Australia already has a net zero emissions target, only the Morrison government denies it

projections expert Angus Taylor Scott Morrison emissions auction - optimised
Credit: AAP/Lukas Coch

Federal Labor’s renewed commitment to a net zero emissions target has ignited a new front in climate wars that have plagued Australian politics for more than a decade – but it has shown that the Morrison government now stands alone in opposing progress towards the decarbonisation of the Australian economy.

The Morrison government has quickly reverted to its pre-election stance of challenging Labor to reveal costings on its zero emissions target and demands Labor produce a 30-year plan for the Australian economy. Meanwhile, the Coalition refuses to be challenged on the costs of failing to act.

But despite the Morrison government’s protestations, in a very tangible way, Australia has effectively already committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Every State and Territory government has committed to achieving that target. This includes Liberal governments in New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia, along with the Labor governments in the remaining five states and territories, many of which have enshrined the target in legislation.

The commitments extend to a significant number of local government authorities, including the major capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

It is these commitments that have been doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in terms of emissions reductions, which have at the very least stemmed the growth in emissions despite the lack of meaningful policy at a national level.

The Morrison government has frequently criticised the States and Territories for forging their own path on climate and energy policy, claiming that it was important that Australia had a consistent and coordinated policy that applied to Australia as a whole.

But it is now the Federal government that stands alone on climate policy and standing behind a series of inadequate emissions reduction targets.

A growing portion of Australia’s business community has joined the calls for a zero carbon target, including the Australian Climate Roundtable which counts the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers Federation and the Australian Industry Group and the Investor Group on Climate Change as members.

The Morrison government doesn’t just stand apart from Australian states, territories, cities and industry groups; it is increasingly being left behind by other national governments which are also adopting net zero targets.

This includes countries with similar economies and levels of development, including the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union.

Australia would be far from being a leader in the adoption of a net zero emissions target. In fact, with more than 70 countries already adopting the target by 2050, so Australia would be solidly middle of the pack.

When pushed in Question Time on Monday on whether the Morrison government would adopt a zero et emissions target ahead of the next round of international climate talks, to be held in Glasgow at the end of the year, federal emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor denied that such a commitment was necessitated by the Paris Agreement.

“That’s not what’s in the Paris Agreement. Article 4.1 is very clear. It is about global commitment to reach net zero in the second half of the century,” Taylor told Question Time on Monday. “Our commitment, the commitment that is more immediate, more pressing, and that we are focused on is achieving our 2030 target, a 26 per cent reduction.”

It’s a clear abdication of any responsibility on the part of the Morrison government to contribute to global efforts to reach net zero emissions and indicates that they do not consider that the goal to eliminate global emissions applies to Australia.

It shows that the Morrison government believes that it does not need to decarbonise the Australian economy and that it expects that other countries could do the extra legwork to make up for Australia’s ongoing emissions.

This was a position criticised by former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres, who facilitated the negotiation of the Paris Agreement in 2016.

“Australia needs all other countries to help in solving what is a global problem, not a national problem. If Australia doesn’t put a firm foot forward, it stands in no position to actually ask all other countries to also put their best foot forward,” Figueres in an interview with Triple J’s Hack program.

“Australia depends on the best efforts being put forward by all countries, but for that, Australia has to do the same.”

Crucially, what the Paris Agreement has committed all signatories to keep global warming to “well below” 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and to aim for limiting increases to just 1.5 degrees.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looked at what these targets imply in terms of emissions reductions in a special report into 1.5 degrees of warming published last year.

To achieve the 1.5 degree warming limit, the IPCC found that this necessitated the commitment to achieving net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C implies reaching net zero CO2 emissions globally around 2050, and concurrent deep reductions in emissions of non-CO2 forcers, particularly methane,” the IPCC said while indicating “high confidence” in the statement.

The IPCC went on to say that the economic transformation needed to limit warming to 2 degrees was substantially the same as that required to limit warming to just 1.5 degrees. The difference between the two targets was simply the pace at which that transformation could occur.

Warnings from scientists are becoming increasingly more urgent regarding the need to act to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Reacting to federal Labor’s recommitment to a net zero emissions target, Australian climate scientist Will Steffen said that aiming to reach that target by 2050 may not be fast enough to avoid harmful impacts of global warming.

“Even if the world met this target, and reduced emissions evenly over 30 years, cumulative global emissions would be about 170 gigatons of carbon by 2050. That is well over the 130 gigatons budget needed to limit warming to 1.5℃,” Steffen said in a piece in The Conversation.

Even at the ambitious targets specified in the Paris Agreement, the IPCC has warned there will be significant environmental impacts, including serious ramifications for Australia and the likely loss of the Great Barrier Reef.

“Coral reefs, for example, are projected to decline by a further 70–90% at 1.5°C  with larger losses (>99%) at 2°C,” the IPCC said.

“Climate models project robust differences in regional climate characteristics between present-day and global warming of 1.5°C, and between 1.5°C and 2°C. These differences include increases in: mean temperature in most land and ocean regions, hot extremes in most inhabited regions, heavy precipitation in several regions, and the probability of drought and precipitation deficits in some regions.”

The Morrison government is expected to present a ‘technology investment target‘ as part of its climate change commitments at the next round of international climate change talks and is not expected to announce any significant changes to its emissions reduction targets.

Michael Mazengarb is a Sydney-based reporter with RenewEconomy, writing on climate change, clean energy, electric vehicles and politics. Before joining RenewEconomy, Michael worked in climate and energy policy for more than a decade.

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