Morrison’s infuriating climate pledge: We’ll only cheat if we need to

A long running source of criticism of the Australian government is the use of “carryover” Kyoto credits to meet the Paris climate agreement. Australia is projected to emit far more in 2030 than is allowed under its Paris climate targets.

That comes from the government’s own environment department, and so to erase that deep embarrassment, the government simply pretended that an “over-achievement” on the previous Kyoto climate agreement (only over-achieved because the target was so low) could be “carried over” in the Paris agreement. In the 2019 projections, the Department of Industry, Science, Environment and Resources (DISER) simply shaded in grey the space between the projections and the Paris target, colouring in the gap of failure like it was nothing at all:

This has been described in a variety of ways, but the most current way to understand it is that a health authority should ignore current COVID19 cases because it kept cases under a target back in May, and is ‘carrying over’ the over-performance on that previous target.

It doesn’t matter how well you did in the past: the goal is to reduce emissions (and COVID19 deaths) as much as possible, not to hit targets. This extremely brazen excuse for failure is an attack on the spirit of climate action. The Paris climate targets aren’t even sufficient, so to fail at a the weakest possible test ought to have been a moment of widespread condemnation. But most media blithely repeated the government’s transparent spin that those 2019 projections, which projected failure, actually projected success.

Since then, the government has embarked on a journey of, purportedly, “loosening” its dedication to using this trick, shifting to a position where they’ll only use them ‘if they have to’. To see this presented as a “shift” was infuriating: it’s like setting a pass mark of 50% for an exam, but promising that anyone who scores lower will get bumped up to 50% “if needed”. It defeats the point of the test. Saying that you’ll only cheat if you need to is logically indistinguishable from planning to cheat for sure.

A year on, we’re in pretty much the same position. Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a Business Council of Australia event (a group that has long supported the carry-over cheat, even in its newer ‘conditional’-but-still-cheating format) that “I am confident our policies will get this job done…I hope to have more to say about this before the end of the year as we update our emissions projections to take into account new policies and measures”. Will the 2020 projections hit the Paris line without need to fill in an empty area with a cheat? It actually isn’t clear: Morrison also reportedly said “I’ve … said we will only use that carryover … to the extent that it is required”.

So what’s going to happen when those projections are announced? Will there be some progress, with the remainder still shamelessly shaded grey as if it’s nothing at all? Will the government department projections get where they need to? And if they do, is that enough to protect us from the impacts of climate change?

Angus Taylor keeps relying on reliable renewables

As I wrote previously here, every time Australia’s projected emissions creep closer to the Paris target line, it’s due mostly to the growth of renewables, and specifically, due to state-based renewables targets.

The 2019 report included Victoria and Queensland’s renewable targets, and massively revised the proportions of renewable generation it forecasted. Between 2018 and 2019, that big step closer towards Paris (still not far enough) came from aggressively downgrading coal and gas generation forecasts, and significantly upgrading renewable power generation.

Most of the creep towards the Paris target comes from the Labor party’s 2009-era Renewable Energy Target, and state-based clean energy schemes. Though it barely got much attention, the government’s 2019 report was actually a significant acknowledgement of the massive power of renewables to push down emissions, and it was also a significant acknowledge of the fact that gas will significantly decline in coming years. In fact, the 2019 projections report predicts a 50% share for renewables by the year 2030: a percentage that was once the subject of aggressive ire from the government, before their own environment department predicted it as the default future for the grid.

If you split out all of the difference in emissions between the 2018 report and the 2019 report, you can see just how large a role downgrading coal and gas plays between the two years, with the change in future for those fuels forming the main chunk of emissions differences between the 2018 and 2019 reports:

Even in terms of coal alone, that downgrade is two entire Hazelwood coal power stations worth of output the government is assuming won’t be generated. So how much further could leaning on renewables go, in the next 2020 report? Will it be a repeat of the same tweaks to renewable energy forecasts that do the heavy lifting either ratcheting closer? Will it get the government to the Paris targets?

Can renewables take Australia to Paris?

Both the 2019 emissions projections, produced by the government, and the 2020 “Integrated system plan” (ISP), produced by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) contain numbers for the total emissions produced by the National Electricity Market (NEM), over the next decade. It’s an easy comparison point, then, to gauge roughly how bullish these 2019 renewable projections are, as I did here. The 2019 projections – even after that big ‘upgrade’ from 2018 – remain more pessimistic on renewables growth than every single scenario AEMO use in their ISP. That means there is still plenty of room to be more bullish on renewable growth, and therefore move closer to the 2030 Paris targets, in the upcoming 2020 projections report.

To illustrate this – by shifting from the 2020 projections to the ISP’s most bullish scenario for renewables in the NEM (and changing nothing else), Australia’s emissions projections could look something like this:

That’s about half of the emissions reductions required to reach the Paris target, purely by bullish assumptions for renewables in the NEM. Remember there are many other sectors in emissions, such as transport, buildings and aviation – the chart above doesn’t start at zero.

We can conduct a similar thought experiment by adding in the newly-announced ‘NSW Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap‘ (EIR, currently the subject of an ugly stoush led by owners of fossil fuel power stations in NSW). According to the report released with that plan, their intervention will shave off 210 megatonnes of NEM CO2-e by the year 2040, or about 10.5 a year, compared to their ‘worst case’ scenario (equivalent to AEMO ISP’s “slow change” scenario, by my reckoning). The results are similar but less dramatic: it takes the emissions pathway about one third of the way.

The accelerating progress of renewables, and the NSW plan, will probably carry at least half of the changes to Australia’s new projections. The only new federal policy announced between then and now has been the ‘technology roadmap’, which sets a range of cost targets for various technologies, each of which remain more expensive than fossil fuels. “Even if Morrison’s Tech Roadmap achieves its cost targets it won’t reduce emissions without a price on carbon”, wrote analyst Tristan Edis, on Twitter. The Australian government brazenly claims an annual reduction of 250 megatonnes of CO2-e per year for the tech roadmap, but this was never backed up or substantiated anywhere. It is unclear if these emissions reductions will be included, but either way, they will be an excellent test of the policy, which will be taken to COP26 in 2021 as a replacement for a net zero target.

Is any of this even enough?

No, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. The Paris climate agreement targets of reductions of 26 to 28% (of 2005 levels) by 2030 are measly (which makes failing to hit them all the more embarrassing). These initial targets were never meant to be permanent: nations are required to revise these percentages upwards as time goes on. But Australia has steadfastly refused. The 2019 projections put Australia on track to net zero by 2300, which is why the government’s overseas representatives are pointedly refusing to mention years when talking about net zero.

The latest on what Australia should be aiming for has been published by analytics firm Climate Action Tracker. Their target assigns Australia a carbon budget that aligns with a global ambition to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. That’s a 66% reduction in emissions by 2030.  CAT  write  “To achieve net zero by 2050 Australia’s 2030 GHG reduction target (including LULUCF) needs to be about 66% below 2005 levels. This is very close to the high end of the 2030 target range recommended by the Climate Change Authority in 2014 of 47-65% below 2005 emission levels”.

The atmospheric physics governing this problem do not care about what targets we set. The only metric that matters here is cumulative emissions released by our species around the world. If Australia decarbonised its entire electricity grid instantaneously, that still wouldn’t be enough to align the country with a 66% decrease by 2030. The electricity sector alone needs to be around 6 MTCO2-e of emissions in the year 2030 to align with 1.5C; AEMO’s most ambitious scenario has the NEM alone (not even the whole sector) at 482. 

It might seem herculean, but that is purely a side-effect from existing in a state of deep-set stagnation for decades. In fact, that same report details tens of thousands of new jobs that would be created by a transition of this scale and speed: a mobilisation of society towards a clear and extremely beneficial and immediately rewarding goal. “By building on its extraordinary renewable energy resource and high skills base, Australia can become a regional and international frontrunner in successfully transitioning its energy system to zero carbon. The result will be more sustainable employment, reduced levels of air pollution, water demand and new manufacturing value chains and export opportunities based on zero emissions energy carriers including renewable electricity offshore, green hydrogen and energy intensive products such as green steel”.

The 2020 projections report won’t grapple with these benefits. Rather, it will do two things. First, it will bank the emissions benefits of renewables as if they’re government achievements, despite that same government still aggressively opposing the growth of renewables. Second, it will fill in the blanks either with some extremely questionable assumptions about new technologies, questionable land use data, or the dark grey shading of the backup carry-over cheat. This, while the UK government leans heavily into the industrial, economic, social and community benefits of climate action, posturing as a major world power in a “green industrial revolution”.

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