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Environment Minister Greg Hunt, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the announcement of Australia’s 2030 climate target. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Australia’s post-2020 climate target not enough to stop 2C warming: experts

Australia will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030, the federal government announced today.

In a press conference, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the target is “fairly and squarely in the middle of comparable economies”.

The government has outlined a mix of policies to meet the target, including extending the Emissions Reduction Fund to 2030 at an estimated cost of A$200 million each year.

Abbott stated that Australia’s post-2020 target was not as large as the European Union, but better than Japan, Korea and China.

According to the government, the target would see Australia halve emissions per person, more than any other major economy, and equal cuts in emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) with China. The government highlighted population and economic growth as reasons for emissions increases.

The target will form part of Australia’s submission to the United Nations ahead of the December climate change conference in Paris. These submissions, known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, will form the basis for a possible new global climate deal.

25 countries have already submitted their post-2020 targets to the UN (see the interactive map below). In March, the US submitted a target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, following a deal between the US and China in November 2014. The EU has committed to reducing emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Australia’s current unconditional target is 5% below 2000 levels by 2020. The 26-28% target is below the 40-60% target recommended by the government’s Climate Change Authority as a fair contribution to keeping warming below 2C.

Below, experts respond.

Pep Canadell, Executive director, Global Carbon Project at CSIRO

Although the Australian INDC [Intended Nationally Determined Contribution] has not yet been agreed, the suggested 26-28% emission reduction by 2030 on 2005 levels is below the commitment made by the US, Europe, and Canada.

The final quality and long-term ambition of the proposed effort will become clear when the detailed emission reduction targets by sectors are made available and the policies that will support them are disclosed.

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor, School of Geography at University of Melbourne

In the run up to the UN climate negotiations in Paris this year, nations are being asked to nominate their own INDCs or national emissions targets for 2025 and beyond.

The benefit of this approach is that states are more likely to meet these targets. The problem is that collectively they will not be enough to hold global warming below 2C – itself a dangerously high goal.

Australia’s INDC, its 2030 emissions target, is among the weakest offerings by developed countries – which include those from Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

Australia has again shifted its reporting baseline – from 1990 to 2000 and now to 2005 – to lessen its mitigation task but also make it seem tougher. Depending on whether the 26% reduction includes or excludes land use factors, it is equivalent to merely 8% below 1990 levels (or -20% with land use factors) and 21% below 2000 levels (or -15% including land use).

By contrast the Climate Change Authority recommended a scientifically informed, globally equitable emissions target for Australia of between 40-60% below a 2000 baseline by 2030.

The Abbott government’s target for Australia will provide other laggard states with comfort and cover. In doing so it holds back already insufficient global mitigation efforts.

Anita Talberg, PhD student in the Australian German Climate and Energy College at University of Melbourne

If we accept that to avoid dangerous climate change there is a limit to the cumulative amount of greenhouse gases that can be released into the atmosphere, then we accept that this is a zero-sum game.

Whatever extra Australia takes of that global emissions budget is no longer available to other countries. So, how to divide this emissions budget fairly between nations?

Australia’s population growth to 2030, according to World Bank data, is projected to exceed that of many other developed countries. By making this a major factor in determining Australia’s emissions target, the prime minister is invoking the principle of distributive justice. He is saying that a “fair” distribution is where future emissions are equally distributed across the global population.

What this principle of “fairness” fails to consider is the unequal distribution of historical emissions. Australia has one of the highest emissions rate per head of population (as can be seen on the graph below). This means that Australia has produced a lot of historical emissions to get rich.

The prime minister’s argument is that emissions are strongly linked to economic growth and population growth. So, in this zero-sum game, the question then becomes should Australia give up some of its future emissions so that those poorer countries with lower historical emissions can benefit from some of this economic growth?

Anna Skarbek, CEO at ClimateWorks Australia at Monash University

The government’s announcement signals that more action is expected beyond 2020. This is essential, and welcome. But the target, if not increased soon, will fall short of Australia’s demonstrated potential and the pace needed to match others such as the US, EU, UK and Canada.

Yet even to reach the government’s proposed new target, Australia will need new measures to accelerate emissions reduction activity, and the work on these should start from today.

Our research shows there are many pathways for Australia to substantially reduce emissions. All include greatly improved energy efficiency across the economy, near-zero emissions electricity, switching to lower carbon energy sources in transport, building and industry, and improving agricultural emissions and carbon forestry

Our research shows Australia has the potential to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

In fact, this is the minimum that is required if we are to meet our international obligations to keep global warming to 2C as agreed by the United Nations.

Cathy Alexander, Research Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at University of Melbourne

Diplomatically, the Abbott government has done the bare minimum it can to avoid being a climate pariah at the Paris summit in December. This target is relatively weak, and is not enough to avoid warming of more than 2C. Pressure will continue behind the scenes on Australia to do more.

But this 26% emissions target is similar to some other developed countries (Canada, New Zealand), so overt criticism from allies may be avoided. One key issue for other countries will be how the 26% target is reached. The government will need a credible plan.

Domestically the ground is ready for climate change to be a key issue at the federal election, expected next year. Labor is gearing up to be more ambitious on climate change and will likely name a stronger emissions target than the Coalition’s 26%.

And the domestic debate now turns to policy. The Coalition says it will meet the target via the Direct Action scheme (and at fairly low cost), plus new vehicle emissions standards, “technology change”, and carryover of emissions permits. Expect a stoush over whether this adds up to a 26% cut. Expect a fierce debate about whether Labor’s policies are better. Expect more questions over why the Coalition is committed to the 2C goal but has a target too modest to meet it.

Climate policy has helped finish off three prime ministers and two opposition leaders in Australia. There could be more to come.

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