In June 2022, the new Australian left-wing Labor federal government committed to a revised target of reducing emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. This was an increase on the previous commitment of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030 as part of the Paris Agreement. However, at face value, Australia’s current commitment is insufficient to exceed, let alone reach, the IPCC’s recent emissions reduction target of 50% reduction over pre-industrial emissions by 2030. Therefore, the country receives a score of D.
According to current projections, it is unlikely that Australia will reach even this insufficient target. Data from the Australian government demonstrates that greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 3% in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, emissions have been gradually increasing in recent years. Only through ‘additional measures’ is likely that a 40% reduction by 2030 is achieved, far less than that specified by the IPCC. These additional measures include the newly updated ‘Safeguard Mechanism’ requiring major emitters (representing 28% of national emissions) to reduce their scope one emission by 4.9% annually.
Figure 1: Projected emissions budget trajectory as specified by the Australian Government. Source Australia’s Emissions Projects 2022 Report.
Government projections indicate that most emissions reductions from 2020 to 2030 are expected to occur from the electricity sector due to a transition to renewables supported by federal, state, and territory policies. Government projections estimate a reduction in electricity emissions from 197 Mt CO2-e5 in 2005 to 79 Mt CO2-e5 in 2030 and 66 Mt CO2-e5 in 2035. Analysis from the International Energy Agency (Australia 2023 Energy Policy Review) notes that the power sector accounted for almost half of Australia’s emissions reductions between 2005 and 2021. Conversely, transport emissions in 2030 are projected to be similar to pre-pandemic levels, while agricultural emissions will slightly increase as post-drought restocking of the cattle herd progresses.
Figure 2: Australian Government emissions projections. Source: 2022 Australian Government Emissions Projections Report.
However, there are numerous problems with these projections. First, Australia has recently supported the growth of the export gas industry. The proposed Scarborough-Pluto extension to the offshore gas field in WA is alone projected to add over 1.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases over its lifetime, three times Australia’s current annual emissions. Second, while renewable energy is growing, the push for a ‘gas-fired’ pandemic recovery has led to proposals to dramatically increase new gas field development and double the uptake of gas alongside a misplaced belief in the false promise of carbon capture within the electricity sector. Third, the current federal government strongly supports the ongoing development of new coal and gas projects, refusing to ban these in negotiations on developing the Safeguard Mechanism. Fourth, the lack of data on fugitive emissions, likely overstating of reductions achieved through land clearing, and comprehensive mandatory data sharing limits the accuracy of emission data on which projections are based.
However, there are a number of recently developed policies that could enhance Australia’s ability to meet targets. For example, while the Safeguard mechanism did not ban new coal or gas, it emitted by industries covered by the scheme. Calculations of the impact of this mechanism suggest that the proposed Scarborough-Browse off-shore gas development may face up to AU $63 billion in cumulative liability under this scheme.
Furthermore, states and territories play a strong role in determining the country’s future emissions. For example, Victoria, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, and Tasmania have legislated net-zero targets. As a result, the largest emissions reductions between 2005 and 2020 were achieved by Tasmania (127.8% decline, with net 2020 emissions of -3.7 Mt CO2-e) due to reductions in native forest harvesting, and South Australia (31.1% decline, with net 2020 emissions of 25.4 Mt CO2-e). Conversely, Western Australia increased emissions between 2005 and 2020 by 4.5% (net 2020 emissions of 82.1 Mt CO2-e) due to growth in mining, population, and vehicle fleets, while the Northern Territory increased emissions by 36.2% (net 2020 emissions of 17.3 Mt CO2-e) due to growth in mining.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Australia Country Manager Robyn Gulliver.
Table 1: Australian state and territory emissions reduction targets (2005 base year). Source: International Energy Agency Australia 2023 Energy Policy Review, p. 43
In contrast, the private sector has so far done little to reduce carbon emissions. While around half of Australia’s biggest listed companies have net-zero plans, many of these exclude emissions outside of their operations (e.g., scope three emissions), and most promise action that is far too slow to meet IPCC targets. In contrast, substantial and expansive policy progress has been made with the introduction of legislation forcing emissions reductions changes by major polluters (e.g., the Safeguard Mechanism), uptake of clean transport (e.g., the recent Electric Vehicle Strategy and proposed Fuel Efficiency Standard) and renewable share within the energy sector (e.g., 82% target by 2030). However, the country now needs major polluters to step up to the plate and dramatically increase their emissions reductions: only when the fossil fuel industry accepts its responsibility to avoid catastrophic climate disruption will Australia have any hope of meeting the IPCC 2030 goal.