The Australian Climate change Authority has released its final assessment on what Australia's climate emissions reduction target should be. They say that the global conditions have clearly been met for Australia increasing emissions reduction from 5 per cent on 2000 levels to 19 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020.
In 2009 the Australian Government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave an unconditional guarantee of a 5 per cent target to the Copenhagen UN Climate Change conference. This was part of a range of 5 to 25 per cent with specific conditions attached for increasing the target past 5 per cent. Australia's formal target needs to be advised by 30 April 2014, although governments can strengthen their targets at any time. This target and the conditional range had bipartisan support: Both Labor and the Liberal and National Parties supported this international undertaking.
Bernie Fraser, the chair of the Climate Change Authority, said during the press conference:
"The five percent minimum isn't credible in terms of the task that has to be done and the time frame to stick to the 2020 target of a minimum of 5 per cent would, within the framework of the present global budget, Australia's share of that global budget, would impose a virtually impossible task of catching up, making up that lost ground and getting to the end result in the time available.
Australia also has a formal commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to limit average annual emissions in the period 2013 to 2020 to 99.5 per cent of 1990 levels, a calculation based on the unconditional 5 per cent target. Australia has already amassed about 4 percent credits under this agreement.
Countries, including Australia, also need to consider emissions reduction targets beyond 2020, for the global agreement presently being negotiated to be concluded in Paris at the end of 2015. Countries will be expected to indicate post-2020 targets by the first quarter
Climate Change Authority established to advise on targets
In 2011 the Australian Government under Prime Minister Julia Gillard established the Climate Change Authority under legislation to provide independent, accurate and complete information and advice on emissions reduction targets based upon the best scientific advice and economic modelling and international comparison of mitigation action to reduce emissions. Former Reserve Bank Governor Bernie Fraser was appointed to chair this authority, with members of the board coming from distinguished science, economics and business backgrounds.
The Authority consulted extensively across a range of industry, academic and non-government
stakeholders including the CSIRO, various academics from a range of Australian universities, staff at ClimateWorks Australia, the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, the US Department of State and World Resources Institute.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott undermining climate action by Australia
New conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott, elected in September 2013, has already foreshadowed closure of this authority, but has not been able to do so as it requires legislative changes that need to pass the Upper house of the Australian parliament - the Senate. Until July 1st 2014 the Senate is controlled by Labor and Greens senators. After July 1st the situation is complicated by a range of independent Senators and the necessity for a new half senate election for Western Australia (6 senators) after irregularities were found in a recount of the very close September 2013 Western Australia senate result.
According to Climate Action Tracker who did an analysis in November 2013, it is likely Australian under the Liberals policy emissions will increase by 12 per cent by 2020, instead of meeting the unconditional commitment of 5 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020.
The CEO of the Climate Change Authority, Ms Anthea Harris stated at the Climate Change Authority press conference:
"With the current Renewable Energy target in place and with all the energy efficiency standards, but without any assumptions about the Direct Action Plan nor with no carbon price, then our estimate is that emissions would be 17 per cent above 2000 level emissions by 2020. So you would have to get to 17 per cent plus to minus 5."
It is by no means clear Abbott will have the support of enough independents to push through abolition of the current carbon price, Climate Change Authority or Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Negotiations and horse trading may be essential to get some of this legislation rescinded. The Government may need to present it's Direct Action Climate Change policy and demonstrate how it could be effective in mitigating climate change to get support of some of the Independent Senators. The Labor Party has already proposed they would support the Government if the carbon price was changed to the immediate introduction of an Emissions Trading System.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has in the past famously labeled 'climate change is crap', but as opposition leader in the lead up to the September 2013 federal election said he agreed with the climate science. This was almost immediately put into perspective when his government's first actions were to trash climate change education and carbon pricing, quickly followed by his denial on bushfire climate change link.
He has continued to surround himself with climate sceptic advisors including appointing climate sceptic and anti-wind farm proponent Maurice Newman to be his head of the Business Advisory Council.
In February 2014 the Government appointed climate sceptic businessman Dick Warburton to undertake a review of the Renewable Energy Target. A review of the Renewable Energy Target had been slated for this year to be undertaken by the Climate Change Authority.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt's press conference on 17 February 2014 on the terms of reference for the panel to review the Renewable Energy Target focused entirely on economics and cost of living impact of the target without one mention of the environmental and climate mitigation benefit of the RET. It is a focus on the short term economic hip-pocket nerve to the exclusion of long term environmental and climate impacts which even now are affecting our lives and causing hardship, social disruption and death. Watch the announcement on 17 February on Youtube:
Dick Warburton was a board member of Note Printing Australia when it was being investigated by the Federal Police for numerous international bribery allegations. Greens Senator Scott Ludlum raised the appropriateness of whether Dick Warbuton should be appointed to chair the RET review panel in the Senate estimates committee hearing (youtube video).
Scott Ludlum asked "how could he possibly qualify to conduct a review into key technology for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions if he doesn't believe there is a public policy issue to address?"
It is obvious the Government wanted to stack the deck with this review, taking it from an organisation slated for abolition and creating a new review panel that followed the government's ideological line. Is this highly partisan political appointment really good for Australian policy?
It seems Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull got it right in 2009 when he labelled Tony Abbott's climate policy is bullshit.
Report based upon Climate science
Two of Australia's most eminent scientists are on the board of the Climate Change Authority. Australia's chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb is an ex-officio member of the board. David Karoly is Professor of Atmospheric Science in the University of Melbourne's School of Earth Sciences and brings substantial knowledge of climate science to the board.
During the press conference both scientists spoke. Professor Ian Chubb outlined the compelling nature of the climate science, much more detailed and under far more scrutiny than any other field of scientific endeavour. He outlined that global warming has continued relentlessly as shown by the ocean heat content uptake:
One of the things I have become aware of over recent time is how closely scrutinised every thing is when it comes out talking about climate change and the science behind climate change. In my experience it would be one of the most heavily scrutinised areas of science I've ever experienced. What you have to say is the overwhelming bulk of it has stood the test of scrutiny. The consequences of that are that I find a lot of the science Compelling. I as a scientist put in the caveat that we are dealing with probabilities, so I'm not going to say there is absolute proof of this or that, but I am going to say it is pretty compelling. I've seen arguments to say whether the warming in the atmosphere is in pause or decline since 1998 or whenever.
I have in front of me a graph showing the change in ocean heat content since 1960 and it is just going inexorably up. The point is that not all of the heat that is generated stays in the atmosphere. Ninety odd percent of it is absorbed by the oceans. We are seeing changes to the oceans, we have seen changes to the temperature. If you don't believe it, then you have got to impugn the messenger, you've got to say 'it is groupthink' - a stupid expression like groupthink. You have got to say that something is flawed about it.
Now, scientists are human beings and sometimes they'll make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes are picked up and when those are turned into that they absolutely deny the main thesis, then it seems we have to recognise what is going on here. I think what has been going on is that there has been no reputable science through the scientific process and the scientific method that disputes the main thesis in this area. It has been so closely scrutinised: poured over by experts and non-experts alike, poured over by professionals and amateurs, poured over by everybody, and the main thing goes on.
Since the industrial revolution we have put in 2 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and how can that have no effect? We can have a bit of an argy over what the final impact might be. We know that half of it stays in the atmosphere and the other half is absorbed by the oceans and the land. We know it is there, we know it is a greenhouse gas being put in the atmosphere, we know it is human activities that is putting it into the atmosphere so it would be really silly to say it is having no effect, or as some people would say, a delusion. The point is what we have to get down to is what the impact will be and what is the cost of doing something or what is the cost of doing nothing. They have to be balanced off. We have to find a way forward that is simply not sloughing off to coming generations changes that would be unachieveable simply because we are unprepared to do something today that is not unreasonable and to have that debate in a civilised way.
Professor David Karoly followed Ian Chubb with comments in which he highlighted the impact of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions resulting in a trend in Australia for higher temperatures, heatwaves and extreme fire weather and more intense rainfall events and the importance of taking a carbon budget approach:
"As well as increases in hot extremes, increases in extreme fire weather and fire danger, and projected further increases in high temperature extremes and heatwaves, in further increases in extreme fire danger, further increases in heavy rainfall events. All of those will have major impacts.
The other part of the science and Professor Chubb didn't really talk about it, an underpinning aspect and approach that has been used in our report, is to take a carbon budget approach. The science is demonstrating clearly that it is the cumulative emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases from human activity, emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that determine the changes in global temperature. That is not the emissions in one year, it is the cumulative emissions over history. That means we can look at what is a reasonable share for Australia, of the cumulative emissions that are consistent with warming of less than 2 degrees.
Remember that governments around the world agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change. Avoiding dangerous climate change has been agreed to be limiting warming to less than 2 degrees. The authority has decided that we will use two thirds probability of staying below 2 degrees of global warming. That gives 1.7 trillion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions - carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions - over the period from 2013 to 2050.
1.7 trillion is a really big number. But the Australian share of that ends up being about one percent and that leads to a 10.1 billion tonne budget for Australia, and that can then be apportioned if we only have five per cent emission reduction by 2020, it leaves a much larger requirement for rapid emission reductions over the subsequent period before all that emissions budget is used up."
Australia's Fair share of global carbon budget
Since the Bali roadmap in 2007 when Australia finally signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, which the conservative Howard Government had refused to sign, scientists have been saying that developed nations like Australia need to reduce emissions by 25 to 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020 as our fair share of emissions reduction for a high chance of staying below 2 degrees of global warming.
The Authority argue that we should adopt 15 per cent target goal. But we have also accumulated some emission credits under the Kyoto Protocol due to emissions in recent years being less than our Kyoto target. The Authority recommends these credits be applied to extend the minimum 15 per cent target for 2020 to an effective target of 19 per cent.
The Authority looked at the global carbon budget and calculated what should be considered as Australia's fair share with a 67 per cent probability of holding global atmospheric warming to under 2 degrees. This worked out to be one per cent of the global carbon budget amounting to a national emissions budget of 10.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions for 2013 to 20150. Recommended targets were 15 per cent to 2020, then 40 to 60 per cent reduction on 2000 levels by 2030.
In terms of comparative international action, the report highlighted the increase in action being undertaken by the USA and China in particular with regards to reducing emissions and increasing renewable energy:
The world’s two largest emitters, China and the United States, are stepping up their efforts on climate change. Both countries have emissions reduction targets and are investing heavily in renewable energy—estimated at more than US$100 billion in 2012. China is tightening its vehicle emissions standards, replacing inefficient coal-fired power plants with more efficient plants, and has established five sub-national pilot emissions trading schemes. In the United States, a 2013 presidential action plan on climate change includes new restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants, stronger vehicle emission standards and additional energy efficiency measures. These are intended to complement existing state-based market initiatives to reduce emissions and increase the use of renewable energy.
Australia’s 5 per cent target is weaker than that of many comparable countries. For example, the United States has a 2020 target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels; the UK has a target of 34 per cent below 1990 levels; Norway has a target of 30–40 per cent below 1990 levels. A target of 15 per cent plus carryover for Australia would be more in line with the targets being pursued by such countries.
The Authority highlighted that if we take very low action this decade it pushes nearly an insurmountable burden into later periods and onto future generations - in other words we'll eat up the options and living standards of our children and grandkids.
As climate, economic conditions and international comparative action change over time, the report recommends that the national emissions budget be reviewed at least every 5 years.
Can we afford this higher target?, particularly as Australia is facing a loss of manufacturing jobs with the recent announced closure of the car industry with the departure of Ford, General Motors Holden and Toyota, loss of jobs at Australia's national airline Qantas, closure of Alcoa's Point Henry Aluminium smelter near Geelong. Economics Professor John Quiggen responded:
The report includes estimates of the economic cost to the Australian economy of reaching both the 2020 targets and the more ambitious targets we'll need by 2050. Those numbers aren't trivial but they are small enough to be undectectable against the background of steady improvement in living standards that we can expect from technological progress, capital investment and so forth.
Now if we look at recent experience, we had the same sort of modelling before the carbon price. Some people don't like modelling. What we see confirms the rightness of that modelling. There were hyperbolic claims about the damage that would be done by the carbon price at the time. Of course, that was invisible. There were equally hyperbolic claims that removing the carbon price would provide huge benefits for the economy. Of course a number of these job losses in manufacturing have been announced after the announcement of legislation to remove the carbon price.
I don't think there is any causal link either between the earlier closure and the carbon price, it simply reflects the fact the cost of these measures is tiny in comparison to things like the fluctuations in the value of the dollar, general movements in the economy. So we are seeing that although it was suggested the carbon price was going to cripple manufacturing, we see nothing of the kind in the news today or the news over the last month or two.
The Authority also emphasises that given the magnitude and complexity of the challenges posed by climate change that it makes good policy sense for policy makers to use a full range of policy tools at their disposal including market mechanisms such as carbon pricing and emission trading schemes, and non-market arrangements such as regulations and standards where appropriate. One area where gains could be made is legislating for the introduction of greater vehicle emissions standards, particularly for light motor vehicles.
Turning around the inertia in current energy use and emissions can involve substantial lead times, even when the political culture is supportive of such change. This produces a shortfall in achieving the higher target which the Authority recommends that a fund be established by the Australian Government to purchase international credits valued at between $210 and $850 million assuming average credit unit price of between $0.50 and $2 (current price is under $1). These international credits are often sourced from developing countries and provides essential funding for renewable and sustainable projects for these countries to avoid increasing fossil fuel emissions.
The report also identified that long term reliance on international credits, especially past 2020, may pose a risk of delaying domestic economic transition putting the country at an economic disadvantage.
Over-reliance on international emissions reductions could delay Australia’s domestic transition, increasing the risk of disruptive and costly adjustment in future decades. Particularly in the period to 2020, however, using international reductions to complement domestic efforts could help Australia meet its emissions reduction goals at lower cost and support broader trade and foreign policy objectives.
Duty of Care
The Australian Government are in a real bind. Ideologically the Government is committed to doing the absolute minimum in terms of climate action and meeting current international commitments. While the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Environment Minister profess to concur with the climate change science, all their actions to date have been dismantling climate action infrastructure such as: abolition of the Climate Commission, the carbon price, Climate Change Authority and Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and creating and stacking a new panel to review of the Renewable Energy Target.
The Climate Direct Action Plan is still being formulated, but the policy as presented to the September 2013 election was widely criticised as insufficient to even meet Australia's present international climate commitments.
The Fossil Fuel Industry is still receiving subsidies of about $10 billion, which the Government is refusing to address. The International Energy Agency has recommended phasing out of all fossil fuel subsidies. Although Australia has paid lip service at the 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane to reducing these subsidies, in fact they are projected to increase under the current Government. This was disclosed in a bit of detective work by a company specialising in solar development: Solar Business Services.
Australia is already seeing substantial impacts of climate change with 2013 being the hottest year on record, major heatwaves across much of the country with heatwave intensity and frequency projected to increase.
Drought conditions are making a comeback in much of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. While Tony Abbott announced a $320 million drought relief package he dismisses any link between drought and climate change. What will happen when the Pacific Decadal Oscillation moves to a positive phase and we get an extreme El Nino? Farmers also need to contend that El Niño Southern Oscillation activity and intensity is increasing with Global Warming and will mean stronger droughts for Australia. Research published in January 2014 indicates that Global warming is doubling the risk of Extreme El Ninos.
Higher temperatures, bushfires and floods are already killing people in Australia, while the Federal Government kills climate mitigation action. The Climate Council latest report - Heatwaves: Hotter, Longer, More Often - found that hot weather in Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra has already reached levels predicted for 2030. The 2009 heatwave resulted in 374 excess deaths in Victoria alone, more than double the number killed in the Black Saturday bushfires.
A 2011 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report on Extreme Heat Events (PDF) stated "Heatwaves kill more Australians than any other natural disaster. They have received far less public attention than cyclones, floods or bushfires—they are private, silent deaths which only hit the media when morgues reach capacity or infrastructure fails.”
It has been estimated that heatwaves could cause an additional 6214 deaths by 2050 in Victoria alone.
To not take appropriate climate mitigation action is an abrogation of duty of care to the Australian people.
The Climate Change Authority is unequivocal:
The global community has agreed to limit warming to below 2 degrees. Even under this scenario, Australia would still have to adapt to additional sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of bushfires, more frequent heatwaves and drought, increased water scarcity, and year-round higher temperatures (CSIRO 2010). Such an outcome would be substantially better than a 4 degree world. It is in Australia’s national interest to contribute to the global effort to limit warming to below 2 degrees.
- Climate Change Authority, 27 February 2014, Targets and Progress Review (links full report, summary, and recommendations and press conference video
- Climate Change Authority, 27 February 2014, Targets and progess Review, Statement by the Chair, Mr Bernie Fraser
- Solar Business Services 24 February 2014 - Australia’s lip service at the G20 Summit; our fossil fuel subsidies to increase!
- The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for the Environment, media release 17 February 2014 - Review of the Renewable Energy Target
- Lead image by Climate Change Authority. Creative Commons.