Is Australia really delivering on its climate change promises?

The climate wars that have been going on in Australian politics for over a decade are frustrating and tragic, not only because of Australia’s vulnerability to climate change but because Australia holds such promise with renewable energy. Parties on all sides of the political spectrum have engaged in flawed decision making and wasted opportunities in pursuit of their short-term political interests.

On 22 April 2021, Scott Morrison participated in the Leaders Summit for Climate, hosted by US President Joe Biden. “Australia is on the pathway to net zero.” These were the words of Morrison at the summit. The idea of Australia positioning itself at the forefront of climate change is an exciting one — but how much of what Scott Morrison said is true?

Is Australia really delivering — or really in line to deliver — on its climate change promises?

“Australia has a strong track record of setting, achieving, and exceeding our commitments to responsibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and playing our part to keep the 1.5 degrees within reach”. — Scott Morrison

Fact check: The Climate Targets Panel, an independent group of Australia’s most senior climate scientists and policymakers, found that Australia’s current target would need to be increased to 50 per cent if Australia wanted to be consistent with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming to well below 2C. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology recently gave evidence to the Australian Parliament that Australia is on track for 4.4C of warming this century, the report went on to say: “This would be catastrophic for our society, health, economy and environment.”

Emissions have only slightly dipped in the past seven years and official government projections released in December 2020 forecast only a 6.8% fall in emissions under current policies over the next decade.

“We have reduced our emissions by 19 per cent on 2019- on 2005 levels I should say, more than most other similar economies — and by 36% when you exclude exports.”. — Scott Morrison

Fact check: Aside from the fact that Australia is a major fossil exporter, excluding exports is an acceptable accounting method for calculating emissions — as long as you include emissions from imports. It’s called the ‘consumption emissions method’. It is recognised by the UN as a carbon accounting method. The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources defines Consumption Accounting:

“This accounting approach excludes emissions generated during the production of exports, but also includes overseas emissions generated during production of the products that are imported for domestic consumption.”

But here’s the thing. Using this accounting method would bring the correct figure to 23% not 36% as Morrison states. Morrison excluded export emissions but did not add in import emissions. He has ignored the recommendations of the UN, the DISER and used his own emissions accounting method. Under the Morrison accounting method, for all Australian trade flows, 100% of the emissions responsibility goes to another country. This is deceptive, it does not exist in UN emissions accounting recommendations and is not used by other countries.

“We have met and exceeded our 2020 Kyoto commitments”. — Scott Morrison

Fact check: Morrison was quick to hail Australia’s success in smashing the Kyoto emissions targets. But this record is nothing to boast about. During the Kyoto agreement negotiations, Australia demanded a lenient target that meant emissions in 2012 could be 8% more than they were in 1990. Australia said it would only sign up if its 1990 emissions baseline (the year future reductions would be measured against) included emissions produced from clearing forests.

Here’s the catch. Australia’s emissions from forest clearing in 1990 were substantial, totalling about a quarter of total emissions. Forest clearing in Australia plummeted after 1990, when Queensland enacted new land clearing laws. So, by including deforestation emissions in Australia’s baseline meant we didn’t need to do anything substantial in order to meet the targets. In fact, the rule effectively rewarded Australia for its mass deforestation.

During the Kyoto second commitment negotiations in 2010, Australia agreed to an underwhelming 5% decrease in emissions between 2013 and 2020 and insisted on using the deforestation clause again, despite international pressure to drop it. This concession became known as the “Australia clause”. It triggered international condemnation, with environmental spokespeople labelling it “wrong and immoral”.

“In Australia our journey to net zero is being led by world class pioneering Australian companies like Fortescue, led by Dr Andrew Forrest, Visy, BHP, Rio Tinto, AGL and so many more of all sizes.” — Scott Morrison

Fact check: The political aspect is never far away from any discussion on climate change. Some of Australia’s biggest corporations are also the biggest climate polluters and have a vested interest in slowing down climate action. Increased climate focus leads to economic concerns and accusations of stifling domestic industry, and Morrison’s government is well aware of what this could mean politically. It seemed Morrison was speaking directly to these corporations in his speech as he listed out their names as world class pioneers. These corporations are responsible for 16% of total emissions.

“We are investing around $20 billion to achieve ambitious goals that will bring the cost of clean hydrogen…to commercial parity”. — Scott Morrison

Fact check: The Government views hydrogen as a critical future fuel and potential export industry, but here’s the catch, hydrogen isn’t always clean to produce. Making hydrogen fuel requires energy. This energy can be provided by fossil fuels or renewables. In 2020, Australia sourced over 72% of electricity from fossil fuels and only 27% from renewables. The government has not committed to a plan for phasing out fossil fuels.

There are two main types of hydrogen “Green” and “Blue”. Green hydrogen is made using renewable energy. Blue hydrogen is made using any type of fossil fuel paired with a carbon capture and storage (CCS) system. The Morrison government hasn’t made it clear whether they’re investing in blue or green hydrogen. They’ve just said, “clean hydrogen”.

As for carbon capture and storage, Australia’s largest CCS system is attached to Chevron’s Gorgon gas facility. It has been riddled with problems. Millions of tonnes of carbon emissions leaked from the Gorgon plant in 2018–19. Chevron is supposed to be reducing emissions by storing carbon, but according to Chevron’s report to the Government (obtained under the freedom of information request- 1, 2, 3, 4 ) the carbon capture facility is broken (as reported by Chevron in January). Furthermore, the Government gave Chevron $60 million for the carbon capture scheme.

Electric vehicles have an important role to play in reducing emissions. However, the Government has no intention of making it easier for Australians to purchase electric vehicles. In fact, Morrison actively campaigned against electric vehicles in the 2019 elections.

We are also providing $1.5 billion in practical climate finance focusing on our blue Pacific family partners in our region. — Scott Morrison

Fact check: The $1.5 billion Morrison refers to comes from the existing foreign aid budget. Australia ended its funding to the UN’s Green Climate Fund in 2018. The Fund was a basis for the Paris Climate Accord, with wealthier countries agreeing to contribute to projects that help developing nations deal with climate change and lower their greenhouse gas emissions. Referring to the Green climate Fund, Morrison said:

“nor are we bound to go and tip money into that big climate fund. We’re not going to do that either. I’m not going to spend money on global climate conferences and all that nonsense.”

Australia’s opportunity

Australia is vulnerable to climate change. Without strong action, droughts and bushfires will become more frequent and intense.

As with any challenge, at the heart there is always opportunity. In Australia’s case the opportunity is huge. There is no other country in the world with as much renewable energy potential as Australia. Australia has the highest solar radiation per square meter of any continent. Wind, waves, open space. Australia has technical know-how, including the invention of the modern solar cell. Australia has the potential to produce enough clean and affordable energy to power the whole nation and to sell to the world.

A transition to a green economy could position Australia as the major clean energy generator and power of large parts of the world and put us on a path for employment growth, a speedy transition to low emissions technologies, lower electricity prices, investment certainty and trade certainty.

It’s time to act.

The science of climate change is not a political ideology. It presents facts that are measurable and verifiable. Every time the Prime Minister and every Prime Minister before him has spoken about climate change, their words ring out. Notwithstanding the enormous challenges, a real leader brings people together, educates, leads and speaks truthfully. Right now, in 2021, there is hope; there is time to make a change. The time to act is now.