Abbott’s mooted pollution targets would fail climate and competitiveness tests Opinion Article

Jun 24, 2015 - 9:27am

This article was first published in RenewEconomy on 24 June 2015. 

Erwin Jackson        
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

The end of year Paris meeting aims to forge an agreement which creates an expectation that all countries will ratchet up action to help limit average global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Before Paris, countries including Australia are expected to announce their draft post-2020 emissions reduction target and show how they are consistent with helping avoid 2°C warming.

The making of the initial target offer into the international process ahead of Paris climate negotiations in December is a core test of Australia’s climate credibility and the government will announce these draft targets in mid-July. The Climate Institute has previously developed three key benchmarks to judge these initial targets when announced. Below we assess the USA or Canadian-like targets for Australia against these benchmarks.

For example, against these benchmarks it is clear that post-2020 targets like Canada’s will not put Australia on a path to contribute fairly to limiting global warming to less than 2°C, catch up to the actions of our peers, or remain competitive in a zero-carbon economy.

If the government, and indeed the Opposition, wanted to get into the emerging global mainstream then they need to have much stronger initial post-2020 targets than being suggested, including a clear pathway to net zero carbon economy. The G7 joined other voices calling for decarbonisation and targets which effectively mean emissions from energy and industry need to be near zero by 2050. You can’t have a plan for the future, a plan for climate, if you don’t have a plan for decarbonisation.

1.   Is the target effective in addressing climate change? Is it a proportional contribution to less than 2, 3 or 4 degrees of global warming?

The primary and core credibility test for the proposed target is whether it is consistent with a fair contribution towards avoiding 2°C of warming. If the government puts forward a target which is not justified against this goal it will truly be a free rider asking other nations to do the heavy lifting towards the required zero carbon global economy.

A “Canadian” emissions reduction of around 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 for Australia is consistent with international action in line with 3-4 degrees of global warming. If Australia advances such a target it is either asking others to do more to pick up the slack in achieving the 2°C outcome or ruling out responsible action in line with the globally agreed 2oC goal.

For example, with this target, after 2030, emissions would need to fall to nearly zero in the course of a decade if we are serious about even a minimum commitment to 2°C (Figure 1). Alternatively, the government may just accept the risks of a 3-4 degree warming scenario: severe damage to settlements, infrastructure and human health from climate extremes; large areas of agricultural land rendered unfit for production; and few coral reefs remaining.

Unlike the targets of The Climate Institute or the Climate Change Authority (also illustrated in Figure 1), the USA’s 2025 target does not offer a smooth glide path to a less than 2°C world. However, the USA’s target is to 2025 and does not lock in low levels of ambition to 2030. It therefore leaves open a crack in the door to 2oC consistent targets in the future.

Figure 1: Australia’s emissions in a 2°C world. What if we matched the USA or Canada? There is only a limited amount of heat trapping gases that can be emitted for certain levels of warming. The weaker the early targets the more drastic the action required later to achieve similar climate outcomes.

 2.   Are we matching, catching up to, or lagging our peers? Australia’s per capita pollution and emissions intensity levels are higher than our peers in the USA, EU and other advanced economies – will we match, catch or lag these countries?


Even if reduce we total emissions in line with the USA and Canada, our absolute per capita and emissions intensity would continue to lag other advanced countries (Figure 2). The sooner we start to catch up with others the better off we will be. Further delay will just leave us further behind and needing to change faster to match others in the future. Merely catching up to the US level of emission intensity and per capita pollution would require reductions of 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Figure 2: Australia’s per capita emissions and emissions intensity under USA or Canadian like targets in 2025. This is compared to catching up to the projected average of USA levels in 2025.


3.   Are we positioned to remain competitive in a world limiting emissions? Will Australia’s annual carbon productivity improvements (GDP/tonne of carbon pollution), go backwards, stagnate or progress towards ensuring a prosperous economy?

Australia is one of the least prepared G20 countries to remain competitive in a world limiting emissions. Major trading partners from Asia, North America and Europe are implementing measures to price carbon, limit emissions, improve energy productivity, and grow renewable energy supply. These countries are acting because they see it is in their economic interest to do so. Reducing damaging pollution, creating new industries and jobs, building energy security, and, positioning themselves to take advantage of the emerging clean economy are central to their efforts to enhance the prosperity of their citizens.

A broad proxy for a nation’s position in a world limiting pollution is its ‘carbon productivity’ (dollars of GDP per tonnes of emissions). As global emissions constraints are progressively tightened, countries which can produce more GDP from each tonne of emissions will be able, other things being equal, to provide a greater level of well-being to their residents than those countries that produce less GDP for each tonne of emissions.

Targets similar to the USA or Canada, would sustain Australia’s current rate of carbon productivity improvement of about 6 per cent per year. Targets of around 45 per cent reductions by 2025, consistent with those recommended by The Climate Institute or the Climate Change Authority, would increase carbon productivity to around 8 per cent per year to 2025. This, and a pathway to decarbonisation of the Australian economy before 2050, would be in line with global action to limit global warming to less than 2°C.

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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