It’s never easy to explain the sheer horror of where Australia’s government sits on climate. We’ve become badly desensitised, but please, let me try.
Here’s an example. For several years, Australia has seen a gap between its predicted emissions and the Paris climate targets. The government has attempted to erase that gap by claiming that by exceeding the targets of a previous, unrelated climate agreement, they can ‘transfer’ that ‘overperformance’ and put it towards this new target.
It should send a shiver down your spine, but it didn’t. Let’s try an analogy: it’s significantly worse than someone saying something like ‘we can ease COVID19 restrictions in the second wave because fewer people died in the first wave than we expected’. Just carry over the unused deaths, if you overperformed, yeah? It’s ghoulish and stomach-churning. We should feel and experience it as such, but we don’t.
The point isn’t the target. It’s pushing down on a threat to our safety as hard as possible. We want people to live, and not be hurt. We want the natural world to persist. The fewer greenhouse gases added into the atmosphere, the better off we are. The less danger to the living things we love. To treat this effort like it’s nothing at all – something you can fuck around with by using dodgy accoung tricks – is an attack on us; one that makes my hair stand on end.
The reason this sounds like wordy hyperbole to you is because the people who selfishly gain from hurting us, along with their enablers, have dulled the nerves in our bodies that are meant to signal this threat to our physical selves.
Now, the Australian government has announced the gap between its projected emissions and the Paris targets will be filled by something else, and so the ‘carryover’ cheat won’t be needed. Like every miniscule, fractional morsel of microscopic rhetorical change offered by the government so far, this has been heralded as a major, seismic shift in direction. The Sydney Morning Herald described it as “a significant step towards greater ambition”.
No, this doesn’t ‘pave the way for a reset of his climate change policies’. In fact, it re-signifies the corrosive rot that has set deep into the Australian government perfectly, because the space left by that cheat will be filled by things that the government tried to stop: namely, renewable energy’s massive growth.
The target itself is a signifier of rot, too. Paris agreement targets aren’t static. They’re designed to ‘ratchet’ upwards over time, as each countries puts its back into reducing emission as much as it can. The UK just did exactly that, increasing its 2030 target to 68% – insufficient, but still an increase from 53%. Australia will retain version 0.01 of its target, presumably indefinitely.
It’s like loudly announcing your intent to not to cheat on a colouring-in test, while those around you sit advanced high school physics exams (“a significant step towards greater ambition”, is the response from those watching the exam hall). It’s important to understand how galling and horrific it is to see the government being thanked, congratulated and applauded for engineering a situation of total failure.
It’s particularly unsettling considering how deep the well of potential action is in Australia. It’s been examined in a million 500 page PDFs. Tens of thousands of jobs, lower electricity bills, cleaner air, wider ownership of energy and electricity, clean exports, etc etc. The argument against faster climate action, that it costs too much, is a lie (unless you’re a fossil fuel executive, or you get donations and future employment from them – for them, it costs a lot). But it’s a lie repeated so often across media that it’s become accepted as reality.
Part of the reason this is being denied is because the government’s methodology for maintaining inaction involves setting an absolute-swamp-bottom standard of ambition, and then creeping one millimetre towards betterment every year, while remaining many kilometres from the real goal. That annual millimetre shuffle is framed each time as the grand pivot point – “the day Scott Morrison truly became Prime Minister”. There’s some weird absolution fantasy working overtime here; and this god-awful centrist ideology has a real impact. It’s the thing that cauterises the nerves that would normally signal us to how dangerous this is. It’s the thing that helps bully us into accepting the bars of our own cage.
The gap between the pathetic scraps offered and the deep well of potential actual transformative change gets buried underneath the infuriating celebration to this millimetre shuffle. Ditching Kyoto credits isn’t progress. It’s a symptom of rot. A deep and catastrophic decay where the leaders of this country (and so many others) are incapable of dealing with a threat to safety and health, while its institutions are incapable of describing that horror in a way that makes us aware of the very real danger at hand, or the very real benefits of acting fast to solve it.
Rant over. Keep reading below for some extra reading about what I think is going to happen with Australia’s emissions projections.
How the Paris Gap will be filled? (Angus Taylor will have to shut down a whole lot of coal and gas)
Soon, the Australian government will release their projections for 2020, casting a vision out to 2030 of what emissions will do. Presumably, that line of projection will just scrape through the lowest end of the Paris target.
In an analysis I wrote last year, I found that projected line for the 2020s has been crawling downwards each new annual report, and it’s unsurprising that it’s going to hit the Paris line this year.
I also found the core reason that line had been creeping down over the years: upgrading renewable predictions and downgrading fossil fuel predictions, for power generation. It’s the only sector in which there has been sustained, systemic change in emissions. Between the 2018 and 2019 reports, the Australian government “shut down” two Hazelwood’s worth of coal-fired power stations in the next ten years. In the new 2020 report, I’m guessing they’ll have to shut down 2 or 3 more.
Over the last decade, Australia’s conservative politicians built their identity around (a) furiously hating renewable energy and (b) freaking out about the closure of coal-fired power stations. But they are now relying heavily on both to meet climate targets. They’re also relying heavily on state-based action to reduce emissions, including Victorian, Queensland, Tasmanian and South Australian Renewable energy targets, all included in 2019’s projections.
Since 2019, NSW has released a technology roadmap that, by my estimations, alone serves as between 40% to 50% of the reductions needed before 2030 to hit the Paris targets. That policy was nervously criticised by federal energy Minister Angus Taylor, who was desperate to see the modelling. Specifically, he said:
“I’m concerned about models and analysis including unrealistic assumptions that don’t translate into the real world. We shouldn’t see models that assume large coal generators stay in the market despite policy changes that seriously undermine profitability and commercial sustainability. If policymakers want to force out coal generators prematurely, they should say that upfront”
It’s a truly wild thing to say, considering it’s going to be nearly impossible for the 2020 projections report to hit the Paris target without Angus Taylor running a thick red line through a very decent chunk of coal-fired power generation in Australia’s electricity markets. Just updating the projections from the electricity sector alone to the latest scenarios from the market operator will do half the job, and those best-case scenarios involve shutting down coal earlier than planned. And the 2030 proportion of electricity supplied by renewables will definitely be greater than 50%. A figure that, two years ago, was an aspirational target argued about ferociously, and is now in fact almost impossible to avoid.
The impact of COVID19 on transport and fugitive emissions – quite significant – will do much of the work, too. There will be some heroic and weird assumptions about future fugitive emissions from mining fossil gas, because every prediction for that industry in Australia suggests a dangerous and fast expansion. And then, there’s the government’s only actual climate policy: the “Technology roadmap”.
The mysterious technology roadmap emissions reductions
The purported replacement for a 2050 net zero target is, very simply, a list of technologies and a few price targets. By the reckoning of experts, that isn’t sufficient to have any impact on emissions:
Weirdly, the tech roadmap itself claims that it will “AVOID IN THE ORDER OF 250 MILLION TONNES OF EMISSIONS PER YEAR BY 2040 through deployment of priority technologies at home and Australia’s low emissions exports”. No one knows where this number comes from (it’s rich of Angus Taylor to demand modelling and costings for NSW’ power plan, while brandishing this wild piece of fiction). It also claims that it will “AIM TO CATALYSE $3–$5 OF NEW INVESTMENT FOR EACH DOLLAR OF COMMONWEALTH FUNDING to achieve $50 to $100 billion in new investment domestically over the decade to 2030”. That means somewhere between one quarter and one sixth of the total money that goes into this will be taxpayer’s – so much for “technology not taxes”.
Of course, this then becomes a blank slate for the government to use as its ‘gap filler’ in its projections, simply dipping into that mystery number to fill in any gap to the Paris agreement. The maximum gap between the 2019 projections and Paris targets is about 60 megatonnes of CO2-e per year.
The magic of future technology and mysterious, totally fictional assumptions, then, will probably comfortably do the remainder of the work.
Perhaps some will come from the government’s existing “climate solutions fund”, where abatement like ‘not chopping down trees’ is rewarded with incentives. Except, as Tristan Edis writes, you’d have to assume massive over-performance on this compared to previous years, which doesn’t seem likely.
“The government likes to assert that its climate policy is about technology, not taxes. But it’s not technologies that we’re lacking, it’s the money to drive businesses to use and improve them. And that has to come from either a carbon price of some kind, or raising other taxes”, writes Edis.
We’ll find out soon enough, but as I wrote here, it’s unlikely that the options to cut emissions from easy, fast and immediately beneficial pathways, like renewable energy, EVs, clean buildings and demand reductions will feature.
What needs to happen
Australia’s Paris target is 26 to 28% of reductions from 2005 levels, by the year 2030. That should be around 66% to align with a 1.5C global target (and net zero by 2050), writes Climate Action Tracker (CAT). It looks something like this:
Scary, yeah? It’s a drop of, on average, 30 megatonnes of CO2-e per year. Scary, yeah? It’s not that bad. The Labor party achieved about two thirds of that during their tenure, and that was before massive price drops for renewables and electric vehicles, and heat pumps.
97% renewables by 2030. A ban on combustion cars by 2035. Full decarbonisation of mining using electricity generation. Replace fossil fuel exports with clean exports like power or hydrogen. Simple, clear and feasible stuff.
As CAT point out in their report, it is a significant statement that the government is deciding to shun stronger climate action by sticking with their old-school target.
“The path to get to net zero emissions matters both in terms of the cumulative emissions and their impact on temperature, as well as in terms of the technical and economic transition pathways and policy implications for the near future. This is why targets for 2030 matter: unless governments have believable pathways backed by policies to reduce emission levels, and energy transformations consistent with achieving zero emissions by 2030, then 2050 promises of net zero emissions lack any real credibility”
I hope this explains why it’s so frustrating to see the attitude of low 2030 targets presented as if they’re ambitious. They’re the opposite: they’re this decade’s form of climate change denial. But because Scott Morrison isn’t brandishing a lump of coal in parliament, and is instead branding a 9,000 page PDF of technology reports, the ruse works, and Australia continues its pro-fossil position mostly unchallenged.