Australia is counting on cooking the books to meet its climate targets


Alan Pears, RMIT University

A new OECD report has warned that Australia risks falling short of its 2030 emissions target unless it implements “a major effort to move to a low-carbon model”.

This view is consistent both with official government projections released late last year, and independent analysis of Australia’s emissions trajectory. Yet the government still insists we are on track, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison claiming as recently as November that the 2030 target will be reached “in a canter”.

What’s really going on? Does the government have any data or modelling to serve as a basis for Morrison’s confidence? And if so, why doesn’t it tell us?




Read more:
Australia is not on track to reach 2030 Paris target (but the potential is there)


The government’s emission projections report actually presents three scenarios: the “baseline” projection, which forecasts that emissions will rise by 3% by 2030, plus two other scenarios in which economic growth (and thus demand for fossil fuel consumption) is higher or lower than the baseline.

Range of scenarios for Australian emissions. Vertical axis represents greenhouse emissions measured in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Australian Emissions Projection Report, Figure 15

As the graph shows, all three of these scenarios would see Australia miss its 26-28% emissions reduction target by a wide margin. So why claim that our emissions are on track? The answer, as is so often the case with emissions targets, lies in the fine print.

The government is indeed poised to deliver on the “letter of the law” of its Paris commitment if two things play out. First, if it claims credit from overdelivering on Australia’s 2010 and 2020 commitments. And second, if the “low demand” scenario is the one that eventuates.

To reach our Paris target, the government estimates that we will need to reduce emissions by the equivalent of 697 million tonnes of carbon dioxide before 2030. It also calculates that the overdelivery on previous climate targets already represents a saving of 367Mt, and that low economic demand would save a further 571Mt. That adds up to 938Mt of emissions reductions, outperforming the target by 35% – a canter that would barely work up a sweat.

How would this scenario actually eventuate?

Let’s leave aside the technical question of whether it’s legitimate to count past performance towards future emissions targets, and focus for now on how the low-demand economic scenario might become reality.

The government’s report contains no discussion on the basis of the “low demand” scenario. But history suggests the annual baseline estimates of 2030 emissions have overestimated future emissions, with revisions downwards over time. For example, the 2018 projection for 2030 emissions is 28% lower than the 2012 projection for the same date (see figure 2 here).

In the real world, meanwhile, change is evident. Households and businesses are installing solar panels, not least to guard against high power bills. Businesses are signing power purchase agreements with renewable energy suppliers for much the same reason. State and local governments are pursuing increasingly ambitious clean energy and climate policies. Some energy-intensive industries may be driven offshore by our high gas prices.

New technology such as electric vehicles, ongoing improvement in energy efficiency, and emerging business models that break the power of big energy companies are transforming our economy. Investment in low-emission public transport infrastructure means its share of travel will increase. Farmers are cutting methane emissions by installing biogas production equipment.

Other studies also support the idea that Australia may indeed outperform its baseline emission scenario. ANU researchers recently predicted that “emissions in the electricity sector will decline by more than 26% in 2020-21, and will meet Australia’s entire Paris target of 26% reduction across all sectors of the economy (not just “electricity’s fair share”) in 2024-25”.

The government’s baseline electricity scenario uses the Australian Electricity Market Operator’s “neutral” scenario. But AEMO’s “weak” scenario would see 2030 demand in the National Electricity Market 18% lower than the neutral scenario (see figure 13 here).

Of course, many of these changes are happening in spite of the government’s policy settings, rather than because of them. Still, a win’s a win!

Emissions in context

But is hitting the target in purely technical terms really a win? In truth, it would fall far short of what is really necessary and responsible.

This is partly because of the plan to use prior credit for previous emissions targets to help get us across the line for 2030. This may be allowed under the international rules. But we would be leveraging extremely weak earlier commitments.

For example, Australia’s 2010 Kyoto Protocol target of an 8% increase in emissions was laughably weak in comparison with the developed world average target of a 5% cut. Our 2020 5% reduction target is also well below the aspirations of most other countries. What’s more, several major nations have declared that they will exclude past “overachievements” from their 2020 commitments.

The government has obfuscated the issue further by deliberately conflating our electricity emission reductions target, which will be easily met, with our overall economy-wide target, which presents a much tougher challenge.

There’s more. Australia’s Paris pledge to reduce emissions from 2005 levels by 26-28% between 2021 and 2030 is inconsistent with our global responsibilities and with climate science. The target was agreed to by the then prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015 as the minimum needed to look credible. But as the Climate Change Authority pointed out, a 2030 target of 40-60% below 2000 levels is more scientifically responsible.




Read more:
Australia’s 2030 climate target puts us in the race, but at the back


What is Australia’s “fair share” of the heavy lifting needed to stay below 2℃ of global warming, as agreed in Paris? If all humans were entitled to release the same greenhouse emissions by 2050, the average would be around 2 tonnes of CO₂ per person in 2050. In 2018, the average Australian was responsible for 21.5 tonnes.

There is plenty of heavy lifting still to do, and no point in pretending otherwise. The government must publish its data and modelling in full if its canter claims are to have any credibility.The Conversation

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Death by 775 cuts: how conservation law is failing the black-throated finch


April Reside, The University of Queensland and James Watson, The University of Queensland

Nearly 20 years ago, Australia adopted national environmental legislation that was celebrated widely as a balanced response to Australia’s threatened species crisis. In the same year, Queensland introduced its Vegetation Management Act. Together, these laws were meant to help prevent further extinctions.

But have they worked?

A famous finch

We investigated whether these laws had successfully protected the habitat of the endangered southern black-throated finch.

Our study found that, despite being nominally protected under federal environmental law, habitat for the species has continued to be cleared. Just three out of 775 development applications that potentially impacted the endangered southern black-throated finch were knocked back, according to our new research.




Read more:
Queensland coal mines will push threatened finch closer to extinction


Defining exactly what is habitat for the black-throated finch is tricky – we don’t have oodles of data on their habitat use over time, and the extent of their sightings has declined substantially. But Queensland has excellent vegetation mapping, and we recorded all of the vegetation types in which the southern black-throated finch has been seen.

We then mapped the extent of this habitat in three different time periods: historically; at the advent of the environmental laws (2000); and current day.

Clear danger

We found that most of the black-throated finch’s habitat had been cleared before 2000, mainly for agriculture before the mid-1970s. The black-throated finch hasn’t been reliably seen in New South Wales since 1994 and is listed there as “presumed extinct”.

We looked at all the development proposals since 2000 that were referred to the federal government due to their potential impact on threatened species. 775 of these development proposals overlapped areas of potential habitat for the black-throated finch.

Only one of these projects – a housing development near Townsville – was refused approval because it was deemed to have a “clearly unacceptable” impact to the black-throated finch.

In addition to these projects, over half a million hectares of the cleared habitat were not even assessed under federal environmental laws.

We estimate that the species remains in just 12% of its original range. Yet despite this, our study shows that the habitat clearing is still being approved within the little that is left.

So in theory, Australia’s and Queensland’s laws protect endangered species habitat. But in practice, a lot has been lost.

Critical habitat

The highest-profile development proposal to impinge on black-throated finch habitat loss is Adani’s Carmichael coalmine and rail project. Adani has been given approval to clear or otherwise impact more than 16,000 hectares of black-throated finch habitat, a third of which Adani deemed “critical habitat” But there are four other mines in the Galilee Basin that have approved the clearing of more than 29,000 ha in total of black-throated finch habitat.

But it’s not just the mines. In 2018 the federal government approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat for a housing estate and a sugar cane farm, both near Townsville. Several solar farms have also been proposed that would clear black-throated finch habitat around Townsville.

To further complicate matters, the black-throated finch’s habitat is also threatened with degradation by cattle grazing. The finch needs year-round access to certain grass seeds, so where grazing has removed the seeding part of the grasses, made the ground too hard, or caused the proliferation of introduced grasses such as buffel, the habitat suitability can decrease until it is no longer able to support black-throated finches.

So while they are losing their high-quality habitat to development, a lot of their habitat is being degraded elsewhere.

Heavy cattle grazing degrades habitat for the southern black-throated finch by removing edible grass seeds.
April Reside

The federal government has placed conditions on approved clearing of black-throated finch habitat, often including “offsetting” of any habitat loss. But securing one part of the black-throated finch’s habitat in exchange for losing another still means there is less habitat. This is particularly problematic when the lost habitat is of very high quality, as is the case for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine lease.

Little by little

Our research suggests there is a real danger of the black-throated finch suffering extinction by a thousand cuts – or perhaps 775 cuts, in this case. Each new development approval may have a relatively modest impact in isolation, but the cumulative effect can be devastating. This may explain why a stronger environmental response has not occurred so far.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


So how can we prevent the black-throated finch from going extinct? The finch is endangered because its habitat continues to be lost. So its recovery relies upon halting the ongoing loss of habitat – and ultimately, increasing it. Achieving this would require a political willingness to prioritise endangered species protection.

Australia has already lost hundreds of its unique plants and animals forever. In just the last few years, we have seen more mammals and reptiles disappear to extinction. If we continue on our current path, the southern black-throated finch could be among the next to go.The Conversation

April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.