Australia beats Kyoto target, as US carbon emissions fall

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Australia meets first Kyoto climate target with 131m tonnes of carbon to spare. Will this lead to an increased 2020 target, or increased complacency?

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With April 2014 set to become notable as the first time in human history when levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide were higher than 400 parts per million for an entire month, it’s perhaps reassuring to learn that Australia has met its first internationally-agreed climate target …with nearly 131 million tonnes of emissions to spare – the equivalent, it has been noted, of shutting down three-quarters of Australia’s power stations for a year.

The latest quarterly Australian National Greenhouse Accounts reports – published last week by the Department of the Environment – show Australia’s net emissions averaged 103 per cent of 1990 levels over the Kyoto Protocol reporting period of 2008–2012, well below its target of limiting emissions to 108 per cent.

The estimated net surplus in 2012 was 36.9 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – more than had been predicted – and the total net surplus over the entire five-year first commitment period was 130.8 million tonnes.

This 131 million tonne carbon budget surplus is likely to be welcome news to the federal government, who are maintaining Australia’s unambitious 2020 emissions target of a 5 per cent reduction on 2000 levels by 2020, backed by even more unambitious policy.

But it could also lead to increased pressure to lift the 2020 target, in the lead up to September’s United Nations climate summit in New York and global negotiations in Paris next year.

In February, a report released by the Climate Change Authority (which Prime Minister Tony Abbott is seeking to dismantle) recommended Australia increase its minimum 2020 emissions reduction target from 5 to 15 per cent below 2000 levels.

The report – which predicted Australia would have 116 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions rights to carryover to its 2013-2020 Kyoto commitment – recommended any carbon budget surplus be used to strengthen the 2020 target to 19 per cent.

In a National Press Club address not long after the report’s release, CCA chair Bernie Fraser stressed that if policy makers accepted the science, they should act on it, adding that the Abbott government seemed instead to be “backing in business interests ahead of community interests.”

“The price on carbon is to go, the RET is to be reviewed and possibly headed for a downgrade… What has been made clear is that the scale of the (Abbott government’s) emissions reduction fund effort will be determined primarily by budget considerations and not by climate science,” Fraser said.

Fraser also called for an “informed and mature dialogue” on climate change and Australia’s contribution to restricting global warming to 2°C, in line with the actions of the rest of the world.

“China and the US and Europe and India… they are taking these matters seriously, and are putting in place systems to commission off old fossil fuel generating capacity,” he said.

In the US, meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency reported last week that national emissions had dropped by 3.4 per cent in 2012 – a decline that was driven mostly improvements vehicle fuel efficiency, a warmer winter and power plant operators switching from coal to natural gas.

As the LA Times reported last Tuesday, the EPA analysis shows the US released the equivalent of 6,526 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012, the lowest level since 1994.

However, a January report by the US DOE found that CO2 emissions in the nation’s energy sector rose about 2 per cent in 2013 after years of decline – an uptick the report attributed to power plants choosing to burn more coal to generate electricity.

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