The government is attempting to tell us how significant our target is by stating:-

  • That our new target ‘doubles Australia’s rate of emissions reductions’.
  • “Against 2005 levels, Australia’s target represents projected cuts of 50 to 52 per cent in emissions per capita by 2030 and 64 to 65 per cent per unit of GDP by 2030.”

Unfortunately, our percentage reduction only looks so good because of other factors (not emphasised by the government):

  • We had previously set an even more pathetic target: a 5% reduction on 2000 levels by 2020.
  • We have very high per capita emissions to start with!

Recognising this, the Australian government’s own Climate Change Authority’s recommended a 40-60% reduction on 2000 levels. So the current target (of 19% on 2000 levels) is 2 to 3 times weaker than that recommended by our own government-appointed authority!

d) A target equivalent to or better than other countries The Australian government claims that our emissions reduction target compares favourably with other OECD countries by stating:-

  • In absolute terms, the target gives Australia the world’s biggest reduction in per-capita emissions; from 30 tonnes per person per year in 2005 to 15 tonnes in 2030.
  • This reduction per unit of GDP is equal to China’s, and greater than that of the US, Canada, Japan or the EU over the time frame 2005-2030.
  • Australia’s 2030 target is comparable to other similar countries; the US committed to a 26-28% emission reduction; Japan 26%, New Zealand and Canada 30%.

As noted above however, Australia’s emissions peaked late, in 2005. By choosing that year – rather than 2000, or 1990, which is the UN framework- we have shifted the goal posts. Even more arrogantly, we have shifted other countries’ targets to 2005, to make a more favourable comparison with ours ! In fact other developed economies – especially Japan and the EU- have had declining emissions for several decades. In effect then, by using 2005 as the base year and praising ourselves for the big comparative reductions, we are rewarding ourselves for taking late action.

Even then, with the apparent ‘big reductions’, our target is weaker than Canada’s or NZ’s (30% reduction) and the US’ (26-28% reduction, but 5 years earlier than ours). The EU’s target- 40% reduction on 1990 levels by 2030 – on the other hand is (relatively) exemplary, given their already low emissions. In fact the only OECD country our target is better than is Japan’s- a 26% reduction in emissions on 2013 levels by 2030. Yet Japan’s per capita emissions are currently about 3 times lower than ours. Figure 1 below compares these emissions reductions targets on the same base year It shows that rather than an  ‘ambitious, fair and responsible’ target, Australia will still be the world’s highest per capita emitter in 2030. Under the Australian government’s target of 26% reduction (the 4th column in Figure 1), our per capita emissions would still be 15tCO2e/person in 2030, higher than any other OECD country.

e) Unique national circumstances Finally, the Australian government also claims that it can’t do more with emissions reduction because of our ‘unique national circumstances’. What are these ‘unique circumstances’?

  • Australia’s population is growing at 1.5% per annum, compared to OECD average of 0.4%.
  • Australia’s economy has been, and is projected to, grow more strongly than most other OECD economies.
  • We rely more heavily than other developed countries on emissions intensive electricity from coal given Australia’s abundant endowment of cheap accessible coal.
  • Australia also exports a lot of mineral resources and agricultural produce, sectors which have high emissions intensity.

Australia’s population and GDP are indeed growing faster than most other OECD countries – but this, rather than being an excuse for not reducing emissions, should put us in a sound economic position, from which we can cut emissions much further. It’s like a rich man claiming he can’t assist the poor, because it will affect his wealth too much! Claiming our heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity generation as a justification to remain reliant on coal is nonsensical. We also have some of the best solar potential in the world. Just because we have coal, doesn’t mean we are obliged to use it! It is like  Afghanistan claiming it has so much poppy-growing potential that it is obliged to grow heroin producing poppies. In fact, a recent study suggested that around 95% of Australia’s coal should remain in the ground to meet a 2C target.

Pleading unique national circumstances is also a dangerous strategy, given that other countries have their own ‘unique’ reasons too. Japan is coping with a major shift away from nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. Canada and many European nations require significant internal heating, which is primarily met from fossil fuel sources at present. Many nations will put forward reasons why they deserve special treatment. Instead, given our stable and democratic government, technological capabilities and considerable financial resources; we should not be pleading for special treatment, but instead be at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change.

3. The bottom line

At the end of the day, rates of reduction of emissions aren’t as important as the actual emissions themselves. The IPCC tells us that the world has a carbon ‘budget’ of 1,000GtCO2e  which it can ‘spend’ over the rest of the century. If we as a planet go over this budget we are highly likely to have catastrophic climate change. This is a ‘tipping point’. If we go over it, it won’t matter the rate at which we went over. It’s like celebrating that our speed towards the cliff edge is decreasing nicely ! That reduction is ultimately irrelevant if we go over the cliff.

Under this INDC, Australia would emit around 7,500 Mt CO2e over the next 15 years. This is 0.75% of the world’s carbon budget. Considering our population is about 0.3% of the world’s, 0.75% it is far more than our fair share of emissions. In other words, we’re not only blowing our own budget for the rest of the century in just 15 years, but doing that two and a half times over!

4. What should Australia’s target be?

In accordance with the Climate Change Authority’s model, Australia should reduce emissions on 2000 levels by 40-60% by 2030. This is represented in the 6th column in Figure 1 above. Such a reduction would then put Australia’s projected emissions in 2030 more on a par with other OECD countries.

However, we need to keep firmly in mind that even if we matched other OECD countries’ targets, that cumulatively, we are still going over the climate cliff ! If the global carbon budget of 1000Gt till 2100, is divided equally among the world’s 7 billion residents, then per capita emissions would be less than 2 tonnes per person per year. Even with a 45% reduction in Australia’s emissions, in 2030 our per capita emissions would still be 15 tonnes per capita. So we will be contributing disproportionately to catastrophic climate change. We can just feel good that we’re doing it in the company of other OECD countries – happily driving over the cliff at the same speed !

To avoid the proverbial cliff, the world desperately needs to achieve a scenario in which there are no emissions by the middle of the century. Eminent scientists and economists are calling for just this scenario – a carbon neutral world by mid century:

To limit warming to two degrees, carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector need to fall to zero by between 2040 and 2070, falling below zero thereafter.” The IPCC

The world can still combat climate change but only if nations raise their collective ambition to achieve a carbon-neutral world in the second half of the century.” Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC

While the goal of a carbon neutral world may seem unachievable, the technology is in fact already available to achieve such an outcome. Denmark, for example recently generated more than 100% of its electricity requirements by its carbon neutral wind farms, such that they could export power to Germany, Norway and Sweden! Imagine a future in which Australia produces all the energy it needs not through fossil fuels, but by solar, wind and other carbon neutral technology. It is possible, it requires the political will to achieve it, something which unfortunately our current Australian government is significantly lacking.

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