Australia has been talking up its climate credentials – but do the claims stack up?

Adam Morton Environment editor
·9 min read
<span>Photograph: AAP</span>
Photograph: AAP

As Australia came under international pressure to lift its climate commitments ahead of a virtual summit hosted by the US president the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, have made a series of claims to defend the government’s position.

Do they stack up? Adam Morton looks at the evidence.

Morrison: “When you exclude exports, Australia has a reduction in our domestic emissions of some 36% [compared with 2005 levels].”

This is a new claim that raised the eyebrows of diplomats and analysts when Morrison first volunteered it at a business dinner on Monday. He repeated it to global leaders on Friday morning. No explanation has been offered as to why this is a valid way to count emissions cuts – it has no precedent in the global debate. In the words of one analyst, it is a “Trumpian misrepresentation” of what the data actually says.

Under international greenhouse accounting rules, Australia’s national emissions are about 19% lower than in 2005 – a point the government regularly makes to argue it is doing more than others (we will come back to whether this is true).

If exports are excluded you end up with a much deeper cut for a simple reason – you don’t have to count Australia’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) export industry, which has grown from next-to-nothing to be a major player over the past decade and is a massive energy user during processing. The increase in local carbon pollution from LNG production has cancelled out much of the fall in emissions from electricity generation as Australians have embraced wind and solar.

The logic here quickly falls down. Why do some emissions released within Australia not count as “domestic emissions”? If Australia is not responsible for them, who is?The countries that buy the gas? Japan, China and Korea are unlikely to agree.

Under this thinking, is the western world responsible for emissions released making the goods it buys from China and developing countries? Or is Australia suggesting the vast emissions connected to international trade are no one’s responsibility?

Morrison: “Australia is performing. We’ve had a 19% reduction in our emissions since 2005 and that betters many of the countries that are appearing [at the summit].”

The numbers here are correct, but the truth – as is often the case with carbon accounting – is more complicated. The government’s claim seems to imply that some sort of structural shift is under way. In reality, emissions have only dipped in the seven years the Coalition has been in power and the bulk of the reduction happened before 2013 under Labor.

The overwhelming majority of this was due not to a reduction in fossil fuel use, but a substantial drop in land-clearing and forest destruction in Queensland under changes brought in by the state Labor government, a decline in native forestry and forest regeneration in some semi-arid areas.

There is some evidence the federal carbon price, introduced by Labor, the Greens and country independents, was also having some impact on fossil fuel use in the two years it was in place before it was abolished by Tony Abbott.

But if changes in land-use emissions are removed, national carbon pollution has barely changed over the past 15 years. And official government projections released in December forecast only a 6.8% fall in emissions under current policies over the next decade as other countries are increasingly ramping up commitments.

Morrison: “We set commitments and we meet them and beat them.”

This is also factually correct - but the first question to ask when someone says they met a target is whether the target was meaningful. Australia set itself incredibly generous targets under the Kyoto Protocol and Paris agreement.

Its first goal was an 8% increase in emissions between 1990 and 2012; its second was a 5% cut between 2000 and 2020. On both occasions, expert advice suggested it should be doing much more for Australia to play its part.

As set out above, Australia met these targets by counting massive emissions cuts that resulted from incidental steps taken by the Queensland government to reduce forest clearing. Those reductions were good for the atmosphere and the planet, but not driven by climate policy and masked the need to rein in fossil fuel use, which continued to increase.

Morrison: “We’re on track in terms of our commitments to Paris (a 26%-28% emissions cut by 2030 compared with 2005).”

Before getting into whether this is true, it’s worth noting there was no scientific or policy rationale for the Australian target set at Paris. The US set a 26-28% goal for 2025, and Australia adopted the same numbers and just pushed it back five years to make it less ambitious. The Climate Change Authority had recommended a 45-60% cut based on a scientific assessment, but was ignored.

Despite what Morrison says, official government projections released in December suggest Australia is not on track and was expected to be only 22% below 2005 by 2030. The bulk of the cut is due to a reduction in land clearing, but emissions are coming down from electricity due to the extraordinary fall in the cost of solar and wind power and state policies to support them.

The government analysis found there were no significant national climate policies to cut carbon pollution from transport, industry or agriculture. All are forecast to keep emitting at current levels or to increase over the next decade.

That said, most analysts believe the government projections will quickly be out of date due to the extraordinary influx of solar, which is happening much faster than most people expected. As Taylor says, roughly one in four homes now have rooftop panels. But the official evidence does not back Morrison’s claim, and the solar surge is not due to federal policies.

Morrison: “Many countries make commitments but none of them can claim the same record of achievement that Australia consistently has.”

This is more than a stretch. Australia’s recent emissions record looks better than some other countries – Canada and New Zealand, for example – largely due to a deal the Howard government demanded under the Kyoto Protocol. The so-called “Australia clause” allowed it to take credit for historical changes in forest clearing. Take that out and emissions across the rest of the economy have increased since 1990.

An assessment by Climate Analytics found most countries had actually met their past targets and, unlike Australia, were on track to meet their (overwhelmingly inadequate) 2025 and 2030 goals set at the Paris summit. Some have gone further. Britain has reduced emissions by more than 40% since 1990. Australia is miles from being a world-leader, and is sometimes bracketed alongside Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia as a climate laggard in expert commentary.

Morrison: “Our targets for Paris are a 70% reduction in emissions when measured in respect to the size of our economy.”

The PM is referring here to emissions intensity – how much is emitted for every dollar of GDP generated. According to an analysis by Climate Analytics, Australia’s emissions intensity is likely to fall by 64% between 2005 and 2030 if it meets its current target. It sounds big, but basically means emissions will have reduced a bit while the economy has grown a lot.

Australia’s performance here is not remarkable. Both the US and the European Union will record a 70% fall in emissions intensity over that time if they meet their goals.

Taylor: “Australia, per capita, is setting a goal of 50% reduction.”

As with emissions intensity, this is not a formal target, but the government’s 2030 goal is forecast to translate into a 47% per capita cut as the population grows and emissions reduce. Again, the number sounds more impressive than the reality.

Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels means it has long had one of the highest per capita emissions levels in the world. The Investor Group on Climate Change found even if it met its 2030 target, this placement would not change much – it would still have the third-highest per capita emissions in the G20 behind only Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Morrison: “The trajectory to any net zero outcome is not linear. Anyone who thinks it is I know doesn’t get it. The way technology works is there is a long lead time into its development and commercialisation and once the technology is in place, you can see a massive transformation.”

This claim is in step with the government’s gradual “technology not taxes” approach, which includes a commitment to spend $19bn over a decade on clean-tech solutions with an expectation private investment will follow. This sum is significantly less than some other countries are spending (for example, Germany has committed $14bn to hydrogen alone) and most of it is just a continuation of existing funding to clean energy agencies.

The prime minister’s argument on emissions trajectory is at odds with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the leaders of major countries says is necessary to avoid the worst of the climate crisis. They agree cuts shouldn’t be linear, but say they must be front-loaded in the next decade. This is the entire rationale for Biden’s summit.

Morrison’s statement also ignores multiple studies, including some by Australian government bodies, that have found rapid cuts are possible now – particularly in electricity and transport.

Morrison: “When is not the question any more. How is the question.”

Actually, it’s both – when is at least as important as how. The IPCC found global emissions needed to fall by 45% between 2010 and 2030 to give the world a chance of limiting heating to 1.5C. Developed countries, which carry historical responsibility for most emissions, are expected to carry the greatest share of this.

Taylor: “Our ambitions are ambitious … there’s no doubt about that.”

Here, the numbers really do tell the story.

The US announced on Thursday it has a target twice as big as Australia’s by 2030 – a 50-52% reduction compared to 2005.

Canada set a 40%-45% target, and Japan a 46%-50% target but with a 2013 baseline. The EU has a 55% 2030 reduction target compared to 1990 levels. Britain is going for 68% over the same timeframe, and 78% by 2035. Campaigners say some of these targets do not measure up to what the science demands to keep limiting heating to 1.5C in play, but they are all significantly more ambitious than what Australia proposes, by any measure.

More than 100 countries have set net zero emissions goals for 2050, but Australia continues to resist due to internal political conflict over the issue. Morrison’s position is he would “preferably” get to net zero by then. In a briefing with reporters ahead of the summit, a senior Biden administration official made the US position clear.

“Our colleagues in Australia recognise there’s going to have to be a shift,” the official said. “It’s insufficient to follow the existing trajectory and hope that they will be on a course to deep decarbonisation and getting to net zero emissions by mid-century.”