The Abbott government’s poor record on climate policy and action has been thrust into the international spotlight, after some of the world’s biggest economies and biggest polluters, including China and the US, questioned whether Australia’s emissions reduction targets were ambitious enough.
Tony Abbott’s Coalition government – whose main policy on climate change has been to dump Australia’s carbon tax and unwind some of its most important mechanisms for boosting renewable energy development – last week held the first auction for its Emissions Reduction Fund, the centrepiece of its Direct Action policy. Results of that auction round are due to be released this week.
But documents from the United Nations show a distinct lack of confidence in Australia’s ability to meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets – let alone any future target – with 36 questions on this subject and the Abbott government’s broader climate policies, from countries including Brazil, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia, and from the European Union.
The questions, lodged with the UN in the lead-up to the December Paris climate summit, included one from Beijing on whether the ERF would be enough to compensate for the axed carbon price.
“1990 is an internationally common choice for base year of 2020 targets, but Australia choose 2000 instead,” said the question from China.
“Australia further indicated that the 15 per cent and 25 per cent conditional targets are based on the level of international action, especially from advanced economies … This ambition level is far below the requirement that Australia set out for advanced economies. Please clarify the fairness of such requirements.”
China – which with the US in November committed to ambitious climate targets – also asked that the Australian government define the term “international action”, given the fact its unambitious targets were conditional on the level of international action.
The US has introduced pollution limits into law, while China will this year launch its eight regional Emissions Trading Schemes, with plans to move to a national ETS in the next few years.
As part of the China-US agreement, America set a new target to cut greenhouse gas emissions at 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, up from 17 per cent. China said it would cap its carbon emissions by 2030.
The deal was signed at the APEC summit in China, just days before the G20 meeting in Brisbane where Australia has refused to have climate change on the official agenda. It also came as the Pope sent a letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a catholic, urging him to take action on climate change.
Now, as the Paris summit looms, with the expected outcome of a global deal, to combat climate change, the pressure on Abbott is intensifying.
Other questions submitted to the UN this week included:
China: “In the WM [with measures, or policies in place] scenario, the GHG emissions (incl. LULUCF) of Australia will reach 613 536ktCO2. This equals to an increase of 10.3% and is far beyond the target of 5% reduction. How would Australia achieve its QEWERT [target]?”
US: “Will the Emissions Reduction Fund constitute the primary measure implemented to replace the ETS, or are other significant Policies and Measures being contemplated?”
Brazil: “Considering the low level of ambition presented until now, as well as the historical data, does Australia intend to change its unconditional target in order to increase its level of ambition?
“After detailing the expansion of covered activities in the land sector: “This kind of action seems to make the level of ambition lower, not higher. How will this contribute to meeting Australia’s target?”
Switzerland: “What additional PaMs are taken into consideration by the Party in light of longer term requirements to substantially lower per capita GHG emissions as recommended by science and thus contribute to the collective achievement of the 2 degree warming limit?”
EU: “Could Australia provide information on the anticipated mitigation potential of the ERF to meet the two conditional more ambitious emission reduction targets?”
The questions come as Australia faces criticism over its decision not to send a minister or its chief climate negotiator to a meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Washington DC, starting this Sunday.
Erwin Jackson, the deputy CEO of the Climate Institute – which has previously recommended the Abbott government aim for 40 per cent emissions reduction target – said the world saw Australia’s climate commitments as “woefully inadequate”.
The institute’s CEO John Connor added that, with growing climate and clean energy policies elsewhere, including Chinese and South Korean emissions trading schemes, Australia was “rightly being questioned about why it appears to be sticking to the minimum target.
“Australia has also obviously significantly changed climate policies with the taxpayer funded Emissions Reduction Fund its primary policy tool. Other countries appear to be as mystified as domestic analysts about the scale and effectiveness of this policy and asking ‘what else have you got?’” Connor said.
“Other countries are already putting up significant reductions – the US off the same 2000 base year would be doing around 30 per cent by 2025,” he said.
“You’ve got Europe proposing 40 per cent off similar levels by 2030.”
“So the 5 per cent is not only inadequate in terms of comparison with other international action elsewhere, it’s irrelevant when it comes to the ambition that is needed beyond 2020.”
Federal Labor’s shadow environment minister, Mark Butler, has also seized on the international criticism.
“Tony Abbott is dishing out billions in tax payers’ money to big polluters, has ruined Australia’s renewable energy industry and removed Australia’s legal cap on carbon pollution,” he said in a media statement.
“As the biggest polluter per capita in the OECD, Australia has a responsibility to do its fair share to reduce its carbon pollution. But, it is also in our national interest to work with our biggest trading partners, China, the US and Europe for a global response to climate change.
“…Scientists warn of catastrophic consequences for scenarios above two degrees, yet Tony Abbott seems to have casually decided he knows better and dropped that long-held bipartisan commitment,” Butler said.
“Today’s reports are likely to be just the beginning of our partners’ and neighbours’ concerns about Australia’s climate action while Tony Abbott continues his determination to do nothing.”