The US climate target for 2030 blows Australia’s out of the water. Together with dramatically strengthened targets by several other major countries, it resets expectations. And it puts big pressure on Australia to lift our game. If we don’t, we will be seen in the ranks of countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and Brazil. If we do, it will help position the economy for the future.
The US has now pledged to cut emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 relative to 2005. In 2019, US emissions were just 13% below 2005 levels. The target is far stronger than most would have thought possible not long ago. To achieve, it would require deep change across the US economy, with comprehensive policies from both federal administration and the states, and rapid action by investors.
The UK target is a 78% reduction relative to 1990 by 2035, and the EU 55% at 2030. Japan is expected to ramp up its 2030 target to a 46% cut relative to 2013. Canada’s was increased to 40%-45%, up from 30%. These targets represent the kind of ambition required everywhere to effectively limit climate change. Delivering them will need strong policies.
Australia’s 2030 target of a 26%-28% reduction has always been quite weak compared with most other developed countries’ targets. It was meant to be ratcheted up, like all Paris agreement pledges. Now it is totally inadequate compared with those by our best friends and allies. The commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 is important, but it needs to be underpinned by a realistic strategy, meaningful mid-term goals, and immediate measures.
Australia’s national emissions were 14% below 2005 levels in 2019 and about 19% lower in 2020, in part due to Covid. Reductions in land clearing mostly achieved before 2013 account for the entire aggregate reduction. Emissions of all other sources combined have actually increased since 2005, with a flat trend over the past five years.
We can easily do so much better.
Emissions from electricity generation are gradually declining as ever cheaper wind and solar power displaces coal. Policy could and should accelerate the shift towards clean power. Part of that is more predictable and orderly closure of the coal plants, allowing timely replacement investment and support programs in the regions.
There is no meaningful effort to lower emissions from fuel use in industry, transport, mining and oil and gas production, which account for more than half of Australia’s greenhouse gas footprint. It would be effective and economically sensible to put a price on emissions in industry and mining. It would be beneficial to have a minimum efficiency standards for cars and to encourage the uptake of electric cars, like most developed countries do. There are no effective emissions policies in agriculture except government payments to some projects that aim to cut emissions.
Slogans like “technology not taxes” do not cut it internationally. The Biden administration has already sent a blunt message to Australia that more than technology support is needed in Australia. And the many governments that successfully run emissions markets will shake their heads.
The funding announced this week for regional hydrogen hubs and international collaborations on low-emissions energy are positive steps. But they are small given the magnitude of the challenge and the opportunity, and not even a figleaf in the absence of actual policy. Some of the money is for carbon capture and storage, while the large-scale clean energy export industries of the future will ultimately run on zero-emissions energy.
Australia’s climate policy has been plagued by party politics. This needs to change. International pressure could help what has seemed impossible in Canberra.
Australia will be expected to take on a much stronger 2030 target and to underpin it with policies and measures across the economy. Our allies will not take “maybe later” or reminders that we “meet and beat” our previous soft Kyoto targets for an answer. Secretary of state Antony Blinken has said that any country not pulling its weight on emissions “will hear from us”. Europe meanwhile is primed to levy carbon penalties on imports from countries without proper emissions measures.
As a political pragmatist, Morrison should reposition his government. The ever-louder calls for sensible climate policy by much of the business and finance community will help with that. Scaremongering about the costs of action will lose its political appeal.
Expect the government’s policy position to gradually soften. Perhaps the door will be left open for climate policy measures after the election. This in turn would widen the Labor party’s political room to manoeuvre on climate policy, with its new emphasis on the economic upside.
With any luck, the political contest over climate change will be more and more over what to do and how best to do it. That would be the starting point for sounder policy whoever is in power, and the beginning of healing after a decade lost to adversarial politics.
The crux of the matter is that decarbonising means making Australia’s economy fit for the low-emissions future that the world is embarking on. Locking into the high-pollution model of the 20th century is no recipe for prosperity. We need to genuinely push towards net zero, starting now, using this continent’s zero-carbon energy advantage.