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New emissions target will test government, but it isn’t enough

Yesterday, the Climate Change Authority released its interim report on future emissions targets. The report recommends two options to replace Australia’s short term (2020) mitigation target of 5% below…

We need a new target: is this the right one? Sean Hobson

Yesterday, the Climate Change Authority released its interim report on future emissions targets. The report recommends two options to replace Australia’s short term (2020) mitigation target of 5% below 2000 levels.

The first is to increase that target to, at minimum, 15% reduction by 2020 (with a trajectory range of 35 to 50% reduction by 2030). The second option is for a 25% reduction in emissions by 2020, and a trajectory range of 40 to 50% by 2030.

The CCA prefers a 25% 2020 reduction target, which:

would clearly make a greater short term contribution to emissions reductions, allowing a more consistent pace of emissions reductions in the period to 2050.

These proposed recommendations pose new and thorny problems for the Abbott Government’s approach to climate policy. They will immediately test its resolve to combat global warming. Here’s why.

What Australia has agreed to

In 2009, the Rudd Government announced Australia would unconditionally cut its emissions by 5% below 2000 levels by 2020, and by 60% by 2050 (a figure later amended to 80%).

It also nominated a range of more ambitious targets to which Australia would agree if there were increases in agreed international mitigation effort under the Kyoto Protocol. These conditional targets of 15% below 2000 levels by 2020, or 25%, depended on major emitters signing up and international agreement being reached to reduce emissions to meet a global target of 450ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, or 2C of warming.

This target range, including the commitment to a 5% cut, is Australia’s internationally proclaimed commitment to action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

National targets are now under review. The UN is trying to secure more ambitious emissions reduction goals, with international agreement by all major emitting countries by 2015. The Climate Change Authority’s first report is developed with these negotiations in mind.

The 5 to 25% emissions reduction target range was accepted by the Coalition in opposition. So was Australia’s formal support of the international goal of keeping global warming below 2C.

The prevailing view remains that there is bipartisan agreement (between the Coalition and Labor) about that target. How then is this report a challenge to the Coalition’s climate plans?

There’s talk, and there’s (direct) action

Alarm bells went off during the election campaign when Tony Abbott announced the Coalition’s $3.2 billion allocation (over four years) to its Emissions Reduction Fund, under the Direct Action Plan, was capped. If that budget wasn’t enough to meet the 5% reduction, too bad. No more money would be allocated.

Critics of the Direct Action Plan and its Emissions Reduction Fund have already argued the proposed funding will prove inadequate to the task, especially if the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is dismantled. For instance, the Climate Institute argues that additional resources – at least another $4 billion by 2020 - will be required to meet the target.

Abbott’s comments indicated that the Coalition’s support for Australia’s existing target is superficial, and that any upward revision of that target would be ruled out by a Coalition Government on budgetary grounds alone.

But tougher targets are precisely what the Climate Change Authority now argues are necessary. Given the Coalition’s opposition to increasing climate action funding, to an emissions trading scheme, and to the use of international carbon credits, such targets are immediately unachievable.

There can be no doubt, then, why the Coalition is eager to terminate the Climate Change Authority, as it has promised to do. Independent scientifically and economically informed advice – no matter how conservative – can only produce great political discomfort under present circumstances. There are grave doubts that a final report will ever be produced.

Audacious targets - but they won’t bridge the gap

Yet, despite their audacity, the Authority’s recommendations are themselves open to challenge. Science says we need to do more, and ethical and economic analysis says we should and can do more.

Australia’s 5% emissions reduction target has long been regarded by its critics as among the weakest proposed by developed, high-emitting nations. It contrasts poorly with the efforts of leading states, such as the United Kingdom, Norway and Germany - their 2020 targets range between 30 and 40%.

The CCA agrees Australia’s current target is an inadequate contribution to holding warming to below 2 degrees. It is insufficient in the face of scientific advice, and on the grounds of equity and economic capacity, given the efforts of comparable developed nations.

A stronger target, the Authority argues, is easily achievable without significant economic burden. Technological advances, changes in projected energy demand, and other sectoral developments will all help us get there.

There is widespread scientific agreement that current national mitigation targets are insufficient to hold average global warming to even 2C, above which dangerous climate change is likely to occur. (Note that 2C is increasingly being criticised as too high a limit, and itself likely to deliver catastrophic climate outcomes.)

A significantly more ambitious aggregate target is required for even a reasonable chance (67% or more) of keeping below that guardrail. The United Nations acknowledges, in its 2012 Emissions Gap report, that aggregate global emissions are projected to be in excess of that target by some 13-14 billion tonnes per annum by 2020.

All major emitting countries will need to increase their mitigation efforts if this gap is to be eliminated.

Australia’s fair share

For Australia to be an equitable contributor to that effort, we must accept responsibility for a proportion of that 14 billion tonnes. What might be an equitable proportion is up for debate. My research suggests that, at minimum, Australia needs to take on an additional burden equivalent to its current contribution to global emissions (1.5% of that 14 billion tonnes global total).

On these grounds alone, Australia would need to adopt a target of around 38% below 2000 levels by 2020. This is well within our economic and technological capabilities.

The Authority also recognises the need to bridge this “ambition gap” in its consideration of a national carbon budget. It has produced goals it believes reflects Australia’s “fair share” of the global emissions budget and mitigation burden.

By scientific, economic and ethical criteria, the CCA’s significantly enhanced 2020 targets represent a major improvement on Australia’s current goal. But at the end of the day, they represent an insufficient response to the global need for urgent emissions cuts to avoid dangerous climate change.

The CCA’s report and recommendations are open for public comment until November 29.