We can’t bank our future on Malcolm Turnbull’s climate change magic pudding

Dec 5, 2016

Malcolm Turnbull’s climate change record is the equivalent of an athlete running 7km instead of 42km and claiming to be the greatest marathon runner of all time. Not only is he taking shortcuts, he’s setting future generations up for a massive clean-up bill.

This is because Australia is banking its environmental and fiscal future on a climate change magic pudding.

In 2008, departmental projections estimated that we would have to cut cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases by 1,335 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2) between 2013 and 2020. This has been successively revised down to 236Mt. This makes the government’s task of cutting emissions so much easier.

According to the environment department, the projections have fallen because of lower electricity demand, the drought, lower manufacturing output due to factory closures and weaker than expected coal prices leading to lower production. In short, our underperforming economy has meant we’re producing fewer emissions than we expected.

But the government isn’t just content with this shortcut. Enter the use of accounting tricks to make their race even shorter.

How? Land clearing restrictions established by Peter Beattie led to less deforestation and consequently lower emissions for Australia between 2008 and 2012 (the first Kyoto period) than was required under the Kyoto Treaty.

Under the treaty, the gap between the Kyoto requirement and actual emissions were then turned into “carryover permits” that could count towards the 2013-2020 period. This means that Australia is able to transfer 116Mt of avoided emissions, essentially credits, to the 2020 target.

Taking all this into account means that the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) only needs to cut emissions by 92Mt. Not much of a marathon now.

But even this is too much of an effort to do properly. The ERF is wasting money and claiming credits on projects that are not additional. That is, paying for projects that were already going to happen without assistance. Paying farmers to not cut down trees they have already committed to retain under state laws, for example.

We will meet our 2020 target, but because we use carryover permits and other tactics, our actual emissions in 2020 will be much higher than our emissions target. The government’s target implies that in 2020 Australia’s emissions will be 5% below 2000 levels.

Instead Australia’s emissions will be 3% above 2000 levels, around 577Mt. In other words, because the government has taken shortcuts to meet the 2020 target, Australia is locked into a more polluting economic structure than implied by the minus 5% target. This in turn will make reaching the 2030 targets so much harder.

The Government’s minimum 2030 emissions reduction target is minus 26% on 2000 levels. According to Government figures, this requires the Australia to cut its emissions over the decade 2020 to 2030 by 2,215Mt.

Yet the government’s own “Tracking to 2020” paper only claims it can secure 900Mt of abatement in this period. And this is through policies that are either non-existent or contain heroic assumptions including the post-2020 Emissions Reduction Fund (300Mt) and the lightweight National Energy Productivity Plan.

The ERF is already running out of steam: 83% of the ERF funding is committed, participation by industry is dropping and the cost of the policy is rising. It is unclear how much additional funding has been allocated to secure the 300Mt of abatement that the government claims the ERF will deliver post-2020.

Most ridiculous is that 200Mt of the 900Mt of abatement is predicted to come from a magic pudding of “technology improvements and other sources of abatement”.

If this 900Mt of abatement is somehow achieved – and it is a big if – this leaves a gap of 1,315Mt of abatement that must be found to reach the minus 26% target.

Even if a ramped-up ERF could find enough projects to bridge this gap, it would require massive funding. At the ERF average price of $11.83, and without even allowing for inflation, that is a fiscal cost of $15.6bn.

The government has just released the terms of reference for a review of its climate change policies to ensure that Australia can achieve the 2030 target in an effective manner. This gives the government an opportunity to reverse the disastrous course they have set Australia on.

If no change occurs and current trends continue, the government will have locked in an economic structure for 2020 that is more polluting than in the past with no realistic plan to reduce it.

This will not just make tackling climate change much harder, it’s setting Australia up to miss out on the huge economic opportunities that real action to modernise our economy represents. Turnbull may win his 7km marathon, but Australia will be in no position to ever race again.

This opinion piece was originally published in Guardian Australia, on 5 October 2016.

© 2013 Pat Conroy | Disclaimer