When I recently wrote about how some things never change, I really meant it. Here’s one thing that hasn’t changed: Australia’s government is still trying to paper over its lack of action on climate change (though it is becoming more aggressive in working to worsen the situation than pre-COVID).
It used to happen a lot. It’s beginning to ramp back up to its regular drumbeat, and one of the calendar dates for this effort is the quarterly release of national emissions data. It has been bad news every single time, and it has been presented as good news every single time too. This time, The Australian’s Graham Lloyd has done a write-up with a genuinely bold claim:
The last time I checked, Australia was set to badly miss its 2030 Paris agreement targets, despite PM Scott Morrison’s repeated insistence that they’ll ‘meet and beat’ them. I based this on the government’s own 2019 projections, which showed the predicted failure, but filled the gap using an ‘accounting trick’ that results in artificially weakening the targets by half. Exclude that trick (and many attendees of global climate meeting COP25 in late 2019 tried and failed to have Australia barred from using it) and you realise Australia’s destined for failure. So why, again, are we hearing the opposite?
Woah, oh, we’re halfway there
So, er, what’s going on now? Well, let’s take a look. Lloyd says this:
“Department of Energy figures show big falls in emissions due to the drought, with electricity production offset (sic) rises from expanding liquefied natural gas exports to push the 2019 total down to 13.7 per cent below 2005 levels, the baseline year for the Paris target of a fall of 26 to 28 per cent. Greenhouse gas emissions fell 0.9 per cent last year to 532.5 million tonnes.
Expressed as an emissions budget, the latest government estimates are for Australia to beat its 2030 target by 16 million tonnes”
Lloyd’s “big fall” is a 0.9% drop. It’s weird that’s being touted as significant, because these are the same people who insist that because Australia is only 1% of the world’s emissions, it ought not to act on climate change.
That aside, is Australia really halfway to its Paris targets? And is it on track to beat its 2030 target by 16 megatonnes of CO2-e?
Well, let’s have a look at Australia’s historical emissions, and what emissions will have to do to get to the Paris targets (between 26% to 28% of 2005 levels, by the year 2030):
Um, that’s doesn’t look good. After a big drop, it looks like emissions have badly stalled, and something drastic needs to change to make them drop. But what about the percentage thing? Are we halfway there?
Well. Yeah. Australia is at 13.7% of 2005 levels; slightly under half.
Except it has been stuck at around this level since 2013, and in fact was lower (14.76%) in 2016. Emissions have stalled for more than half a decade. What happened in 2013 that might have impacted the policies and regulations in place that were cause that steep drop from 2007 to 2012? No idea. I can’t fathom it. It’s just impos……
In the relay race that is Australia’s climate challenge, the Labor party ran an incredible sprint (in partnership with the Greens party – and props to both of them for working together) from 2007 to 2012.
The Liberal party have been handed the baton with 17 years left on the clock. They have spent the first seven standing in a single spot.
“You haven’t moved for seven years!!! Get on with it!!”, we might yell. “Um, what’s your problem? We’re at the halfway point. Expressed as a distance budget, I’m going to meet and beat the 200 metre target by 16 centimetres”, the government might reply, as the years tick by.
Woah oh, we’re living on a prayer
One of the key reasons Australia’s emissions have not been rising precipitously is because the current ‘Energy and Emissions Reduction’ minister, Angus Taylor, tried but failed to see Labor’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) scrapped. Thanks to the government’s own failure to entirely scrap the policy (it ended up being weakened) that policy is still working wonders, with massive quantities of new wind and solar replacing coal and gas, and decarbonising the grid. A long, painful drought is also resulting in lower emissions from agriculture. That is nothing to celebrate, and certainly nothing to rely upon.
The ‘Land Use, Land Change and Forestry’ sector measures how natural carbon sinks like trees and grasses pull carbon from the sky and into the ground. It’s deeply controversial, because a tonne of carbon pulled into a tree is more likely to be re-released than a tonne of carbon kept in the ground. The historical data have also been wildly revised, resulting in skewing the data so emissions reductions are exaggerated during more recent years (Australia fought, in the late 1990s, for the inclusion of this sector in greenhouse accounting specifically to create a situation where it could increase emissions and still adhere to Kyoto targets).
On the other side of the equation, transport, the extraction of fossil gas from the ground (which creates emissions even before the damn stuff is even burnt) and small increases in other sectors has completely offset these gains. If you exclude the controversial LULUCF sector, you realise that Australia isn’t ‘standing still’ in the relay – it is actually walking backward:
Wind and solar – the long-time sworn nemeses of Australia’s current energy minister – are the two sole technologies doing 100% of the heavy lifting here, and even that is not enough to counter the rising emissions from transport and fossil fuel extraction. His own department predicts that they will be doing most of the heavy lifting in the next decade too, with most of the change between the 2018 and 2019 projections of the future coming solely from improved outlooks for renewables:
These projections are not guaranteed. The government is still trying to delay the shutdown of coal-fired power stations, which means the growth of renewables – now the cheapest default replacement even without subsidies – will be slower.
Outside of renewables, the other things there to fill the gap to Paris is incredibly weak. There is a dodgy loophole the world hates. There are vague promises of technological advancement (a roadmap!), with zero specifics about how they’ll reduce emissions. There will eventually be an ‘electric vehicle plan’ from a government that genuinely loathes electric vehicles (meaning rising transport emissions will continue rising). A seven year old carbon farming scheme (once ‘direct action’, now ‘climate solutions’) has been mutating constantly but consistently failing to reduce emissions.
In 2020, after the Black Summer bushfires and during the pandemic, Australia has moved from inaction to destruction.
Taylor wants to make the COVID19 recovery gas-fired. This is despite his own department’s predictions for gas-fired power constantly decreasing (as above), the grid operator’s least-cost integration model for renewables specifically excluding gas, and many case studies around the world showing you can integrate high levels of renewables either without it or with tiny amounts of it. The US – long held up as the ideal case study for gas-fired power “reducing” emissions – has only seen 38% of total emissions reductions come from coal-to-gas switching. The rest come from the pairing of energy efficiency (41%) and wind and solar (21%).
A few days ago, Taylor’s latest attempt to couple fossil fuels with renewables ended up showing that gas is not required, when you click on the report he used. And, beautifully, even this report shows that as wind and solar increase in output in Australia, gas has been decreasing:
We know twisting climate policy into an engine for the increased extraction and burning of fossil fuels isn’t just deadly – it’s extremely expensive and risky. This is the nasty end of the deceptions around Australia’s emissions data. The illusion of progress isn’t just there to mask stagnation, now. It is there to mask a new effort to sink deeper into reliance on a harmful substance, and to use a deadly pandemic to accelerate that decline.
The next update will probably show a slight COVID-related decrease, and the one after that too. All this will be wiped out by a fossil fuelled recovery, if the Australian government gets its wish.
It’s not really living on a prayer, is it? It’s dying on a press release. Sorry, that’s a little dark. Here’s a gif of Data’s daughter missing a ball, just like the Paris targets. Get it?