The landmark assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science, has found that human activities are unequivocally heating the planet and causing changes not seen for centuries and in some cases thousands of years.
In Australia, it found average temperatures above land had already increased by about 1.4C since 1910. Annual changes in temperature were now above what could be expected from natural variation in all regions across the continent.
A regional fact sheet released alongside the report said heatwaves and dangerous fire weather had increased, the bushfire season had become longer, and marine heatwaves were more common. Sea levels were rising faster in Australia than the global average and sandy shorelines were already retreating in many areas.
Australia’s minister for emissions reduction, Angus Taylor, released a statement in response to the IPCC report. Here, we assess his claims.
Taylor: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report on climate science reinforces the need for a coordinated, global effort to reduce emissions. The report, released today, provides an update on the latest physical science on climate change, including the rates, causes and likely future trajectories of global warming and other changes to the climate system.”
So far, so good.
Taylor: “Overcoming these challenges is a shared responsibility.”
Indeed it is.
Taylor: “Australia is committed to achieving net zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050, and to meeting and exceeding our 2030 commitment, as we already have with our 2020 targets.”
Committing to do something “preferably” isn’t a commitment. So Australia has no 2050 commitment, and the government has signalled it is unlikely to legislate a 2050 undertaking even if Scott Morrison’s language firms up before the Cop26 in Glasgow. Australia has a 2030 commitment: a cut of 26% to 28% on 2005 levels. The Climate Change Authority recommended a 45% to 60% cut based on a scientific assessment but that has been ignored. Official government projections released in December suggested Australia was not on track to meet its 2030 goal – that the country was likely to be at 22% below 2005 levels at the end of the decade. It is better in relative terms, though still not at the target and far short of what every scientific and diplomatic assessment says we should be doing.
Taylor: “Since 2018, Australia’s 2030 position has improved by 639m tonnes (equivalent to taking all of Australia’s 14.7m cars off the road for 15 years). The government will release updated forecasts ahead of Cop26 which are expected to show a further improvement.”
Under international greenhouse accounting rules, Australia’s national emissions are about 20% lower than in 2005 – a point the Morrison government regularly makes to argue it is doing more than others. One of the drivers of improvement: the Covid-19 pandemic suppressing emissions in 2020. Cheap solar and wind power are having some impact on emissions in electricity generation despite a lack of federal policy to support this shift, though coal still provides about two-thirds of our power.
But the overwhelming majority of the cut has come from a reduction in land-clearing – forest destruction – for agricultural, logging and development. Land-clearing continues, just not at the historically rapid rate before 2007. The reduction has mostly been due to changes at a state level. There has been no structural shift away from fossil fuels in transport, industry and mining.
Taylor: “These improvements are driven by Australian households and businesses adopting new energy technologies at record rates. Australia now has the most solar per person of any country in the world, the most wind and solar of any country outside of Europe, and the highest uptake of household solar in the world.”
Australians certainly have grabbed household solar and run with it. But the solar surge has happened despite the Coalition, not because of any coordinated government effort. In noting the “excellent news” of Australia’s record investment in solar and wind – 6.3 gigawatts in 2019 and 7GW in 2020, Taylor noted in May there were “challenges” ahead. “The speed and scale at which variable renewables are coming online is causing disruption on a level that we have never seen before,” he said. “Intermittent generation is causing increasing volatility in the wholesale electricity market. This is making the grid more difficult to manage, creating volatile prices, and undermining the retention of less flexible dispatchable capacity.” Also: just for the record, the Coalition tried to gut, and ultimately reduced, the renewable energy target after Tony Abbott won in 2013.
Taylor: “The government’s technology investment roadmap is positioning Australia to be a leader in the next generation of low-emissions technologies that will make net zero emissions practically achievable. The roadmap will drive $80bn of investment in low emissions technologies in Australia by 2030 and create 160,000 jobs. We are reducing emissions in a way that transforms industries through the power of technology, not through taxes that destroy them and the jobs and livelihoods they support and create.”
Technology will certainly help the cause of emissions reduction but technology does require a context. Clear and ambitious emissions reduction policies are a market signal driving necessary investments in technologies to deliver the goals. But the government’s approach through the roadmap has been to select the technologies it prefers. The basis for Taylor’s investment and employment claims are unclear.
And just for the record, no major party is proposing a carbon tax. The carbon policy Abbott repealed wasn’t a carbon tax either, despite all the apocalyptic screeching before the 2013 election. Just ask Abbott’s then chief of staff, Peta Credlin. “It wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know,” she said. “It was many other things in nomenclature terms but we made it a carbon tax. We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment. That was brutal retail politics and it took Abbott about six months to cut through and, when he cut through, Gillard was gone.” Warms the heart.
Taylor: “We are focused on getting low emissions energy sources to commercial parity with high-emitting alternatives to reduce emissions across all sectors of the economy while creating jobs and economic growth. This is a practical approach with global application.”
Getting to net zero emissions will require a portfolio of technologies. But it’s important to note that in many areas there are clean technologies already available and competitive with higher emitting sources. Australia’s energy market operator noted in July (not for the first time) that “renewable generation, complemented by firming capacity, remains the least-cost option to replace ageing coal-fired generation”.
Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning
Taylor: “Australia is driving increased global cooperation on low emissions technologies through new international partnerships with Germany, Japan, Singapore and the United Kingdom and constructive engagement in multilateral forms like Mission Innovation.”
Driving cooperation is a stretch, given that Australia’s lack of climate ambition is now an international talking point. But Australia has entered agreements with the countries Taylor mentions.
Taylor: “When it comes to emissions reduction, our record is one of delivery and achievement that Australians can be proud of. Our technology-led approach to reducing emissions will see Australia continue to playing its part in the global effort to combat climate change without compromising our economy or jobs.”
Let’s be very clear about the Coalition’s record of delivery. The Coalition repealed a carbon price that was driving emissions reduction. When it did that, it transferred the costs of abatement from polluters to taxpayers. The government tried to gut the renewable energy target. The lack of a clear investment signal has created significant problems in Australia’s electricity sector.
Much of the emissions reduction the Coalition now claims as an achievement happened when Labor was in government. When Labor proposed a vehicle emissions standard to reduce emissions from the transport sector at the last federal election, Scott Morrison and Taylor characterised that as a “war on the weekend”. When Malcolm Turnbull pursued a policy mechanism that would have reduced emissions in the electricity sector, he lost the prime ministership. Some members of the National party want the government (that means taxpayers) to invest in new coal power. The government is pursuing a taxpayer-funded gas peaking plant, and a “gas-fired recovery”, despite Australia’s energy market operator saying firmed renewables are a cheaper option. And some Nationals have warned Morrison against making a concrete pledge on net zero.