Calculating Australia's emissions share Opinion Article

Apr 23, 2013 - 4:00pm

This article first appeared in Carbon Finance on 23 April 2013. 

Erwin Jackson
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

How should Australia balance science, fairness and uncertainty in setting its emission caps and targets? Australia’s independent Climate Change Authority (CCA) is tackling this challenge in a paper released Tuesday.

It’s an issue that The Climate Institute has put a lot of work into. Recently, we tried carving up the global carbon budget according to different criteria, and concluded that, in setting its first carbon budget, Australia is best served by focusing on the long game and hedging against stronger action. We are pleased to see that the CCA has indicated it will consider options such as stronger 2020 targets and carbon budgets for 2030 and 2050.

The CCA is an independent body, which provides advice to the Australian Parliament on climate policy. Arguably its most important task is to define ‘an indicative national emissions trajectory and a national carbon budget’. This process, recently begun, will see draft recommendations emerge just weeks after the federal election in September and conclude in early 2014.


Australian climate debates often focus on our bipartisan 5-25% 2020 targets. But 2020 is only a pit-stop on a much longer journey. The international conversation is already turning to the decades following.


It’s worth clarifying the concept of a ‘carbon budget’. The magnitude of climate change is not determined by emissions in any given year, but the total level of pollution released over time. For the world to have a decent chance of limiting the average global temperature rise to no more than 2°C, it needs to stay within a carbon budget of 1,500 billion tonnes to 2050.

While this estimate is based on scientific analysis, science cannot define how this carbon budget should be spent, nor by whom. Dividing the global carbon budget across the world’s population is ultimately a question of fairness, while determining the trajectory of emissions reduction requires judgements about the risks and costs of action now versus action later.

With these points in mind, The Climate Institute calculated several national carbon budgets for Australia for 2010-50. Based on different approaches, these range from 4 billion tonnes to 15 billion tonnes from 2010 to 2050. These approaches include bottom-up budget setting, where Australia does not strongly consider its contribution to the global budget, and top-down approaches, where Australia’s part is calculated as a share of the global effort.

In the table below, the top-down budgets have been converted to per capita annual allocations – that is, how many tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) each Australian, on average, emits each year to 2050 – and shown in blue. The grey bars, bottom-up budgets, show the per capita annual allocation implied by Australia’s current emissions reduction target range of 5-25% from 2000 levels by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050.



The beige bars show, for comparison, the global per capita allocation of 3 tonnes; how much each member of the developed world would emit in a 2°C world; and how much a member of the developing world would emit. It is clear that, under most of the assessed budgets, Australians would consume significantly more of the global budget than an average person in either developed or developing economies.

Unless policy-makers explicitly factor in the Australian population’s high carbon footprint in assessments of our fair share of the global budget, they are implying that it is acceptable for Australians to consume more of the global carbon budget than most other people for the next 40 years.

For example, a budget based on the government’s minimum 5% 2020 emission target and 80% target by 2050 would see Australians use four times as much of the global budget as the average person.

A useful benchmark of fairness could be an assurance that, at minimum, the average Australian consumes no more of the global budget than the average person in other advanced economies. This suggests that the CCA should look to set Australia’s total carbon budget around 8 billion tonnes from 2010 to 2050.

With these calculations in mind, we have recommended that an Australian carbon budget should be:
  • Consistent with the national interest: It should be based on a global budget which has a high probability of ‘ensuring that average global temperatures increase by not more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels’.
  • Focus on the long-term: The national carbon budget should be outlined to 2050. This would provide guidance to short-term cap setting processes and the longer-term indicative emissions pathway to 2030 and 2050. There is little additional value in setting a carbon budget to 2020 alone.
  • Hedge against stronger action: The budget and associated emission pathways should be set to ensure it hedges against the possibility of even more ambitious action in the future (eg, a global average temperature increase of 1.5°C currently under consideration by the UN climate secretariat).

Global warming above 2°C would lead to substantial costs to Australia’s economic, human and natural systems and would exceed the adaptive capacity of key Australian industry sectors, as numerous assessments have shown.

By themselves, both short-term budgets and arbitrary trajectories provide only a weak link to the global carbon budget and Australia’s national interest. This increases the risks that shorter-term targets may be set without explicit reference to avoiding dangerous climate change. This in turn exposes Australia to the risk that more draconian emissions constraints will be required after 2020 to meet national goals and emerging international commitments. Instead, we need clarity on the long-term budget, with clear goals for the intervening years.

Australian climate debates often focus on our bipartisan 5-25% 2020 targets. But 2020 is only a pit-stop on a much longer journey. The international conversation is already turning to the decades following. The CCA is rightfully seizing the opportunity to build the foundations of Australia’s long-term solution. 

Erwin Jackson

Erwin is Deputy CEO of The Climate Institute. With nearly 20 years practical experience in climate change policy and research, Erwin has developed and led many national and international programs aimed at reducing greenhouse pollution. This work has been undertaken in Australia, Europe, North and South America, the Pacific and Antarctica. He has represented non-governmental groups and advised government and business in national, regional and international fora, including being a non-governmental expert reviewer of the reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Erwin has written, researched and produced many publications on climate change and energy policy including a number of review papers in scientific journals such as the Medical Journal of Australia.
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