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Getting closer to our climate obligations: Australia’s legislation for change

New climate institutions are finally putting Australia on track to meet its Kyoto obligations. amandabhslater

DURBAN CLIMATE CHANGE CONFERENCE: Australia’s new climate legislation is a historic breakthrough reform for the nation. Putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions ranks alongside any of the “big” reforms of the past 30 years. For the first time the nation has institutions that can manage a transition to a low carbon economy.

The Climate Action Tracker team is a joint project by my organisation (Climate Analytics), Ecofys, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research. We have spent the last year examining Australia’s actions on climate change, across all sectors, and looking at how it’s doing. We’ve also examined and quantified the effects of the government’s Clean Energy Future Package.

This is the first of a series of independent, science-based country assessments looking at a country’s international climate change action, comparing it to its pledge and to what’s needed to keep global warming to below 2°C (and 1.5°C, as called for by the most vulnerable countries).

The report on Australia found that if the government applies the new legislation well, and keeps increasing the caps on emissions and including sectors not yet covered, it will bend the relentless upward trend of the emissions curve downwards. It will move Australia on to the first step toward a low carbon, climate-safe future. It also creates the governmental machinery needed for upgrading action.

But one of the big lessons is that Australia is starting from a difficult place, where emissions are already so much higher than they would have been if legislation had been in place even ten years ago. Each Australian now pumps out just under 30 tonnes of CO₂ equivalent a year – placing them sixth highest on the planet. The later you start to act on climate change, the more difficult it gets.

Our report grades Australia in its work across all the sectors: industry, electricity, buildings, transport, and forests/agriculture.

While it gets a good grade on overall strategy, there’s certainly room for improvement in most sectors. The only one that got an A was the the renewable energy sector, because of the Government’s goal of 20% renewable energy by 2020. With the machinery in place, this goal should be implemented, and with massive renewable energy resources available, Australia has a great future in this area.

The new Clean Energy Finance Corporation will support this by enhancing private investment.

There are clear trade offs we highlight. One of our benchmark scenarios is for 100% renewables. In this scenario, every dollar spent on carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a dollar taken away from renewable energy. In this scenario the CCS fund is considered an actual barrier to transformation: had this $1.7 million Clean Energy Fund been invested in renewable energy, Australia would be doing much better by now.

A big challenge not yet addressed is in the transport sector. Emissions standards for light vehicles could be introduced tomorrow. But the proposed date is 2015, and discussed levels are well away from standards applied in other jurisdictions such as the EU.

Neither does the legislation address heavy transport. With a massive growth in emissions expected from this sector, the Government would need to include it in the carbon price scheme by 2014 at the latest.

The legislation will have its largest impact on the industry sector, where policies reducing greenhouse gas emissions were virtually non-existent in the past.

The tax covers non-CO₂ industry emissions, such as the fugitive emissions from the mining sector. In Australia’s case, this is key, given the country’s massive mining boom. But while it would stabilise emissions from mining, it wouldn’t reduce them in absolute terms. Without these measures the emissions from the mining sector are due to rise 97% by 2020 from 2000 levels.

In the new round of international pledges made after Copenhagen in 2009, Australia has pledged to reduce emissions by 5% by 2020 based on 2000 emission levels. Most countries around the world use the official UN climate convention baseline of 1990 when pledging their emissions reductions.

If you translate this 5% into the 1990 baseline, Australia would still be increasing its emissions by 28%. More action will therefore be needed to bring Australia’s emissions to a level consistent with a 2°C pathway in 2020.

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