The most recent release of Australia’s quarterly greenhouse gas emissions data is an important one. It covers the period up to the end of March 2021, and the next batch of data won’t be released until the very end of November 2020. That means this is the last batch of climate data to be released before the 26th ‘conference of parties’ (COP26) climate meeting to be held in Glasgow in early November.
That also means it’s time to take stock at the track record Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, will be taking to that momentous meeting – a big, five-year update on climate ambition that was originally due to be held last year but postponed due to the Covid19 pandemic.
That now six-year stretch covers most of the term of the current Liberal-National government, and all of the term of Morrison’s tenure as Prime Minister, now officially Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister since John Howard.
It covers an unprecedented whole-state blackout in South Australia, one that redefined energy politics. It covers catastrophic bushfires and massive climate protest mobilisations across Australia. It covers a once-in-a-century pandemic; one which Morrison responded to by immediately setting up a fossil fuel subsidy organisation. Most recently, it covers the government trying to funnel public subsidies into new gas-fired power stations and lifespan extensions for ailing coal plants under the guise of ‘reliability‘.
The total failure to address the systemic heart of Australia’s fossil fuel problem over the past six years since the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 is reflected perfectly in Australia’s greenhouse gas data. And it’s this legacy of total failure Morrison will be taking to COP26 in a few months’ time.
Technology – that doesn’t work
The Morrison government’s mantra of ‘technology not taxes’ packs a stunning number of embarrassing contradictions into a single three-word phrase. The government is not particularly fond of any technology that actually reduces emissions, and they absolutely love taxes when the cash flows from citizens and into the pockets of the fossil fuel industry.
A perfect illustration of this principle is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). A device that captures carbon dioxide during the combustion process sounds like it might work, but never actually seems to work, no matter how high the mountain of taxpayer funded cash poured into supporting the technology.
Australia is home to the Gorgon CCS plant, one of the world’s biggest. It’s attached to a massive facility that extracts and processes fossil gas, and it’s owned by US fossil fuel giant Chevron. Delayed for nearly four years since its original designated start-up date, the project is meant to capture four million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. But data sourced from Pete Milne, who writes the Boiling Cold newsletter, shows how badly the plant has fallen short of that target:
As RenewEconomy’s Michael Mazengarb reported earlier this week, the consequences are significant. Offshore fields containing fossil gas mixed with carbon dioxide cause incredible climate harm when released during the extraction process. This is known as ‘fugitive emissions’, and the Gorgon plant is meant to separate out the CO2 and inject it deep underground at the nearby Barrow Island. But a litany of serious technological failures at Gorgon mean the plant is still operating at only a tiny fraction of its installed capacity.
Though the government’s greenhouse update skips nervously around this, we can see this clearly when we compare the ‘avoided emissions’ through the use of CCS at Gorgon to the total volume of ‘unavoided’ fugitive emissions from coal and gas mining across Australia, in the latest update:
Net zero by never
The IPCC report released a few weeks ago highlighted an important and extremely significant point. The planet doesn’t stop heating up until we as a species stop placing addition greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s where the ‘net zero’ you’ve heard about comes from: mostly emissions stop, but for the few we can’t avoid we figure out a way to remove them from the atmosphere.
There’s an excruciatingly silly parlour game playing out between factions within the Coalition government about the mountain of caveats, exceptions, tricks and clauses that should come with a ‘net zero’ target for Australia, if it takes one to COP26. But it takes next to no time to look at the past six years of emissions data to see if the government has been reducing emissions aligned with a trajectory that treats this target as if it’s real. It has not.
For the six years since Paris, Australia has failed to be on track to meet both its badly insufficient original targets that were set back then, the 26-28%, but more importantly, it has failed to align with the heavy emissions reductions required before 2030 if a net zero by 2050 (the average global year for net zero set out in the Paris agreement, though Australia should really be sooner than this).
Six years of stagnating emissions. Though renewable energy grew during this time, those reductions were more than offset by growing emissions from the transport sector and most significantly, the growing domestic emissions of Australia’s fossil fuel export industries (coal and gas).
Even the ‘positive’ side of this tug-of-war – renewable energy – is beginning to suffer setbacks. As RenewEconomy’s Giles Parkinson wrote, the famously anti-renewable energy minister Angus Taylor is finally getting his way. A big scheme to funnel cash to coal plants to protect them from the headwinds of climate action is being pushed by the government, and has every chance of succeeding. Dubbed (jokingly but very accurately) ‘coalkeeper’, it’ll ensure that the exit of coal from Australia’s power grids will be badly delayed.
By November, a significant proportion of Australia’s population will be vaccinated, and that means transport emissions will come roaring back to pre-pandemic levels. The government will be dedicating its full effort to expanding the fossil fuel industry. And long after the pandemic fades from memory, the damage caused by the massive quantity of emissions the government is responsible for will continue to cause harm.
That’s a nasty, terrible and shocking legacy to be bringing to COP26. They’ll try and coat it in layers of greenwashing, and to some degree, that marketing exercise will work. But the laws of physics can’t be tricked. Australia’s government has failed – very badly and with terrible consequences – over the years since the Paris climate agreement.