Australia’s pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions announced last week by the government of Tony Abbott have been widely criticised around the world for their lack of ambition.

All nations have had to submit a strategy for tackling climate change in the run-up to the crucial UN summit in Paris in December. Last Tuesday Australia became the last big developed nation to do so, choosing to set a target of reducing emissions by 28 per cent relative to a 2005 baseline by 2030. This translates to a 19 per cent cut on 2000 levels.

But the government has qualified this by saying it will only meet this target “should circumstances allow”, and that it “reserves the right to adjust our target” ahead of finalisation under the global agreement to be made in Paris.

In its “intended nationally determined contribution”, or INDC, the Abbott government says that its target “significantly reduces” emissions both in relation to per capita (to 50-52 per cent) and per unit of GDP (to 64-65 per cent) compared to its previous 2020 target.

A reduction of 40-60 per cent on 2000 levels by 2030 had been recommended by the Climate Change Authority, a body of independent advisors to the Australian government.

How does this compare to other developed countries?

In the 2014 climate change conference in Lima conference it was left open what year countries may choose as a baseline when drawing up their INDCs, which makes it hard to compare pledges, but think tank Carbon Brief says that if Australia were to meet its target, per capita emissions in 2030 would be 50 per cent above those in the US and double those in the EU.

The World Resources Institute says the EU and US proposals will mean emission reductions of around 2.8 per cent a year whereas those by Australia and Canada will yield 1.8 and 1.7 per cent, respectively.

Having such a weak target would leave other countries, including developing countries, to pick up Australia’s slack, commented David Waskow, an international climate director at the WRI in Washington.

“It is at odds with the severe risks the country faces from climate impacts, such as droughts and wildfires,” he said.

He added that the target adopted by the US would mean it would achieve a similar level of cuts five years earlier.

“The US and the EU have come in with fairly strong and achievable targets,” he said.

Comparison of countries' GHG emission reduction targets.
Comparison of countries’ GHG emission reduction targets.

Japan’s pledge is also weak: the world’s fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases proposes a target of 25.4 per cent cut by 2030 from a 2005 baseline, although ministers have said they would prefer to use a 2013 baseline, which critics say is only because it would make the deductions seem to be greater since, post-Fukushima, Japan has been burning a lot of coal to make up for the lack of nuclear power and this will be phased out now that nuclear power stations are beginning to be recommissioned.

The European Union, by contrast, has set a target of at least 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2030, and the United States has proposed a 26-28 per cent cut from 2005 levels by 2025.

Per capita emissions in 2030 for countries that have submitted INDCs, based on emissions reduction targets. Source: The Climate Institute. Chart by Carbon Brief
Per capita emissions in 2030 for countries that have submitted INDCs, based on emissions reduction targets. Source: The Climate Institute. Chart by Carbon Brief
Change in emissions compared to a 1990 baseline for countries that have submitted INDCs. Source: The Climate Institute. Chart by Carbon Brief.
Change in emissions compared to a 1990 baseline for countries that have submitted INDCs. Source: The Climate Institute. Chart by Carbon Brief.

Contrastingly, analysis by Kobad Bhavnagri, the head of Australia for Bloomberg New Energy Finance points out that the effectiveness of Australia’s pledge depends on how you look at it, but the bottom line is that “Australia, like most countries, is still not doing enough to keep the projected rise in global temperature below 2 degrees”.

The target is:

  • Less ambitious than the EU and US, but more ambitious than Canada, South Korea and Japan when assessed against a common 2010 baseline year.
  • Less ambitious than China, South Korea and Canada, but more ambitious than the EU, US and Japan when assessed on an emissions intensity per unit of GDP basis.
  • Less ambitious than South Korea, Mexico, Canada and the US, but more ambitious than Japan and the EU when assessed relative to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s projection of each economy’s business as usual trajectory.
  • Equivalent to a 19 per cent reduction on 2000 levels, the baseline used to assess the short-term target of a 5 per cent reduction in 2020.

Will disaster be averted?

What is clear is that the collective ambitions of developed nations are still not sufficient to meet the stated goal.

“The overall ambition of the developed countries is still not sufficient,” Niklas Hoehne, founding partner of the New Climate Institute that tracks pledges said, referring to a UN goal of limiting rising temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

Analysis by Reuters says that taken together the pledges of a core group of developed nations represent an ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent less than that required – 30 per cent as opposed to 50 per cent – or the equivalent of 9.0 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030 instead of 15 billion. This is from a historical level of 12.2 billion tonnes in 2010.

“Many of the 2030 targets reflect policies that have already been adopted, for example renewable targets and power plant regulations, so in a way countries are promising what they are fairly confident they can deliver on,” senior analyst at Thomson Reuters Point Carbon Frank Melum said.

A Climate Action Tracker analysis based on the current pledges put the world on track for a devastating temperature rise of 3.1°C by 2100 (the current trend without the pledges is a catastrophic 3.9°C).

All of this is just the beginning, however. Countries are setting out their stalls and their bargaining positions in advance of the start of serious negotiations.

It remains to be seen whether under pressure from the evidence of actual climate science, rather than expediency and politics, governments are prepared to do what is actually necessary to prevent catastrophe. Chief amongst these, everyone agrees, will be phasing out the use of coal.

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