The Morrison government has claimed success in meeting Australia’s targets under the Kyoto Protocol, which came to an end on Wednesday, despite three decades of relative inaction and stalling from successive federal governments.
The truth is – despite the protestations of energy and emissions reduction Angus Taylor – that the dial has barely moved on Australia’s emissions over the last 20 years, or even the last 30 years, and it now faces a huge challenge to meet its modest targets for the Paris agreement, which effectively comes into force from today.
“Australia has overachieved on our Kyoto-era commitments – this is something all Australians can be proud of,” Minister Taylor said. “The end of the Kyoto-era and start of Paris commitment is an important milestone in global action to reduce emissions.”
The Morrison government now estimates that Australia “beat” its Kyoto protocol targets by 430 million tonnes of emissions. But the graph below tells a different story to that of the government’s accounting acrobatics.
Australia had two targets under the Kyoto Protocol. The first allowed Australia to increase its emissions by 8 per cent by 1990 levels by 2012. The second target required Australia to cut its emissions by just 0.5 per cent by 2020, also based on 1990 levels.
Combined with very convenient rules that have allowed Australia to claim emissions reductions credits after it wound back substantial levels of land clearing in the early 1990s, Australia has effectively been able to grow its emissions while claiming that it was ‘meeting and beating’ its emission reduction targets.
In fact, if it were not for a significant amount of credit that Australia has claimed through a reduction in land-use emissions achieved in the early 1990s, Australia’s emissions would have increased by more than 30 per cent.
Australia’s fossil fuel use has continued to grow, and the fundamental transformation needed to ensure Australia remains competitive in a low-emissions global economy has not taken place.
While the growth of renewable energy uptake has helped to substantially drive down emissions in the electricity sector over the last ten years, electricity emissions are still almost 40 per cent higher than they were in 1990.
These improvements in Australia’s emissions have been countered by strong support from successive governments for the expansion of Australia’s fossil fuel industries.
Since 1990, due to a failure to put in place meaningful vehicle emissions standards, transport emissions have been allowed to increase by more than 63 per cent. Several analysts have suggested Australia runs the risk of becoming a dumping ground for high emissions vehicles.
Additionally, with the expansion of the Australian gas industry, fugitive emissions have rapidly increased, by more than 50 per cent, with most of this growth occurring since the election of the Abbott government in 2013.
Only two sectors, other than the land-use sector, have seen sustained reductions in emissions since 1990, the waste sector, where burning methane for energy production is financially viable, and the agricultural sector which has been slammed by years of drought. The latter is not something to celebrate.
It is not just the growth in Australia’s own greenhouse gas emissions that are concerning; Australia has emerged as a world leading supplier of fossil fuels to the rest of the world. Since 1990, Australia’s coal production has almost tripled, as Australia’s coal exports grew.
Australia’s natural gas production has also tripled, in just ten years, as Australia battles with Qatar for the position of world’s largest natural gas exporter.
It is in this context that other countries were shocked by the Morrison government’s ongoing attempts to carry over the “surplus emissions reductions” achieved under the Kyoto Protocol into the Paris Agreement.
At international climate change negotiations, Australia has been singled out by other countries for obstructing progress towards a stronger international framework for reducing emissions. Australia’s refusal to give up its surplus Kyoto units saw the last round of talks held in Madrid run several days overtime, with countries ultimately failing to reach a compromise position.
Given the surplus units have largely been generated through convenient accounting rules and very soft emission reduction targets, it is understandable why most of the rest of the world would not want these extract credits further undermining the strength of the Paris Agreement.
The Morrison government also left leaders of Pacific region neighbours in literal tears, after working to water-down climate change commitments in that emerged from the Pacific Island Leaders Forum held last year.
The lack of a meaningful long-term target has been repeatedly criticised by those that understand that there is an evitability around the shift to lower emissions energy sources.
Every Australian state and territory has adopted a zero net emissions target, consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Even the Australian Energy Council, which represents some of the largest incumbents in the Australian energy sector, has now endorsed a net zero emissions target by 2050.
As aptly described by Mike Cannon-Brookes earlier this week, without a commitment to the zero emissions goal, whatever policies the federal government puts in place will merely be a strategy without a destination, and will not allow Australia to successfully seize the ample opportunities available to it in a low emissions global economy.
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