Australia stalls on emissions target update as UN urges deeper cuts

Angus Taylor responds to question from Labor saying Australia is not due to update target until 2025

The Australian government has told parliament it does not intend to increase its climate change commitment before the next major international meeting, and is not due to set a new target until 2025.

The statement was made after the British host of the meeting, Boris Johnson, and United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, urged all countries to lift their targets to include net zero emissions by 2050, noting 121 nations had already done so.

Labor’s Pat Conroy asked Angus Taylor, the energy and emissions reduction minister, in February whether Australia was due under the Paris agreement to submit a new or updated commitment this year and, if not, when it was expected.

In a written response on May 12, Taylor said the government planned to “recommunicate” its current commitment – known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC) – before a UN climate conference in Glasgow, which has been postponed until next year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Taylor said Australia’s next commitment, including a target for 2035 or 2040, was not due until 2025.

Analyses have found Australia’s commitment – a 26% to 28% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels – is not enough to play its part in meeting the goals of the Paris agreement. The government received advice in 2015 from the Climate Change Authority that its fair share under a meaningful global deal over that time would be a 45% to 63% cut.

Mark Butler, Labor’s climate change and energy spokesman, said the answer showed the Morrison government was not serious about the Paris agreement or protecting Australians from the dangerous impacts of climate change.

“Their climate policy is still centred around funnelling billions of taxpayers dollars to big polluters and they are still arguing for the construction of a new coal-fired power station,” he said.

“If they were serious about action on climate change, they would take the advice of scientists, the international community, experts, industry and business, who have called for a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Having a target would frame policy decisions and give investors confidence.”

In a statement on Monday night, a spokesman for Taylor said the government was working on its “re-communication” of its current commitment. “This will outline the real and meaningful action Australia is taking to reduce emissions. It won’t change our 2030 target, which is set,” he said.

The spokesman said to date only four countries had formally submitted a net zero emissions target to the UN.

The government has promised a long-term emissions reduction strategy, which it says will be released before the Glasgow meeting and build on a technology investment roadmap. While the prime minister, Scott Morrison, last year agreed at the Pacific Island Forum that Australia’s plans may include commitments and strategies to reach net zero by 2050, Taylor now says that is not the government’s policy.

In response to other questions from Labor, Taylor conceded Australia was expected to emit more between 2021 and 2030 than would be expected to meet its Paris target. He said it was estimated the country would emit 5,169m tonnes of carbon dioxide over that time, when under the target it could emit only between 4,710m and 4,777m tonnes.

He said this did not take into account Australia’s “overachievement against previous targets” – a reference to the government’s controversial plan to count carbon credits from a different climate agreement against its Paris goal – or cuts from policies still being developed, including a promised electric vehicle strategy.

Labor has supports net zero emissions for Australia by 2050, but said it would review its mid-term target – which had been a 45% cut by 2030 – after losing last year’s election.

What the Paris deal says

The Paris agreement says countries will put forward a commitment every five years. A related agreement asks countries that initially set targets for 2025 to submit a new one by 2020, and those that used a 2030 timeframe to “communicate or update” their commitment by 2020.

The agreement also “notes with concern” that existing commitments for 2025 and 2030 are not enough to limit average global heating to less than 2C, a headline goal of the Paris agreement, and that much deeper cuts will be needed to avoid that mark. It commits countries to act in accordance with “best available science”.

The meeting asked the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to report on what would be needed to limit heating to 1.5C. The IPCC found it demanded a global 45% cut between 2010 and 2030, and carbon dioxide emissions to reach net zero by about 2050.

Despite this, Taylor and other government MPs have described the Paris agreement as requiring net zero emissions “in the second half of the century”.

Bill Hare, head of science and policy thinktank Climate Analytics and a long-term adviser to developing countries at UN climate negotiations, said he believed there was a legal obligation on all countries to increase their ambition.

He said the term “recommunicate” did not appear anywhere in the Paris agreement or related documents, and Australia’s current target was “transparently inadequate”.

“This represents a very legalistic cherry-picking of language that ignores the ultimate purpose of the agreement and its enabling decisions, and in effect sets aside scientific knowledge and advice about the increasing urgency of action,” Hare said.

Dean Bialek, a former Australian diplomat to the UN, now working with the Mission 2020 campaign led by ex-UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, said the confirmation that Australia intended to submit the same “very weak” target it took to Paris revealed two things.

“First, the government remains deaf to the widespread calls from business, banks and bushfire-ravaged communities that we need to be heading for a much safer climate future,” he said. “Second, despite the crystal clear science, and the green energy bonanza on the horizon, there is no real government plan to reduce emissions, rather an obsession with a gas-led recovery and a CCS [carbon capture and storage] lifeline to a coal industry in steep decline.”

John Connor, the executive director of the team that ran a 2017 UN climate conference hosted by Fiji, now head of the Carbon Market Institute, said the expectation of the global community, and particularly Pacific nations, was that countries would review and update their commitments before Glasgow.

He said climate targets for 2035 would be an issue at the next election, which was likely to roughly coincide with the conference in Scotland. “It will rightly be a focus, and the government elected then will essentially determine the next commitment,” Connor said.


Adam Morton Environment editor

The GuardianTramp

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