Timing never really seems to work out for Australia’s government. This Saturday, there will be a relatively big “Climate Ambition Summit”, held on the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate agreement. It’s hosted by UK Prime minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and governments will be “invited to present more ambitious and high-quality climate plans, as well as COVID recovery plans, new finance commitments and measures to limit global warming to 1.5C”.
On Monday, Germanwatch’s ‘Climate Change Performance Index’ (CCPI) released a new report, placing Australia a cool 54th out of 61 (with the first three spots left blank due to no country fitting the bill, and the US coming dead last). Australia came 52nd for greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy (though Australia has a high install rate for renewables, it’s insufficient for 2030 1.5C targets), 51st in energy use and 60th (second last, behind the US) in the climate policy rankings (The Australian Conservation Foundation, Doctors for the Environment Australia and the Australia Institute were the contributors to the report, for Australia).
There’s a diplomatic squabble happening behind the scenes as Australia remains unconfirmed as a speaker for the Saturday event, with speaking slots only intended for countries ramping up their ambition. Morrison plans to use the event to “correct mistruths”, which will presumably mean simply repeating existing deceptions. These include defending their record by stating that Australia has reduced emissions by somewhere between 14 to 16% since 2005. Of course, this obscure the fact that under Labor’s tenure, emissions changed about 13 percentage points, while under the LNP’s tenure, they shifted about 3.
It’s a very stark graphic. Between the election of Tony Abbott and December 2019, emissions fell around four MTCO2-e. Between January and June 2020, they fell eight MTCO2-e. That drop won’t last, but to be outshone in the emissions reductions game by a disease is, to put it mildly, a bad look. Angus Taylor used the extra 3% drop from COVID19 in his announcement, claiming 16.6% between the year to June 2005 and the year to June 2020, but refused to clarify what proportions of that percentage were due to the pandemic when pressed by a journalist (far more from COVID19 than during the LNP years, as you can see above).
Taylor also claimed in that interview that emissions were coming down “around one per cent a year”. It doesn’t really take much of a mathematical genius to recognise that a ~3% drop in the six years of the coalition’s government (pre-pandemic) doesn’t gel with that claim. There’s a lot of sneakiness going on with these numbers, and this week, it’s about to get worse.
The upcoming projections
The CCPI’s ranking report came just after Australia’s PM Scott Morrison announced that he is no longer planning to hit the country’s 2030 Paris agreement targets by ‘carrying over’ the overperformance on previous, weak Kyoto targets and applying them to this current climate agreement; a move which was roundly criticised as, essentially, cheating. Morrison was gently praised for this, but it’s very clear that the announcement is no sign of real progress.
As I wrote last week on RenewEconomy, it is very likely that the next set of projections to be published by Australia’s Department of Industry, Science, Environment and Resources (DISER) will show that Australia is “on track” to hit its Paris targets. But that shift from 2019’s miss to 2020’s hit could easily come from simply adjusting to more realistic forecasts of renewable energy growth, adjusting economic growth estimates to incorporate the pandemic, the drop in transport emissions from the pandemic, or global improvements in the price competitiveness of renewables, EVs and battery storage:
A snippet from 2019 emissions projections report Aus gov: Paris target could be nearly hit, or *exceeded*, if (a) economic growth slows (eg, a pandemic) or (b) renewable, EV and battery tech gets cheaper (almost certain)
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) December 7, 2020
It’s fair to predict that without the impacts of the pandemic’s slowdown on growth, fossil fuel exports and transport, alongside the global and domestic expansion of renewables, the Morrison government would be in roughly the same spot as they were this time last year – furiously defending the carryover cheat and simply repeating the mantra of ‘meet and beat’ a hundred times over to quash the awkward shamelessness of the whole exercise.
This has become the defining characteristic of the Morrison government: the things celebrated as the fruits of their own efforts tend to be things they either had nothing to do with causing, or actively opposed. Of course, Paris agreements targets aren’t meant to be static; they’re meant to update as time passes. Australia’s Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, seems to see this as essentially unthinkable. But Australia remains very notably far from where it needs to be, to align with a global effort to hit its Paris climate agreement targets.
The UK’s own problems
It’s a bad situation, but the UK isn’t perfect, either. Despite coming a neat second in the CCPI climate ranking above, the country remains badly off course to hit both net zero by 2050 and its near-term climate targets. This was outlined nicely in a recent research note from the UK firm Aurora Energy Research (the same organisation that modelled NSW’ ‘Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap’, and was the target of Angus Taylor’s modelling-related ire). Even including the recently-announced ‘ten point’ plan (featuring the no-ICE-cars-by-2030 target), the UK hasn’t pushed down on the projected emissions deep enough to be on track to hit either net zero by 2050, or either of its two 5-year carbon budgets
There are a few reasons for this, but the core story here is that Boris Johnson is relying on a surge of private investment, signalled by government intent, to be the cavalry to the great ride to net zero by 2050. It actually isn’t too dissimilar to Angus Taylor’s Technology Roadmap, which establishes a few technology-specific “Stretch targets”, and then expects private investment to the great bulk of the heavy lifting. No matter what the involvement of gas, nuclear and CCS in the UK’s energy future, Aurora highlight the expansion of renewables will need to be massive; shifting from 100 GW of total grid capacity to between 182 and 207, most of which is wind and solar in all scenarios. How to get there? Stronger government intervention.
“A large buildout of renewables by 2035 will dampen wholesale powers prices. Relative to a pathway to meeting Net Zero in 2050, wholesale power price could be 30% lower if Net Zero was to be met in 2035”, wrote Aurora. “A low price environment will necessitate significant Government support for deploying low carbon technologies, some of which are in their nascent stage of development”. Johnson’s ambition is relatively clear, but the shape of action forming underneath it is, so far, shying away from interventionism in a dangerous parallel to Australia’s current tactic, which is to step back, let others do the changing, and then take the credit. At some point, Morrison and his party room will realise you can set a net zero by 2050 target without implementing policies that, in the short term, realise that change, while still receiving hearty back-pats and congratulations.
The Tories are leading the world when it comes to tackling climate change not in spite of being true conservatives but because they are true conservatives https://t.co/3Lq6LuSPuD
— Matt Kean MP (@Matt_KeanMP) December 5, 2020
‘Leading the world’ is not a particularly meaningful metric when no country in the world is currently doing enough to align with a 1.5°C climate target – hence those three empty spots in CCPI’s report. Though a major shift in the world’s climate ambitions is meaningful, as is a major shift in the technological capabilities to reach these goals, they all remain insufficient. Australia may stand out as particularly bad at this weekend’s climate summit, but no one will be free from climate guilt at the event – not even the superstar climate activist Boris Johnson.