30 October 2013 – Australia’s target of a 5 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 has been superseded by circumstances that now makes the goal so low it would lag behind other countries efforts to limit global warming to below 2 degrees by that year.

As a consequence the country will  also face extra costs down the track catching up to other countries’ efforts.

This is a key conclusion in a draft report released today by the independent Climate Change Authority, which recommends the target should be lifted to 15 per cent by 2020 and by 35 to 50 per cent by 2030. The report will be finalised at the end of February.

The authority says a 5 per cent target would require an implausibly rapid acceleration of effort beyond 2020 with Australia spending a large part of the proposed long-term emissions budget earlier, leaving little for the rest of the period out to 2050.

“Failing to do more in the short term is likely to increase future costs and cause unnecessary disruption to the economy and community more broadly,” the report said.

But on a positive note the authority noted that taken as a whole, the government’s own conditions for moving beyond 5 per cent appeared to have been met.

It said the economy had doubled since 1990 but had managed to keep present emissions at roughly the same level as 1990, but this was due in part to a slow-down in land clearing and increased levels of services [as part of the economy].

Lower prices for renewable energy and less demand for coal for fuel had also caused emissions to grow at a slower rate.

“More broadly, a 5 per cent target would put Australia at the lower end of effort compared with other developed countries. This position would sit uncomfortably with Australia’s relative prosperity and high per person emissions,” the authority said.

The coalition government has announced its intention to disband the authority, but it and Labor have both agreed to reduce emissions by 5-25 per cent by 2020, though this comes with caveats on what efforts are being made globally.

The government intends to replace the present carbon pricing mechanism with a direct action plan involving an emission reduction fund that will buy emissions reductions through a reverse auction process, essentially paying emitters to meet the reduction target.

The authority said Australia was expected to participate in a new international agreement involving all major emitting economies negotiating emission reduction goals beyond 2020. A new international agreement schedule will be negotiated by 2015 for reduction goals beyond 2020. Australia will be asked to review its minimum 5 per cent offer and to firm up its 2020 intentions next year.

The authority said a fair effort by Australia to address a global problem depended, in part, on what other countries were doing, so it had reviewed the scale and pace of international action on climate change, considered targets other countries pledged to achieve, and policies chosen to pursue those targets.

But despite Australia’s efforts it found the cumulative effect of present 2020 emissions reduction pledges fell short of what was required to hold temperature increases below?2 degrees.

It said all countries would need to do more, noting that 99 nations, accounting for more than 80 per cent of global emissions, had pledged to cut emissions by 2020.

The authority recommends emissions reduction goals for the short, medium and long term. These seek to balance the need to:

  • set clear goals for the near term that are consistent with current long term objectives; but
  • maintain flexibility to respond to changing circumstances as they emerge.?In its final report, the authority proposes to recommend a single target for 2020, ?a trajectory range to 2030, and a long term emissions budget to 2050 with the latter two subject to periodic review, having regard to developments in:
  • climate change science;
  • what other countries are doing; and
  • the likely costs of achieving different targets.

Reactions

The Greens

Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne said the Climate Change Authority exposed Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s “woeful emissions reduction target”.

She said it was unfair to other countries and would doom Australia to more severe bushfires, droughts and extreme weather.

Climate Institute

Climate Institute chief executive John Connor called for the government to adopt the 15 per cent target by 2020 as a minimum but to make 25 per cent the goal “if we are serious about our national climate interest.”

 The Australian Conservation Foundation

The Australian Conservation Foundation’s climate change program manager Tony Mohr said deeper, faster emissions cuts were needed if Australia was to have any chance of limiting climate change to less than 2 degrees.

A cut in pollution of 25 per cent is the least Australia can do to meet its fair share of international obligations, he said.

“The longer Australia delays, the harder – and more expensive – serious climate action becomes. Five per cent is a woefully inadequate target.”

Environment Victoria

Environment Victoria campaigns director Mark Wakeham called on the government to abandon its “foolhardy plan” to abolish the Climate Change Authority.

“Any effort to do so now will be interpreted as an attempt to gag the credible independent umpire on emissions targets and turn pollution targets into a political football.”

He also said the government needed to confirm now whether its direct action plan could meet either the 15 or 25 per cent target.

“Without further budgetary funding the  coalition’s direct action plan will fail to meet higher targets, and therefore it is not a credible policy response to a critical global challenge.”