Make no mistake, as groups of countries form a pact and commit to a target year for net-zero emissions they will increasingly discriminate against freeloading countries like Australia by imposing penalties. 

Over the past two weeks, our PM Scott Morison has repeatedly declared that our policies on GHG emissions won’t be set in any part of the world other than here. 

A diversionary tactic designed to draw attention away from the fact that we’re out of sync with our trading partners. A paradox that the British PM Boris Johnson reminded him of in a recent phone call: “bold action” and “ambitious targets” were the order of the day. 

Or, in British colloquial terms: “bollocks Scotty old boy, coal is like kryptonite to planet Earth … to avoid a monumental climate change cock-up we need to reduce emissions to zero”!

The prompt for all this was mounting pressure on our PM to set a target year for net-zero emissions after South Korea and Japan formally committed to 2050, and China committed to 2060. Last year the UK also set 2050 as their target year for net-zero emissions and was the first country to stamp it into legislation.

And according to a report by the Investor Group on Climate Change (IGCC) last month, more than half of Australia’s two-way trade is now with countries with targets to achieve net-zero emissions by around 2050.

Expectations are that this will grow as more countries commit to net-zero emissions targets in advance of COP26—Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—in Glasgow next year.

The pressure on our PM will also increase with Joe Biden winning the US Presidential Election; assuming that Biden resurrects the Paris Agreement and sets a similar mid-century target for net-zero emissions, as expected. 

Mindful that “net-zero emissions” depends, among other things, on the successful development and large-scale implementation of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Something that is not on the near horizon. 

A cold war on GHG emissions?

Even as our trading partners scale down their fossil fuel dependence and transition to renewable energies, our PM has dismissed concerns about our future exports—namely coal and natural gas.

Err, not concerned when hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake? I don’t think so! No doubt our dependence on coal and gas is bittersweet amid an emerging cold war on GHG emissions.

Mindful that in 2018-19 Australia became the largest exporter of coal and liquified natural gas on the planet and thus, the largest exporter of climate change.

It’s impossible to avoid the obvious here: Japan, South Korea, Britain, and China account for more than $310 billion in Australian trade annually. And coal and natural gas are worth about $110 billion a year and 25 per cent of annual export earnings.

It’s an unsavoury thought to think of Australia as a pariah 

Make no mistake, as groups of countries form a pact and commit to a target year for net-zero emissions they will increasingly discriminate against freeloading countries like Australia by imposing penalties.

It’s more and more likely that the criteria for entry to the major trading groups will be a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 in lieu of an import levy that effectively renders trade with non-compliant countries unviable or leads to exclusion.

It’s an unsavoury thought to think of Australia as a pariah among liberal democracies because of its recalcitrance towards climate change. And among non-liberal democracies, it certainly provides China with a “pseudo-legitimate” reason to further restrict imports from Australia—not that it needs one.

It also gives our so-called “like-minded” trading partners a certain psychological advantage when you’re out of kilter with the rest of the group and on the wrong side of history.

A dubious baseline year?

Emissions reduction targets have long been controversial and perceptibly painful. As the former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), William D Ruckelshaus remarked in 1992: “The difficulty of converting scientific findings into political action is a function of the uncertainty of the science and the pain generated by the action”.

With that in mind, have you ever wondered why most countries chose 2005 as their baseline year for emissions reduction targets pledged at COP21 in Paris, France, in 2015? 

For example, the United States: 26–28 per cent GHG emissions reduction between 2005 and 2025; Australia: 26–28 per cent GHG emissions reduction between 2005 and 2030; Canada: 30 per cent GHG emissions reduction between 2005 and 2030; and, New Zealand: 30 per cent GHG emissions reduction between 2005 and 2030.

Climate scientists at the time, however, concluded that even if the COP21 pledges were kept, they would not prevent global mean surface temperatures breaching 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.

In short: the COP21 INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) which several countries, including Australia, still hold to, were not enough to prevent dangerous climate change from the moment they were set. And UN Climate Summits since then have been invariably disappointing.

Net-zero emissions leave no room for manipulation

The largest total anthropogenic GHG emissions in human history were hitherto recorded from 2000 to 2010. They peaked around 2005 then were significantly constrained as the global financial crisis (GFC) took hold in 2007-2009 before rebounding in 2010. 

So, choosing a year (2005) in which emissions were the highest in human history as a comparative baseline year was either a strategic decision to optimise the probability of achieving pledged emissions targets or a ploy to create the perception that emissions reduction was much higher than it was, and thus overstate actual progress.

I think it was probably the latter. But either way, even though the science is set, it was no-doubt an endeavour to avoid the pain generated by the action of committing to emissions percentage reductions that was widely considered a constraint on economic growth.

Conversely, a commitment to net-zero emissions leaves no room to disingenuously manipulate the percentage gains made—like using carryover credits from beating targets under the Kyoto Protocol—and thus game the system. 

To be sure, the environmental carnage that coal and gas create versus their value as commodities is bittersweet for a country like Australia that generates billions of dollars from their exploitation. And it might be difficult to swallow but the cost of burning fossil fuels on our planet is now scientifically proven as absolute. 

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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