Australia’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) today released the final report of its emissions targets review.
It should be obvious to everyone that the Abbott Liberal government will ignore this report. They are trying to pass legislation to abolish the CCA, and are unwinding all the (already weak) policies of the former Labor government. They have refused to reconsider Australia’s emissions targets until late 2015 (and even then it’s unclear if the 2020 target will be reviewed).
Given CCA’s days are numbered, it might as well have gone out with a bang. Its review was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and challenge the beliefs of the major political parties about Australia’s role in climate action. Unfortunately, CCA has instead chosen to essentially operate within the deeply flawed framework of beliefs used to justify Labor’s weak policies.
CCA is of course correct in concluding Australia’s present 5%-by-2020 emissions reduction target is “inadequate”. This should be obvious, but is nonetheless an advance on the position of the two major political parties. However, from there on the report quickly goes off the rails.
CCA’s carbon budget is too risky
CCA misguidedly focuses on the internationally agreed goal of limiting global warming to <2°C above preindustrial. Recently at Melbourne’s Sustainability Living Festival, a panel of experts and activists unanimously agreed the 2°C target is too high to prevent dangerous impacts. Arguably we have already reached a dangerous level of global warming, with increasing extreme weather costing human lives.
Further warming is in the pipeline due to existing greenhouse gases, and mounting evidence suggests we are reaching tipping points that could send climate change spiralling out of control. This makes it incredibly urgent to cut global emissions toward zero. A pathway consistent with reducing atmospheric CO2 from 400 to 350 ppm would involve cutting global fossil fuel CO2 emissions by 6%/year beginning in 2013 (or even faster if the world delays).
CCA’s global carbon budget of 1,700 Gt CO2e is based on an intolerably high risk (33%) of missing the unsafe 2°C target. CCA also chose to lump different greenhouse gases together using the flawed measure “CO2-equivalent” (CO2e), ignoring the fact that different gases behave differently in the atmosphere. Similarly, the report does not acknowledge that fossil carbon and land carbon play different roles in the carbon cycle. Consequently CCA fails to recognize that it is most important and urgent to cut fossil fuel CO2 emissions, the dominant driver of human-caused global warming.
CCA’s budget-sharing method unfairly favours Australia
The Review considered a number of options for Australia’s share of the global budget. The smallest, based on equal per-capita shares, is 4 Gt CO2e which would run out in just a few years at our present emissions rate. CCA dismisses this arguably fair approach because it implies an Australian emissions target of 70% below 2000 by 2020, which CCA believes cannot be done.
Instead, CCA recommends Australia adopt a carbon budget of 10.1 Gt CO2e based on Ross Garnaut’s “modified contraction and convergence” framework, which unfairly favors Australia. It allows rich countries to maintain high per capita emissions for decades, by setting the convergence date as late as 2050. It rewards Australia for policies promoting rapid population growth, by accounting for projected population change. And it rewards Australia for our past failure to cut emissions, by calculating targets relative to today instead of 1990 and including LULUCF (land use, land use change, and forestry).
CCA rewards Australia for past inaction
Australia’s present high emissions are not a happenstance “starting point” – they have come about because our governments have dawdled and promoted emissions growth since 1990, a period in which harm from emissions was foreseeable. Australia insisted on an emissions growth target in the Kyoto Protocol’s first period, and “met” that target with a non-additional decline in land clearing which occurred between 1990 and 1997, while Australia’s non-LULUCF emissions rose 32% between 1990 and 2011. Australians must be cognisant of this history because other countries certainly remember it.
Similarly, CCA recommends Australia use surplus credits from “overachieving” its meaningless initial Kyoto target to grant itself a free four-percentage-point emissions “reduction” by 2020. This ill-gained surplus is yet another reward for Australia’s bad behaviour and will displace future emissions cuts.
CCA makes ambition conditional on international action
One of CCA’s main arguments for raising the emissions target is “the pace of international action justifies Australia going further”, an implicit statement that Australia should wait for other countries to take adequate action. Thus the argument becomes about whether the actions of other countries live up to Australia’s conditions to raise its own ambition, an unwinnable argument when the present targets of other countries are nowhere near what is required.
The Review stubbornly stays within Australia’s present constrictive range of conditional targets (5%, 15%, or 25% below 2000). CCA talks up the actions of other countries and argues the Government’s stated conditions for a 15% target have been met. But all Abbott has to say to counter CCA’s argument is that international action has not met the conditions to the Government’s satisfaction.
Australia should not make its actions conditional on those of others, particularly poor countries. The internationally agreed principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” obligates the world’s richest and highest per-capita emitters to show leadership, so poor countries are unlikely to ever be impressed by conditional emissions targets from Australia. Conditional targets are not an effective way of driving global ambition; if anything, they are making global ambition less likely, by antagonizing countries who rightly expect Australia to act responsibly. We should act unilaterally to break the international deadlock.
CCA’s timeline ignores the urgency
The overall effect of CCA’s misjudgements is to let Australia off the hook with lenient targets: 15% below 2000 by 2020 (plus surplus permits), then 40-60% by 2030. Notice this leaves the hard work until after 2020. Setting targets as far off as 2030 ignores the urgency of rapid global emissions cuts and Australia’s responsibility to lead the world. Moreover, history shows distant targets are easily undermined.
CCA recommends emissions targets be reviewed every 5 years, allowing no further opportunity to ramp up action before 2020. This is supposedly intended to balance short-term certainty for investors with long-term flexibility. But 2020 is too late to get it right; we need to act now. Anyway, Abbott’s rise to power proves investment certainty is unachievable in climate policy because of the sabotaging influence of the fossil fuel lobby.
CCA could instead have recommended a near-term near-zero emissions target (such as 70%-by-2020). This would force Australian governments to wake up and get us onto an emissions trajectory reducing rapidly toward zero, with large and systemic progress within a single electoral term.
CCA ignores fossil fuel exports
CCA ignores Australia’s largest contribution to climate change, the burning of its fossil fuel exports. In a world where national emissions targets do not add up to a safe global target, Australia shares ethical responsibility for these exported emissions. Demand for Australia’s planned fossil fuel export growth depends on an emissions scenario leading to an unimaginably catastrophic >4°C global warming.
CCA’s policy proposals are too slow
The Review suggests introducing measures such as vehicle emissions standards, but notes this will take a long time to have an effect because it allows continued use of existing vehicles until the end of their lifetimes.
CCA could have recommended policies with more immediate effects: declaring an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel mining projects; phasing out fossil fuel exports; banning new coal-fired and gas-fired power plants; transferring fossil fuel subsidies to renewables; raising the Renewable Energy Target to 100% (which can be achieved in ten years); and taking an activist stance in climate talks.
CCA advocates international offsets
CCA recommends the Government set up a fund to buy offsets from the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Currently selling at 46c/tonne, Australia could buy enough of these to “meet” a 15% target at negligible cost. CCA claims CDM offsets are “genuine emissions reductions”. In reality, as a baseline-and-credit scheme the CDM has similar problems to the Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund: how do you know the actions you pay for wouldn’t have occurred anyway? It’s hard not to suspect the offsets are cheap because they are dodgy.
Furthermore, even credible offsets would unfairly shift the burden of Australia’s target onto other countries (making a mockery of dividing up a global carbon budget into fair shares), and delay systemic economic change in Australia. CCA itself acknowledges this, yet still thinks it appropriate to rely on offsets until 2020. Why waste another seven years?
CCA was supposed to take the politics out of emissions targets. Instead we see the same evasion of responsibility and rationalization of inaction that we saw from Garnaut. A carbon budget approach is elegant in theory, but in practice its complexities provide too many opportunities for dubious political judgements disguised as objective calculations. It seems to me that a much better approach would be to start from the premise that we need to phase out fossil fuels to get to zero emissions as quickly as possible, get on with the job without worrying about doing “too much”, and assess what is possible after we’ve tried.
The response to the CCA report has been instructive. Despite CCA’s failure to move significantly beyond the existing policy framework, everyone is acting as though its report advocated strong action. The Greens, Climate Council, and Climate Institute have all backed the CCA’s recommendations. The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) claims CCA has “lost touch with reality” and is “testing the outer fringes of rational economic debate” because its recommendations will “dramatically drive up business costs further undermining jobs growth and living standards” (how offsets will cause all this is beyond me). And while interviewing CCA’s Anthea Harris (who delivered CCA’s findings in an almost apologetic tone), the ABC’s Alexandra Kirk said knowingly “it was hard enough politically to get bipartisan support for a 5% reduction”, so 15% is “politically unrealistic isn’t it?” Nobody seems to care that the majority of Australians support a target of 25% or more.
The net outcome of this review, then, is exactly what I feared from the beginning: the perceived spectrum of reasonable opinion still ranges from total climate deregulation, to using offsets to “meet” a target slightly stronger than Labor’s laughable one. CCA has failed to significantly reframe the Australian climate debate. CCA has chosen to go out with a whimper.