Australia doesn’t look right. The skies of major cities have turned Venusian yellow. The sun is a Martian pinpoint. Burnt leaves are falling on the empty playgrounds of preschools – their classes stayed home because breathing the air outdoors is equivalent to sucking down cigarettes. Australia’s authorities said the bushfire-caused smoke was “the longest and most widespread in our records of comparable detail since the early 1990s”. Homes have been lost, firefighters have been threatened. It is a climate-intensified crisis.
This thick, lingering throat burn arrives at the same time as two things. First, the 25th annual ‘conference of parties’ (COP) event is being held in Madrid, in Spain. Second, Australia’s government released its 2019 projections of the country’s emissions, claiming that it is, for the first time, predicted to hit the targets agreed at the 2015 Paris climate conference.
Last year’s projections were released prior to the government’s current climate policy – the ‘Climate solutions package’, and therefore didn’t incorporate it. This new report does. It is therefore a valuable test of a plan that addresses something weighing heavy on the minds, the hearts, the throats and the lungs of Australians.
It’s a fail. A bad one.
Cheating on the hardest test in history
Here’s the headline: Australia’s emissions are predicted to be well above the Paris climate agreement targets, when 2030 hits. Though each new series of projections has moved closer to the targets, they’re still well above:
Okay. Weird. A whole bunch of media outlets are repeating the claim of Australia’s ‘Energy and emissions reductions’ minister, Angus Taylor, that the report shows Australia is set to hit its targets:
Despite the big decrease in projections, they’re still higher than the Paris targets. So why do a bunch of journalists think that Australia will hit its targets? In this particular case, it doesn’t involve someone changing numbers in a Word document. It’s worse. Far worse.
Back when the Kyoto targets, a prior climate goal, were negotiated, Australia’s representatives worked incredibly hard to ensure that the country’s targets would be incredibly weak – among the weakest in the world, to the extent that all they stipulated was a slower rise, as opposed to a decrease.
Australia shot past those ludicrously weak targets, while the country’s emissions rose. Now the government wants to slice off that ‘over-performance’, pick up those credits, and used them to fill in that big gap between the new projections and the Paris targets – the grey area in the new report’s summary chart:
Every country in the world besides Australia understands the incredibly immoral meaning of that grey wedge.
The spirit of global agreements means making good-faith efforts to reduce emissions in the real world, rather than patching up gaps using carefully-crafted Excel spreadsheets. It is a physical problem, that involves machines, humans, lives, deaths, plants, animals molecules and physics. It won’t be solved if the key approach to reducing emissions is coming up with extremely clever ways to avoid reducing emissions.
Right now, at COP25 in Madrid, negotiators are wrangling article 6.4, with one draft option stating “Kyoto Protocol units may not be used by a Party towards its NDC”.
Australia’s dodgy technique will be decided upon at COP25. On Wednesday, Angus Taylor will travel to Madrid and carefully outline how the country will use this cheat to avoid active effort to reduce emissions.
Australia is not projected to hits its Paris Targets. It is projected to hit imagined targets, revised to suit the weak-kneed, the lazy, and the unashamed, who pride themselves on cheating on the most important test our species has ever faced. Like every other country in the world, Australia relies upon unsafe machines, and unsafe substances, to power civilisation. Unlike most other countries, Australia punches way, way above its weight in contributing to the causes of this problem. It could have outsized influence on the solution, but its leaders spend most their efforts on cheating its way out of action.
Okay. So what about the projections if you don’t count the cheat? They’re far lower than 2018’s projections. So did the government’s new climate policy push the country closer to Paris?
Relying on renewables
Between 2018 and 2019, Australia’s predicted future emissions trajectory decreased. The Department of Energy and Environment’s new report relies on a few specific sub-sectors to achieve this reduction:
Changes in land use (LULUCF), agriculture, fugitive emissions and transport make up some of the reductions in predicted emissions. Many of these feature weird assumptions.
The biggest chunk in the chart above is the purple one – electricity. It is on this sector that the government is leaning the most weight on, to snatch the greatest predicted fall in emissions.
This is a very big deal. The future of the electricity sector has been the driving force behind so much of climate politics in Australia. If we dig further into electricity, we can see which technologies have had their predicted generation revised, between 2018 and 2019:
Between 2018 and 2019, fossil fuels have been revised downards, and renewable energy has been revised upwards – hence, the big drop in emissions from electricity, and hence, the big drop in predicted emissions from 2020 onwards.
Here’s what’s wild though. The government’s climate policy, the ‘Climate solutions’ package, doesn’t incentivise new wind and solar power, and only a small amount of new hydro.
It is Australia’s state-based renewable energy targets, like those in South Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory, that are doing the heavy lifting for the Federal Government’s proudly-declared emissions reductions – the same renewable targets the energy minister has consistently criticised.
It is so wild that these projections lean so heavily on new renewables, given the track record of criticism of that same technology. But the 2019 emissions projections turn Australia’s electricity system from perpetually-fossil-fuelled into a half-renewable clean tech powerhouse:
During the May 2019 federal election, the Liberal-National party used the opposing Labor party’s 50%-by-2030 renewable energy target as a lever for criticism and differentiation.
“Bill Shorten wants to replicate South Australian Labor’s 50% renewable target on a national level, which will mean higher electricity prices…modelling shows that Labor’s 45% Emissions Reduction Target and 50% Renewable Target will cost the economy $472 billion, slash more than 336,000 jobs, cut the average wage by over $9,000 and increase wholesale electricity prices by more than 58%”, is a quote still up on the government’s website. Australia’s ’emissions reductions’ minister, the same man taking these renewable-powered projections to Madrid’s climate conference, has spoken at a range of anti-wind farm rallies:
Recently, he also claimed 25% wind and solar was too much for the grid to handle. It isn’t just massive build-out of new renewable energy. The government’s predictions also account for significant shut-downs of coal-fired power in revising predicted generation downward:
*Edit – here’s two extra charts I did later. The first shows what a large proportion the decrease in coal-fired power output is, out of all the total revisions between 2018 and 2019. They’re really leaning on coal shutdown, and big new wind and solar build-out. The second shows the same as a percentage of total change between the two version.
It’s hard to process how weird this is. The government’s emissions projections rely on the rapid growth of technologies they loathe, and the accelerated demise of technologies they love. Less coal, less gas, more wind turbines, more solar panels.
The plan here is to proudly broadcast the emissions reductions gleaned from something they have defined themselves as opposed to. It is a neat delineation of bad-faith, insincere, confusing and constantly-morphing attitudes to resolving this terrible problem.
The goal here is not creating a safe country or a safe planet. The goal is quelling discontent and criticism for another month; another year.
During an election and after it too, there will be warning of blackouts and high electricity bills, if the country is decarbonised. But when Australia steps onto the stage at COP25, it will be calling on large-scale wind and solar, and significant shut-downs of coal-fired power to reduce emissions projections. Efforts to expand renewables somehow survived a full decade of relentless attacks from that same government. It is unfathomably sinister.
It will also be calling on its own over-performance on a previous weak target to mop-up the gap between targets and predictions. A cheat recycled from a previous cheat, both deployed without shame or self-awareness – an open, loud declaration of the scorn with which this challenge is treated.
These tricks, both sinister and hypocritical, were released while a coat of ash formed over children’s toys sitting in empty Australian back yards. Throats, lungs, hearts and minds are all betrayed by a pattern of consistent abandonment of responsibility.
Header source – Nick Moir, Twitter