The prime minister says the Coalition is acting on emissions, meeting its targets and doing more than Labor did when in power. What’s the reality?
Scott Morrison says Australia’s emissions are coming down. Are they?
National emissions peaked in 2007, the last year of the Howard government, came down each year under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, and have flatlined since the Coalition was elected in 2013.
This graph by Nick Evershed, Guardian Australia’s data and interactive editor, sets it out clearly.
The prime minister also says emissions are lower under the Coalition than under the Rudd/Gillard Labor governments. Is that right?
(Specifically, that they are on average 50m tonnes less each year under the Coalition than Labor.)
This was not correct until last year, when the government released revised historic emissions data (as explained here). Since then, Morrison’s claim is roughly accurate.
But it is a meaningless statistic – a clear case of nonsense framing to mask what is happening.
Labor can’t be held responsible for the historically high emissions level it inherited when it came to office, and pollution fell about 15% in the nearly six years Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard were prime minister.
The ALP can’t take all the credit for the decline. The millennium drought, the global financial crisis and a high Australian dollar all had some impact. But government policies, including the carbon price scheme introduced in partnership with the Greens and independents, had some effect.
Emissions reductions stopped under the Coalition about the time the carbon price scheme was repealed in 2014.
The most recent quarterly greenhouse data found rising pollution in most parts of the economy were offset by a significant fall in emissions from agriculture due to drought and floods – a shift that has nothing to do with the government.
Are we “meeting and beating” our emissions targets, as Scott Morrison says?
This is where we risk getting buried in numbers, but bear with me.
It makes sense for governments to set emissions targets. How else to assess whether countries are playing their part in addressing a dramatically escalating global problem?
But the most important initial question about a government target, before asking whether it will be met, is whether it addresses the problem faced.
But Australia’s first target under the Kyoto protocol, the initial climate pact signed in 1997, allowed it to increase emissions by 8% above 1990 levels by the years 2008-2012.
Put another way, the Howard government adopted a goal that allowed it to emit even more heat-trapping gas as part of an agreement under which developed countries were supposed to be cutting pollution.
As has been well ventilated, it was no accident that 1990 was chosen as the baseline year. There was a hell of a lot of land-clearing and deforestation that year, releasing a stack of carbon dioxide. As the graph above shows, emissions plummeted after 1990, largely because land management in Queensland changed.
It meant Australia had set itself a target that allowed it to not just increase pollution by 8%, but dramatically ramp up emissions from fossil fuels and other industry.
As this graph shows, that’s what happened. It leaves out emissions of what is known as LULUCF (land use, land use change and forestry) – which are important, but have been used to muddy the picture – to show Australian pollution from electricity, industry, transport, agriculture and waste is up about 30% over three decades.
So, yes, Australia “beat” its first Kyoto target.
If it had used any year after 1991 as the baseline it wouldn’t have.
And fossil fuel emissions – the primary driver of the climate crisis – have continued to rise.
What about Australia’s 2020 target?
Australia’s 2020 target is usually described as a 5% cut below 2000 levels by 2020.
Government data shows emissions are expected to be just 0.3% lower this year than at the turn of the millennium.
Given that, how can Morrison claim the government is beating its target?
Again, the wonders of greenhouse accounting.
As the ANU economist Stephen Howes explains in detail, Australia’s 2020 target was expressed in more than one way. It was also listed with the UN as a 0.5% cut below 1990 emissions levels – that baseline year again – for the average of the years 2013 and 2020.
Under that complicated formulation, Australia will technically beat its 2020 target.
But it will still be putting the same amount of heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere this year as it was 20 years ago.
What is expected to happen to Australia’s emissions over the next decade?
The Department of the Environment and Energy projects that pollution will be only 4% lower in 2030 than today.
It expects that despite assuming that, due to the falling cost of solar panels and some state-based targets, renewable energy will rise to provide 51% of electricity in the national grid by then (a level that the government opposed as damaging to the economy at last year’s election).
If the department projections are correct, it means we will not have made a 5% emissions cut below 2000 levels by 2030, let alone 2020.
What does that mean for Australia’s next target under the Paris climate deal?
That, despite Morrison claiming it will be met “in a canter”, the government is not on track to meet that either.
Before getting to the specifics, it is worth considering what was agreed in Paris, and what it means for Australia.
The headline goal of the 2015 pact was to limit global warming to “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels and trying to keep it as close to 1.5C as possible. Scientists say that means net zero emissions by about 2050.
That this is the implicit target of the Paris agreement is now broadly accepted across the engaged community. More than 70 countries say they are working towards that goal.
In Australia, a coalition of groups including the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Energy Council issued a statement in December saying the country should adopting policies that put it on a path to net zero national emissions.
Every state, whether run by the Coalition or Labor, has a net zero emissions target goal.
The Morrison government doesn’t.
Asked by 3AW’s Neil Mitchell on Monday about a suggestion federal Labor would recommit to net zero emissions by 2050, the prime minister said he had “no idea what the Labor party is talking about”.
Pressed further, he acknowledged the government promised at last year’s Pacific Islands Forum, where Australia faced sustained criticism from island nations for its support of the coal industry, that it would consider it. But he stressed he was concerned that “it wouldn’t be a good thing” and did not think it should be adopted unless it was clear what it would mean for jobs.
Australia disregarded scientific advice in setting its initial, medium-term target under the Paris agreement. The then Abbott government was advised by the Climate Change Authority that Australia’s part under a meaningful global pact would be equivalent to a cut of between 45-63% below 2005 levels by 2030.
It instead opted for a 26-28% reduction over that timeframe.
Again, there was some fudging. Rather than stick with 1990 or 2000, the government opted for a baseline year that – as emissions were substantially higher in 2005 than in 2000 – made the proposed cut appear larger.
If the government had stuck with 2000 as the baseline, its Paris target would be a 16-18% cut.
Department data suggests national emissions are expected to instead be 16% below 2005 levels by 2030, well short of the minimum 26% goal. The government plans to make up the difference through another accounting measure: claiming credit for “beating” or, as it now describes it, “overachieving” its Kyoto targets.
Critics say Australia is still trying to claim credit for a 30-year-old land-clearing loophole that it used against targets that were already far lower than what scientists said was necessary.
Is the Morrison government introducing new climate policies?
Not so far. The government’s main climate policy remains the $2bn climate solutions fund, under which taxpayers pay businesses and land-owners to limit pollution, mostly by planting or protecting vegetation. Recent evidence suggests it is struggling to find people to sign up.
In October, the government quietly commissioned a review of the policy in what was seen as an acknowledgement that it was not delivering what was needed.
Morrison says Australia is leading the world on renewable energy, and emissions from the electricity sector have fallen while those from other sectors increase. But spending on clean power fell 56% last year, and the government has rejected calls for an overarching policy to drive private investment.
How does Australia compare to other countries on emissions?
Australia is responsible for about 1.3% of pollution, but has only 0.3% of the global population. It is one of the top 20 emitting nations, releasing more than G7 members Britain, France and Italy.
Science and policy body Climate Analytics says it is expected to fall even further behind because, unlike comparable countries, it has no plan to introduce an effective national emissions reduction policy.